Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Fate of the Universe Depends on a Shoe Box Diorama

Today's Calvin and Hobbes was the one where Calvin reflects on the fit his mom threw over a missed assignment. He just wanted a shoe box to make a desert scene diorama that was already due today. So it's one day late? So what?
Calvin: It's not as if lives hang in the balance, right? The fate of the universe doesn't depend on turning in a shoe box desert scene on time! 
 Hobbes: That's keeping things in perspective.
Calvin: Even if lives did hang in the balance it would depend on whose they were.
Things have been really stressful at my job recently. And I'm constantly mystified why my coworkers are burning the candle at both ends like they are. Lives do NOT hang in the balance with our product. Not even a little bit. It is completely imagined stress they have imposed on themselves compounded by the customers also inflating the importance of what they do.

I blame elementary school. We were trained from a young age that a deadline is a deadline even if it's totally arbitrary and of no consequence whatsoever. I guess as adults we try to make our career seem important even if it's just not. But since I've only been doing my job for 6 months and I'm not that invested in it as part of my personality I guess I have more perspective. I have had lots of jobs where I really busted my ass, like that 115 billable hours during the first week of the Atlanta Olympics. I mean it was happening RIGHT THEN and I had to take care of stuff RIGHT THEN! But this job? It's all about getting insurance companies to pay for medical services. And the insurance companies have a firm policy to just not pay. If we miss a deadline with this software what's going to happen? An insurance company is going to NOT PAY for another day? THEY NEVER PAY! I checked online and saw that my doctor still hasn't been paid for my annual exam in June. Humana has sent me 5 letters asking for information about my previous insurance. I have told them I didn't have any, and they concede that their computer shows that, but they can't stop the automatic mailing. And they can't make her get paid. It's just idiotic. I am really not motivated to bust my ass over something involved in that whole medical insurance fiasco. I am happy to work on it 40 hours a week, maybe two Saturdays a month, but unlike the Olympics I am not billing my hourly consulting rate that was 3 times what I make now. And there is no televised coverage with international implications for my hometown if we come off looking like a bunch of noobs.

Which reminds me of my old days working on the first digital television systems. It was a frantic business to kludge prototypes together to get them into the field for testing by the deadline promised by some lying salesman. (They liked to tell the customers the engineers already invented something that we hadn't even considered and then we had 3 months to make it. They denied that it was lying, they said they were telling a "future truth.")

So one day one of my coworkers in the lab told his wife on the phone that he'd be home around 8:00, unless there was an emergency. This puzzled her as she was a nurse. "An emergency? Like what? Somebody can't watch TV?" She had perspective.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one that makes a lot less money solving technological problems than I used to. I wish that in light of our diminished value we could adjust our response to pressure and stress. What if all of us engineers and scientists could just imagine our little career world as a diorama in a shoe box? We could step back and look at it in the context of the wider world and decide that it's just sand and glue in a stupid box that smells like a Chinese shoe factory and it just doesn't really matter. And that's ok. We all still need a job so we can get some of that fabulous American health insurance. But we better have something else going on in our life to get some balance. Even if something else is just playing video games, at least you're not giving all your talent away for a fraction of its value. Keep some back for yourself.

I know it's an engineer's nature to work on something right up until the last minute. Tag line of the sports car club at Georgia Tech -- Designing Tomorrow the Night Before. That's fine if you're creating something fabulous. But for those of us with demeaning or meaningless jobs, let's try to foster an environment where we can have some perspective. Be innovative and diligent for 8 hours and then GO OUTSIDE.

I am particularly annoyed by how seriously people take their jobs because of how NOT seriously they take their life AFTER work. Yesterday was my birthday and I couldn't get ANYBODY to make plans to hang out with me. I got one tentative agreement to go to a movie then a text 30 minutes beforehand saying he wasn't in the mood to go out. Then the movie turned out to be sold out anyway. I salvaged the evening by finding a Facebook friend I haven't seen in three years who happened to be in Austin for a conference. He met me out for a beer, but I'm still taking the night as an example of how unreliable people are these days. I have another friend who just moved to California and he's astonished by how flakey people are there, so I know it's not just me. (There are exceptions. I have one friend in Tallahassee who is a man of his word. Just that one that I can think of right now though.)

Lives hang in the balance. Our own. And they are not balanced. Let's get some perspective. And don't be a flake.


  1. Trust Calvin to keep life in perspective. For what it's worth, I seem to have no friends or co-workers with perspective like this. I am alone at sea, only once in a great while finding it in others I meet.

    And Happy (belated) Birthday!

  2. Another hackneyed phrase: There's never time to do it right, but always time to do it over. Another perspective might be that whatever embarrasses your boss is what gets you fired (or gets Calvin a bad grade, in case Calvin's teacher wanted to enter his shoe box in the science fair, with a due date). I appreciate your taking time off from work to go to lunch with me!