Monday, July 31, 2006

Origin of a Workaholic (HS)

I have to be completely honest here. I love money. LOVE IT. I don't necessarily love spending it, nor do I have expensive tastes, I just enjoy the piece of mind and comfort it brings when you have enough of it. When I was a kid, I'd probably empty out my piggy bank and just count the money about twice a month.

So, when it came time to do chores, I'd always try to haggle to have a little extra money added onto my allowance if I did this thing or that. I saw any quarter extra I received as a sweet, sweet victory.

As I got a little older, I took to doing some volunteering and odd jobs, if for no other reason than to make money while getting out of the house during the summer. Even as a kid, I had a long-term view, so I knew that one summer spent volunteering would mean that I'd be ready to apply for real jobs the next summer.

Then, with mom getting sick, the pressure was on. All of a sudden, I had to make money for a reason: there wouldn't be enough money to pay for mom's care and my university, so I was going to have to work in order to get what I wanted. Which was, in short, a guarantee that I could get out of the house. University provided me that guarantee. As an added bonus, I was given the ultimatum that I could get a job, or I'd be put in the Army Reserve. Yipes.

After weeks of dropping off resumes at wherever I thought I stood a chance, I was starting to give up. I was given the opportunity to stay with my grandparents for the summer in an effort to try to find work there. A few days before I was due to leave, I got a call from one of the grocery stores in town for an interview. This was the store that my parents shopped at, and was considered among the neighbourhood kids as a pretty cool place to work: pay above minimum wage, unionized, good, flexible hours, and a decent management staff. Needless to say, I really wanted the job. So, in order to impress them, I decided to dress for the interview in a white shirt and brown slacks, which was basically the uniform of the store clerk. What a fateful decision that turned out to be.

I was told to report to the customer service counter at 1:00 pm, at which point I was to meet with the manager for my interview. So I arrive at the counter, to find a herd of irate customers. It seems that the store was so busy, it had run out of shopping carts (we were close to the July holiday), and people who just wanted to get in and get out were complaining bitterly.

Not wanting to upset anyone, I got in line and hoped they'd get to me by 1:00. Just then, the store manager, who was a short, little man with a voice that betrayed 40 years of smoking and a rapid-fire delivery that made you think he should be on those boisterous furniture store commercials runs up to the counter.

"Are any of those boys here yet?", he barked out.

"Uh, sir, I think you're looking for me?", I asked. Note that at this point in my life, I was pathologically shy, and barely spoke above a whisper, especially around people I didn't know.

Even at 16 years old, I was a full head and then some taller than the store manager, and he was a little taken aback at first. Then, he sized me up, and seemed to have a curious look on his face. Then, a thought hit him like a lightning bolt going off in his head. Seeing that I already basically looked the part, and he had all those irate customers in the front of his store, he asked me:

"So, do you think you can keep this store full of shopping carts?"

"Uhhh, sure."

"You're sure, are you? It's pretty hot out there."

"I'll do my best."

"Ok son, you do that. We'll check on you in a while and see how you're doing."

And with that, I was sent outside to keep the store full of shopping carts. Now, this was no easy task. There was no shade, and it was 40 degrees celsius outside with the humidity. The parking lot sloped down away from the store at a considerable angle down to the laneway, then sloped back up to further parking on the other side. So you had to push the carts up a decent incline to get them in the store.

So I started with 2 carts at once. Not fast enough. Then 3, no good. Then 4, 5, 6, 7. In my lack of experience, 7 carts was about all I could fit through the door. And with the slope going up into the store, 7 carts was HEAVY. Really heavy. I was outside for 20 minutes, and already, my shirt was drenched with sweat and all the muscles in my legs were aching, to the point where I thought my quads were going to pop off my kneecaps. I had shoulder length hair at the time, and had a lot of trouble keeping it out of my eyes.

I was managing, but barely. In the time it took me to run (on a dead sprint) to pick up the few carts available in the parking lot, there was already a lineup of ingrates waiting for them. And they'd wait right in front of the automatic door, so there was no way to get into the store. At first, I'd ask to excuse myself, but after a while, as dehydration started to hit me and I lost my voice, I couldn't even bring myself to talk.

The minutes became hours, and I never stopped running. To this day, I don't know how I managed, and neither do my co-workers. I was relieved for a 10 minute break at about 3:30 pm. I was so exhausted, I hadn't even stopped breathing hard until I was back out again.

At 5:00, the manager comes out to see me. He seemed pretty grouchy, like he'd been having the longest day of his life, but he did his best to put a smile on when he came out.

"So, how are you doing?"

"Ok", I wheezed, trying not to let on that I was probably mostly dead.

"Well, you look pretty tired, and everyone says you've been working really hard. So what do you say you take a half-hour dinner break."

"A half-hour?" I asked, not so much as a complaint, but a confirmation.

The manager smirked at me, as if I was arguing with him. But then he saw how sunburned I was, how glassy my eyes where, and how drenched in sweat I was.

"Yeah, you'd better take an hour. And change your shirt."

So I called for my dad to come pick me up. He poured me into the passenger seat of the van and hauled my limp carcass home.

"So, you're done for the day?", he asked.

"Actually, the boss wants me back in an hour."

"Oh.", he replied, in equal parts pride, astonishment, and pity.

I have never, ever, experienced this kind of pain in my entire life. I was never in horrible shape as a kid, but adrenaline at the thought of having a steady income powered me through four straight hours of running in a parking lot on the hottest day of the summer, taking in car exhaust in huge gulps. And now that I had stopped, the overexertion was taking its toll. Every muscle in my body ached, and I had a stitch in my side that wouldn't go away. I was burned cherry red, so badly that my hair was matted as a result of being burned itself, in addition to my scalp bleeding because it had so badly burned it was cracked and peeled. My hands were dry and the skin cracked and worn, and I had blood stains on my pants from where I had wiped my hands without paying attention, as I hadn't yet built up the necessary callouses, and I had pinched my hands several times between the shopping carts, which were the old style models and hadn't had their edges filed down.

I was dizzy and nauseous from heatstroke, and had more than a passing thought about just not going back. Or calling 911. My throat was parched, and I tasted and smelled blood. Upon changing my clothes, I noticed that the muscles in my legs were so stretched and tortured, that blood had started to pool, and they looked bruised and disconcertingly swollen.

My dad had barbecued up some sausage and baked potatoes, with corn and salad. I took three bites and vomited, as my throat was so dry I couldn't even swallow. With only a few minutes to go before I had to be back to work, I threw myself in a cold shower to try to cool down and came damn near close to fainting as I washed the scabs out of my hair and watched as my scalp and hair fell out in chunks.

Somehow, even as sunburned as I was, I still managed to look pale and sickly. But I decided then and there that if nothing else, my dad, who always considered me to be soft because I was always better with the books than I was with my hands, would have to admit that I was as hardcore as they came. So I downed as much water as I could and went back to work. To this day, I think the store employees were surprised I came back.

After a few more hours of running outside, the pace finally slowed enough for me to go in the store and learn a few more chores. Like facing up product (pulling product to the front of the shelf so customers don't have to reach), stocking shelves and packing groceries. I met a few of the other clerks, who were older than me, as well as the assistant store manager, who forever earned my good graces by giving me an extended evening break, as long as I didn't stay in the same place long enough for people to ask questions.

After the longest 8 hours of my life, the manager was closing up the store.

"Long day, wasn't it, son."

"Yeah, I guess so."

"So, I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Does this mean I have the job?"

"Be here at 9:00 and we'll talk about it. And don't worry, I'll make sure you're paid for all the time you work here, whether we end up keeping you or not."

Well, it was better than nothing, at least I knew I'd be paid for a couple of days. I limped back home and kneaded my knotted leg muscles until I could start feeling a bit of give in them again, coaxed down some leftovers and headed to bed.

What started as a day to day arrangement, seemingly on the manager's whim, became a 5-year relationship, which contributed more to my personal development than any advice I got from my parents or any course I took in school. I learned principles of sound management, leadership and customer service that I use to this day. In fact, now that I'm a manager, I use it more than my professional training. I also learned that whatever the conditions, like that first day, which I believe still stands on record as the busiest day in that store's history, that when it comes right down to it, if there's work to do, it needs to get done, regardless of what kind of shape you're in, and if you can't do it, someone will take your place. It's that mentality that allows me to do the work of 9 people (see below).

So never underestimate the benefits of a part-time student job.

Anxiety Chokes Me Like Razor Wire

Wow, I thought last week was bad. Due to people disengaging because of stress and overwork, I find myself doing the work of no less than 4 people in addition to my own, and probably closer to 9. The thing that distinguishes me from other people is that I know in my heart that I can handle it, and then some.

It's actually having the desired effect too, people are seeing the amount of work I'm doing and not complaining, and are starting to hop back on board.

Upon further analysis today, myself, my boss, and our account exec have determined that we're short approximately 14 people to properly do our work. So if you count the fact that I'm doing the work of 8 people (in addition to myself), we're still six short, and I can't sustain that pace forever. Well, I could, but I'd leave a trail of bodies in my wake.

I previously alluded to the fact that I have already suffered a burnout, in my early teens. A counsellor asked me if I had ever become suicidal during that time, to which I replied "no, but I was homicidal for a time". My patience for incompetence stops when people can't do their own job properly, while I'm taking my best shot at doing 9.

So I guess the question is, will I quit? The simple answer is no, because I'm not a quitter. Never have been, never will be. I choose to see myself as part of the solution, and if I quit, I just become part of the problem. If you're 30 years old and are looking for a long, promising, profitable career, no matter what, you NEVER want to be part of the problem. Once I've exhausted all my options (and I'm not even close), I may revisit the issue, since if my leaving forces people's hands, my departure may become the tipping point of a larger solution.

If I can turn this into a piece of advice, try this one:

There's a stereotype of young, promising workers that we have no roots and no allegiances, we just follow the money and go to the places that can give us the best pay, most fun and most vacation. That may be true, to a certain extent, people in my age group are more likely to want to be fulfilled at work in addition to (and sometimes, rather than) paying the bills. But if you keep jumping around at opportunities and change jobs like you change suits, sooner or later, it'll catch up to you and you'll take a wrong turn. A few really successful and increasingly important jobs (assuming you never overstay your welcome) will mean more than a bunch of positions where you've produced negligeable results. Always keep your eyes on the big picture, which is, "how will this decision affect the rest of my life"?

Since I'm writing an anecdote immediately following this one that is sure to attract the most reading, bonus points to anyone who comments on this entry.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Like frogs, oblivious

So, in response to a comment: does my work have an anti-blog policy? I have no clue. I can't imagine they would.

However, I am aware that people have gotten in trouble for blogging about their work before. That is because they listed real names, real jobs, protected information, etc. I don't plan on doing any of that here. Even though y'all know I'm a manager for the feds and I work really hard in some difficult situations, this blog isn't gonna be all like "then Mike told Jim that Nancy did this, and she got written up because of this, etc.", it will be more limited to general observations that won't put anyone up shit creek without a paddle.

There are also policies about writing about specific goings-on without authorization. That is why I'm not writing about specifics. The stuff I write could impact anyone in any workplace.

My goal here is to relieve some stress, find some kindred spirits, educate some people and share a few laughs in the process. This blog will not be used to slag on individual people or specific situations.

Anyways, on with today's comment:

Floating in this cosmic jacuzzi
we are like frogs oblivious
to the water starting to boil
No one flinches, we all float face down...

Incubus, "Warning"

There always seems to be a metaphor that gathers steam in pop culture at any one given point in time. The boiling frogs scenario seems to cover that right now. The general idea is that if you put a frog in room temperature water, and slowly start to boil it, the frog won't notice the water getting gradually hotter until BAM!, poached frog's legs.

It seems like as humans, we put ourselves through the same experiment on a near daily basis. At work, we always have to do a bit more, at home, the house always has to be a bit cleaner, the lawn a little greener, the car a little newer, the kids a bit smarter, and we don't seem to realize that not only are we stewing in the pot and the water's getting hotter, but we're the ones turning up the temperature on ourselves. Until one day, the water gets too hot and you're too weak to get out of the pot to turn off the element.

Old man sits at his desk
Waiting for retirement
Let himself over you
The question what to do is never there
The workload grows

I’m always wishing, I’m always wishing too late
For things to come my way
It always ends up the same
Count your blessings
I must be missing, I must be missing the point
Your signal fades away and all I’m left with is noise
Count your blessings on one hand

So wait up I’m not sleeping alone again tonight
There’s so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

Poor little tin man, still swinging his axe
Even though his joints are clogged with rust

My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Safe in monotony, so safe, day after day
Count your blessings
My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Cold wind blows off the lake and I know for sure that its too late
Count your blessings on one hand

So wait up I’m not sleeping alone again tonight
There’s so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

Can’t help but feel betrayed, punch the clock every single day
There’s no royalty and no remorse
You spoke for present check
That makes me fucking sick
He sick of, he can’t say no


So wait up I’m not sleeping alone again tonight
There’s so much to dream about, there must be more to my life
So wait up
So wait up I’m not sleeping alone again tonight
Between the light and shallow waves is where I’m going to die
Wait up for me
Wait up for me
Wait up for me

Alexisonfire, "Boiled Frogs"

Is that what happened to the generations before us, did they burn themselves out and not even realize it?

Now, I'm more resistant to stress than most. For the record, I already experienced what psychologists call a "burn-out", at about 13 years old. Through that experience, I learned what I need to do to keep things in perspective and avoid a reoccurrence. I push myself very hard in work and in life, because I'm the kind of person that likes to explore my limits. I strongly believe that anything I can do, I can do better, but that kind of inner drive is starting to take its toll.

I first noticed it a few weeks ago, when I was flipping through old photo albums, and came across a picture of my dad, at my age. Now, he didn't have it easy himself, and worked some pretty high-pressure jobs, but in that picture, he probably looked 5-7 years younger than I do now.

So, as of yesterday, I hit the release valve. My resume has been posted in various places, and even if I never leave this job (which I honestly love), just the fact that I'm giving myself permission to consider doing something else is giving me a sort of feeling of relief, like I'm only there as long as I want to be.

So, as I drive into work later today on a Sunday afternoon for about 6 hours of unpaid overtime, I remind myself, I'm doing this because I *want* to do it. The water's getting hotter, but I haven't started to boil yet.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Habaneros and Testosterone Don't Mix (Post-Uni)

Jeebus, what a horrible, long day. The days where you think you do everything right and everything turns to crap before your eyes are tough ones to take. I'm still sorting through the issues that were left to wait for me until I got back from my holidays. And of course, it's all time-sensitive stuff, so the time to satisfy clients is gone and past, I'm in strict damage control mode now. Problem is that you can't really fire someone for incompetence in government. But that's a topic for another day.

Today, to brighten the mood, the story is about something a little less depressing, the very first day I set out on my own.

After university, with not a penny to my name (literally, my last $13.17 paid for lunch for me and my dad on the way home from school), I moved back in with my parents. But, there wasn't a job to be had in my hometown, let alone a decent one.

So I packed up a suitcase full of clothes, a blanket, a pillow and my guitar, and went to the big city (Toronto), to try and bring in some cash.

I had a few friends there who were finishing up their college degrees, and they were more than happy to have me crash on their couch, as it was one more drinking buddy and one more chequebook paying rent.

Apparently, one of my buddies had bought a bagful of habanero peppers a few days prior. Habanero peppers, in case you were born yesterday, are the hottest peppers known to man. They're about the size of a golf ball, and they pack some ridiculous heat. The night before, they had made pasta sauce and dropped in about 5 full habaneros, and could hardly even get close enough to the pot to throw it out.

Then, as you can well imagine with an apartment full of guys, eating habanero peppers became an extreme sport. The peppers were sliced paper thin, and it was a contest to see who could eat the most slices.

Unbeknownst to me, everyone in the apartment pretty much tied at one slice. Then I walked in the door, fresh from the three-hour car-trip, suitcase in one hand, guitar in the other. I never even put down the suitcase before my buddy comes in and says "dude, I dare you to eat one of these".

"What is it?"

"It's a habanero pepper."

"Aren't those things really hot?"

"Yeah, but they're not that bad, go ahead, try one."

"I don't know..."

"Come on man, we all did it. Think of it as your initiation to the apartment."

"Well, if you put it that way..."

So now, it's all about my manhood. I figured I'd down a few of them and be in pain for a while, and that would be that. The key, I thought, would be just to not taste it on the way down.

Ever seen that Simpsons episode with the chili cookoff? Where Homer eats the insanity pepper laced-chili (The merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.)? That's where I got the idea...well...I don't have a bunch of wax to pour in my mouth, but as long as the peppers don't hit my tongue, I'll be fine...

So, I open wide and drop the pepper slice right onto the back of my throat and swallow. And grab another slice, and another one, and two more after that. All my buddies, who were laughing and carrying on moments prior, are now staring in shock, amazement, and more than a little concern.

Needless to say, I'm feeling quite proud of myself. I might be overeducated and unemployed, but at least I'm now unequivocably the alpha male of this bachelor pad. Then, as I assumed, the pain kicked in. Of course, my mistake was that I thought this pain would be limited to a mild-to-moderate discomfort, nothing a shot of Pepto Bismol wouldn't be able to fix. What I didn't expect, was not being able to see or breathe, with the feeling like someone was stabbing me in the stomach with a knife dipped in acid and lit on fire. I felt so sick. On top of it, I was so stunned that, you know guys, when you get squared in the balls just perfectly, and your abdomen hurts and you feel like you're going to throw up? Well, that's how I felt. In addition to someone setting me on fire.

So my buddies rush in...a bag of milk and half a loaf of bread later, and it's still getting worse. I'm not even trying to be a man anymore, moaning and groaning and whimpering in agony. As a last resort, I shotgun four beers and down a few shots of vodka, praying to God to just let me pass out. Which I finally did after three hours of mind-numbing agony. I woke up in a pool of my own sweat - my pjs and sheets were so drenched I could wring them out - downed about two litres of water, and fell asleep again. My diet was limited to peanut butter and crackers for three days, and I couldn't stop sweating for almost a week.

But dammit, I won.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Generation War: My Money's on the Last Ones Living

It's funny, I intended on writing about this today anyway, then I saw something happen that matched my subject perfectly. Things will go well if I get those coincidences every day...maybe tomorrow I'll write about how my wife should let me go for a threesome... ;)

This is a story of two generations, boiled down to two people:

Employee #1 has been with the organization about 25 years. He's happy to do no more than what is expected of him. And barely that. But, he knows exactly how much to give you in order to stay out of the doghouse. Doesn't volunteer on special projects, doesn't like doing things that stray the least bit from his regular duties. He talks to the other workers about how he can't stand the new ways of doing things, and threatens to leave constantly, but everyone knows he never will. We'll see his skeleton sitting at his pc before he ever leaves.

Employee #2 has been with the organization about 4 years. She recently returned from study leave, and will be quitting in about three months to pursue another career. Since I was assigned to this unit after she left for her study leave, today was the first day that I was officially her manager. So I asked her, what made you so unhappy that you felt you had to leave? Is there something we could have done differently? And she answers "it's not that I wasn't happy here, I just thought I could be happier someplace else". Hmmmmm. Can't argue with that. I've often pondered the same thing, so I couldn't really hold it against her.

In essence, these are the two major cohorts in today's workplace: the Boomers and Gen Y. The martyrs and the dreamers. With Gen X, God love'em, stuck as the weirdos in the middle.

The problem is, the Gen Yers don't understand why the unhappy old farts don't just quit, or why they don't want to stop doing things their way. And the Boomers don't understand why the Gen Yers don't seem to have any idea that work isn't supposed to be fun, and you have to put in your time to get ahead.

What compounds things is that more often than not, managers are boomers themselves, and tend to identify more readily with members of their own cohort. My problem, as a young manager, is the opposite. But, to all you Gen Yers out there, I've had the opportunity to infiltrate the Boomer camp, and made some really interesting discoveries, which I will share, in order to allow us Gen Yers to get ahead.

So, in a nutshell, this is how Gen Yers should try to work with our more experienced (rule 1: never say "older") colleagues:

Rule 2: Boomers will NOT meet you halfway. They have the experience, they have the power, they know how things work, and they will not hesitate to constantly remind you of this fact, while mixing in such lovely commentary, such as "if you were here in the 80s, you would have known that..." or "why should I have to adapt to computers? I've been here longer than they have". Or the classic line in the sand: "I've been doing this job longer than you've been alive."
How to overcome this? Hang on a Boomer's every word, as if they were Moses descending from the mount with the 10 Commandments in hand. Once you get around their disdain for you, they actually have some useful information.

Rule 3: Let the Boomers have the last word. They'll have it anyway, whether you want them to or not. Just keep in mind that you'll be around longer than they will, so you'll have the last word of all.

Rule 4: Let the Boomers have the credit. During team projects and exercises, be content to sit and learn from your colleagues. If you have a suggestion to make, make it briefly, but don't press the issue if it isn't accepted. Often, a Boomer will magically come up with the same idea minutes, hours, days or months later, once your poignant comment has seeped into their subconscious. If the project is a success, defer all credit to your team leader. He will appreciate the fact that you "know your role" and see you as less of a threat to his modus operandi, which is to survive long enough for an undiscounted pension. Once this relationship is established, he will be more willing to open up and share, and also slightly more willing to hear your take on things. A sign of this willingness is when he makes statements like "I thought all you young people didn't want to listen to your elders and do everything your way".

Rule 5: Even if you know it all (I'm not ruling out that possibility), act like you don't. Boomers don't take well to hearing how the world works from a 26 year-old MBA. And can you blame them? Every young whippersnapper that comes along is a reminder of their missed opportunities, of how much they could have done if they had cared enough, if they hadn't had that fourth child, if they had moved to the city younger, etc. As an aside, MBAs come across, for the most part, as pompous asses, and no one likes a pompous ass on the job. I have to side with the Boomers on this one.
So, how to let Boomers see things your way, without telling them? Boomers like nothing more than to figure things out on their own. They have this knack of putting two and two together and thinking they've discovered Einstein's Theory of Relativity. So, present them with the information in a clear and logical manner (this will also help you organize your thoughts for things like business cases), and let THEM figure it out. Of course, present the information in exactly the right way for them to come to YOUR conclusion.

Rule 6: Take the high road. Remember, they're the ones on the top of the hill. They'll get the benefit of the doubt. Make sure you keep your nose clean. And never, ever, EVER, kick anyone while they're down. Actually, use this rule for interacting with everyone.

Basically, just remember, they've got the authority for now, but you're the ones being left to pick up the tab. The sooner you can work with the Boomers without coming to loggerheads with them, the more you'll be able to learn from them, and the more damage you'll be able to mitigate while they're still there.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Hello and Welcome!

Well, it's Sunday night, and I figured I'd give a bit of context to my latest creation, my online diary.

I've been on holidays for most of the last month, celebrating the birth of my first child, Brandon William. Isn't he a cutie?

Anyway, he is indirectly the reason why I'm starting up this blog. You see, with all the added responsibility of being a parent, in a new city, with a new job, it seems that I don't have all the same outlets to relieve my stress that I used to. So, consider this diary my stress release from all the crap I have to put up with, mostly having to do with my work.

So, why all the stress? To get you caught up, here's the story so far:

Kobe Bryant once referred to himself as a "talented overachiever". I think that best describes me, as well. I grew up as a middle-class kid in a middle-class household, but I always thought my parents could have done better for themselves if they worked at it. Then, my mom got diagnosed with MS and passed away after a long battle. Because my university tuition (rightfully) went to her medical treatment at the time, I learned an old-school work ethic and put myself through 4 years of university working up to 3 jobs at once with nary a cent of debt.

Having graduated from university, I set out to find a job in my profession. It wasn't easy, and I had to work a year's worth of dead end jobs before I found my way in to the federal government. After a while, I finally started working in my profession. But soon thereafter, it wasn't enough. I had worked my whole life to get to where no one told me I could go. But I had gotten there at the age of now what to do?

So, I now manage a team of professionals. It's interesting managing people twice your age, and it creates a particular set of problems, but I manage.

So that's basically it. I'll provide more of my story as the days and months go by, and on slow days, I'll intersperse some anecdotes from my youth, specifically those which led to me becoming the person I am now. I guess the point of this, as well as relieving my stress, is to hopefully run into some people who might have stumbled into the same demographic crevasse in their workplaces. And of course, there will certainly be many stories about little Brandon too!