Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Paramedics and Pretty Women

A week last Saturday I had a nasty case of food poisoning. It wasn't what I thought was happening when I was drenched in sweat, panicking, barely able to think and thought I'd passed out for a short moment. I called the emergency services and then my sister. I was hyperventilating, sweating, trying bawl my eyes out and doubling over in agony. The quick response paramedic was round in what felt like a shot - they very often park within a mile of where I live. He started to calm down my breathing and took a pulse. The ambulance arrived fairly shortly afterwards. They hooked me up to a machine that didn't quite go 'ping', took pulse, blood sugar and blood pressure and then I went upstairs and threw up, which I do very noisily. After which I started to calm down. Quite properly they decided it was food poisoning. I'm not so sure. I know what happens when I get food poisoning: it's not pleasant, it lasts for twelve hours or more and takes me a couple of days to recover from. This wasn't like that. One of the paramedics suggested a "panic attack" - which felt a little more like it to me. I'm fifty-six years old - when I dialled 999, I thought it was a heart attack. My sister arrived, was tremendously calm and after the paramedics had packed up, we went to the Heart of Hounslow walk-in centre, where the paramedics had made an appointment for me (you can't but they can). The doctor looked at the charts from the paramedics machines, prodded my stomach and pronounced me healthy if shaken. That's the catch: I have the resting blood pressure and pulse of someone about half my age. I always give good pulse and pressure.

I had a ticket for Alvin Ailey and I decided that sitting around at home "resting" would probably make me feel worse, so I went up to Sadlers Wells straight from the walk-in centre. I knew I was recovering when I had an inner message saying "fries with lots of salt and a Coke at the Mediterranean Canteen": you actually need salt and sugar to help stabilise after a food poisoning episode. And if I'd felt any better, I would have asked the very attractive woman who sat two seats to my left, and with whom I had a conversation on the 391 back to Waterloo (that's right, she chose to sit next to me), for her a date. She had trained with the Ballet Rambert, wanted to dance classical but was told she "should try contemporary", took pictures of the gargoyles on the walls of the Royal Courts of Justice, lives near Hampton Court, had an MBA, no wedding band and was thinking about working in something environmental. Did I mention the bit where she had great legs and a really attractive, sexy face? Okay, I just did. But I wasn't feeling at my best, and she had a headache from the aircon in the theatre. Damn. The one mistake I made was not to offer my name mid-way through the conversation. I'm not good at that.

The attack wasn't about food. Maybe one of the eggs was dodgy, but I'm not sure. I'm pretty sure it was about the whole work situation. I know what I need to concentrate on, which is finding another job in the West End that lets me see movies in Russell Square at six in the evening. As I'm about to do now. I need to concentrate on getting one of my plays produced. And if I can get a date with someone as attractive as the lady from Sadlers Wells Saturday, that would be good as well. I can't let myself get involved with the "stuff" at work - especially with other people's emotions and dramas. It's not good for me.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Why We Have Poor Cinema

There's an article in this weekend's FT by Peter Aspden about the British films in the London Film Festival. He doesn't think much of them: "Kiera Knightly floating ethereally on a  hot day in a boarding school; Colin Firth palying a stammering King, under the watchful eye of Helena Bonham Carter; some unattractive Mike Leigh characters indulging in bitter-sweet conversation; some unattractive Ken Loach characters swearing profusely and threatening to beat the life out of each other...British films...have nothing to do with the concerns of ordinary people." So far, so much am I in agreement. However, it turns out that it's my fault. "...this is less the fault of British film-makers than Britain itself....of the chino-wearing, frappuccino-drinking Britain of today... Do current economic and social trends make for great cinema? We are a culture besotted by reality shows, celebrities, sport, property prices..."

In other words, British cinema is poor because the English are shallow and crass. It's interesting that when he has to name some great films, he has to go back to the 1940's and 50's. Brief Encounter at that - a film which is so clearly a metaphor for the problems of the love that dare not speak its name that I'm always amazed anyone thinks it's about straight people. More recently, what about Local Hero, Heavenly Pursuits, Gregory's Girl, Unrelated, Movern Caller, Genova, Love Actually, Croupier, Close My Eyes, Truly Madly Deeply, Land Girls, The Ploughman's Lunch, Rag Tale, Strong Language, ...... ? All of these are wonderful films mostly with fairly believable, if rather well-paid,  middle-class characters and all more recent that 1945.

The problem with the crass-culture-makes-for-crass-movies thesis is that much the same could be said about the French, but no-one is as rude about French cinema. Ah. There's the thing. L'Exception Culturelle. The subsidy and encouragement by the French Government for movies.

Someone green-lights these costume dramas and underclass horrors (Eden Lake anyone?), someone fund them and people (desperate for work) agree to appear in them. Someone writes them, and other people produce and direct them. Costume dramas are the one genre England can export - Four Weddings and a Funeral is a contemporary costume drama. Movies are a business and costumes are a good bet. Underclass horrors I have no idea about, but then I don't see the attraction of football either. British films are poor because people knowingly sign up to make poor films, not because I have a take-away cappuccino from Caffe Nero of a working morning.

Writing about the contemporary world is far more demanding than it used to be, because our world is far more complicated and a lot less economically attractive. Maybe people don't want to see films about contemporary concerns because they live with the threat of unemployment, a constipated job market, increasing taxes, declining real incomes, ever-shabbier public spaces and ever-less satisfying personal relationships (because everyone's working in spirit-sapping jobs) and are surrounded by fantasy-land stories of individual strike-it-lucky successes (hello National Lottery) and vacuous self-help (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People anyone?).

Robert McKee points out that a writer must have an understanding of the politics and economics of the world of their story. How a writer is supposed to have that when politicians, economists, bankers and academics so clearly have no grasp of it at all, well, I'm not so sure. That doesn't excuse Kidulthood - nothing could - and nor am I suggesting that the British Government should subsidise movies. But it isn't my fault that poor movies get made - I don't go to see them (except Eden Lake on DVD, which I bitterly regret ever passing in front of my eyes).

Friday, 24 September 2010

London Breakfasts

The first couple of weeks in September, the weather was fine and I was waking up at 05:45 every morning. So a few times I caught the 06:45 into town and tried a few places for an old-fashioned English breakfast. This was Coti Pierre on Rathbone place...

All the breakfasts cost between £5 and £8 and taste more or less the same. You're not getting high quality at that price, but it's filling. Far more important is the atmosphere. This doesn't cut it...

I was the only customer. This wasn't as dismal as Patissiere Valerie in Covent Garden at quarter to eight, where they were still taking delivery of the day's supplies. So another place was here...

... on Leicester Square. There were a few people inside and a little more activity. The breakfast looked like this...

but the butter was slightly rancid. It's a little thing like that puts you off going back to a place. Then there were kippers at the Soho Townhouse, which were as good as you would think and as expensive. I was the first through the door, but by eight there were low-key business breakfasts going on. A treat like that is a definite boost for the well-being. And then there was here...

... which was the best quality full English (not at the Soho Townhouse) and it looked like this....

You need to sit outside at Bar Italia, because the counter inside is too narrow and high to eat at. Next to me were a group of firemen who were going to a colleague's retirement parade - they still parade people out in the fire service?

London is a slightly saner town at that time - there are enough people on the streets to make it look like it's inhabited and a working place, but not the blank-faced rushing crowds that there are at eight-thirty.  The people walk slower and are more relaxed: it feels more like a European town.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Jilted Generation Part Two: The Smugs, Cools, Normals, Neurotics and Ghastly Others

I finished the previous post by saying that the cost of the old idea of adulthood, plus the use of effective contraception, the changing role of women in the workforce, and the far greater opportunities for finding interest in work, culture, travel and sports, mean that many people simply don't want, and now don't need, to fake it anymore. The 1950's were a pretty dull time, and pace the Sennetts of this world, there is no virtue in the fact or toleration of dullness. Whatever synonyms they use for it. So now I'll explain that and carry on.

Parenthood usually just happened: one night of spontaneous sex would do it. It was about as inevitable as taxes. Now it's a choice - or a consequence of incontinence. As for the role of women, by the 1970's newly-graduated women wanted to have some fun independence before they settled down, and by luck Late Capital needed a larger but non-lifetime workforce, so in the way that Capital has of making the conditions to fulfil its needs, it hi-jacked feminism, consumerised it and presto! Having a job, delaying marriage and a place of her own suddenly became chic and sexy. By the mid-1980's women could get mortgages as easily as men. A working wife was a competitive advantage in the housing market, not a sign you couldn't earn enough to let her stay at home. By the mid-1990's white-collar women realised they were going to be working until at least the first child, and by the 2000's they had realised that, married or not, they were going to be working for the rest of their lives. A husband might make things easier or he might make things worse: only if he was being paid more that £70,000 a year was he likely to be a life-changing asset. A single woman could live as well on her own - without the need to manage a man as well. And most paid work will always be preferable to housework - unless the boss is a total jerk. Many women looked at their friends with children and decided that they would keep taking the Pill: given a choice between a long-haul holiday and a new kitchen on the one hand and ten years of school fees on the other, parenting no longer looked as attractive. It hadn't got worse, it was that the non-parental life was a lot better than it was in the 1950's. It's a real alternative. In Spain, where many people choose furniture over a second or even a first child, it's preferable. But then life in the 1950's in Spain was even poorer and more desperate than it was in England - if you can imagine such a possibility - so no wonder they want a little luxury.

Which means people don't look look like Normals anymore. What do they look like? It goes something like this: there are the Rich; those with Jobs, Debt and Insecurity; and the Underclass. Within each of those are various castes, and the dividing lines are broad and many shades of gray, but it's roughly like this.

Rich is when you have enough money or assets to live on for the rest of your life without working any more: you may choose to continue working, but you don't have to. Guy Hands is rich, so is Eric Clapton. The guy you know with a City job probably isn't rich, even if they are paid £200,000 a year, because they don't have the assets generating an income stream. Underclass is criminal or chaotic: drug addicts with no matter how much or little money, welfare mothers and the fathers who ran out on them, kids who can't wake up in time to get to Court for their hearing. In the middle is everyone else: they have or are temporarily between Jobs, they have Debt (mortgages count as debt) and they are Insecure on a monthly basis because that's what their contract of employment says their notice period is and because the odds are less than one in three that they will find another job within a month if they are made redundant.

Within the Jobs, Debt and Insecurity class are a number of subgroups: the Smug, the Cool, the Normal, the Neurotic and the Ghastly Others. Smugs usually have parents with money, are married, have children (who are well-behaved and even throw tantrums quietly) and do triathlons. If they read books, they would agree with everything Richard Sennett ever said, though they might say that of course the world wasn't like that for a lot of other people and that was a shame. The Cool don't seem to settle down, aren't mortgaging and marrying, take breaks from work to travel, skip from one flat to another, have a lot culture-related tech toys, and are usually paid quite well for what they do, which is often something to do with the Internet. Often they are five years older than you think they are. Look more closely and you'll see the flaws: there's a lack of confidence in the men and a massive sense of entitlement in the women.  Normals are all those people who are making the best attempt they can at living that 1950's parent-life. Neurotics are bad at relationships, commitment, noise, any kind of politics, fools and anything much to do with ordinary life: often quite clever and attractive, these are the people whose failure to lead a successful life is a puzzle to you. Now they have the chance not to have to get into something they won't be good at. The Ghastly Others do one or more of the following: drive SUV's, drag their crying children round the shops or art galleries, stink the railway carriage out with their hot smelly food, talk too loud in public, wear tracksuits when they aren't exercising, park so as to take up two spaces, are overweight, badly-dressed, clear their throats all the time, talk too loud on their mobile phones, eat crunchy food in quiet movies, laugh raucously, are undignified drunks... and generally spread a spiritual stink anywhere they are.

Each one of these, and others I may have missed or that you want to invent, are responses to the Late Capitalist economy. The Cool don't want to be be Normals, and the Neurotics can't cut it. The Smug have always been with us. The Ghastly Others have expanded in size, not because people are getting worse, but because there are many more ways for them to express their inner lout. That needs a little explaining.

Greater choice rarely means more opportunities to do it right: it usually means more chances to get it wrong. When there was no tasty junk food, you couldn't substitute MacDonald's for real food: now you can. When there were no track suits for street wear, you couldn't make yourself look cheap and tatty by wearing one: now you can. When there were no mobile phones, you couldn't demonstrate your lack of manners by talking at the top of your voice on a train: now you can. When there were no SUV's, you couldn't express your inner chav by driving one, now thousands of allegedly middle-class women show their true status every day. A modern consumer needs a will of iron not to screw up at least once a day - which is why we all do, because we don't have wills of iron. All of us have a little Ghastly Other behaviour from time to time - but the Ghastly Others do it all the time and don't realise that they are behaving badly, tastelessly, crassly, thoughtlessly and just plain stinkily. I call it Popcorn, because I am badly distracted by the sound of people eating, rustling and shaking popcorn in the movies: but unless the cinema stops selling the stuff, somebody having a permanent or temporary case of the jerks will be there to make noise with the stuff. If there wasn't any popcorn, they wouldn't find something else to be noisy with, they would be quiet. It's the popcorn that sets them off.

That's the real reason why England looks like it does today: more money, more choices, more Popcorn, more ways of having adult fun, and the high cost and perceived low benefits of being Normal. If being Normal was that much fun, the Sennetts of this world would not need to hype the virtues of boredom, duty and dullness and rubbish the alternatives. Also, lower salaries, less security, fewer opportunities for advancement and more competition from one hundred million foreigners who can speak functional English coming from countries where they speak a language even they admit is tough to learn. It has nothing to do with politics, morality or personal attitudes, and everything to do with changes to employment and trade legislation that allows representatives from job agencies to send people over to Eastern Europe to cherry-pick workers for jobs that aren't actually advertised in the UK at all.

Which doesn't mean that housing in the UK isn't priced at ridiculous levels, that interning is exploitation and if you had to live on the Minimum Wage you would be homeless and starving in a week. It doesn't mean that companies aren't outsourcing jobs, refusing to train their staff and paying salaries that don't keep pace with inflation. Only a handful of degrees from a handful of (Russell Group) universities have, by now, a substantial net present value. Some may even have a negative net present value, and not be any use as an education either. Howker and Malik make these points, but their understanding of the causes and solutions is way, way off. The problem, at the risk of sounding like a Marxist, lies in the internal contradictions of Late Capitalism - that the ways of making the largest short-term profits are not the ways of making sustainable profits, so they contribute to the very decline of the economies out of which they are trying to extract profit.

As I am not in the rescuing business, I'm not going to prescribe a cure. There are many ways this goes, not in my lifetime but maybe in the lifetime of the Jilted. The first is that wages and costs in India and China rise to the point where there are no more savings to be made in outsourcing, at which point the process stabilises. Similarly, as the economies of Eastern Europe improve, the Poles, Estonians and others go home, as will the Southern Hemisphere Colonials when their economies improve. The second is that the corporations milk the UK and US dry and then follow the money to India and China. That is how the West got rich in the first place. The third is that the West pulls the largest sovereign default since Philip II of Spain screwed the Fuggers (who were back lending to him with a decade or so as he was the only game in town). The fourth is that neither you nor I can see the emerging new Western economy under the dying old one, but it will continue to dominate the world. Especially when three different research groups in three different Western countries discover a cheap alternative to oil (hint: it ain't fusion and it ain't wind farms and solar). The fifth is that while the rest of the world is with few exceptions run by corrupt dictators and populated by poor peasants, the rich are going to keep spending and banking their money in the West, so what goes out, comes right back again. And that bit will never change.

What I do not see happening is concerted political action by anyone who speaks English as a first language. They believe as I do, that if the aircraft has lost power and is in a nose-dive, jump if you have a parachute and if you don't, kiss the prettiest girl on the plane before you never get the chance to kiss a girl again.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Jilted Generation Part One: On The One True Adult Life

Jilted is a book written by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik. Who are talking about the uncertain and opportunity-poor lives of their generation. Well, almost. Messers Howker and Malik are 29 and work for the Sunday Times, Prospect and the Spectator - which pretty much puts them in the cosmopolitan elite of British journalists. Turns out they're married as well, so you know they aren't sofa-surfing. The book is part calling-card - they want political careers - and part self-congratulation - they don't live like that anymore. But I don't want to discuss them. I want to talk about what they don't understand.

Their complaint is that people born after 1979 - the Jilted Generation - are having an unjustly hard time setting up an adult life. They start with significant debts from paying for a university education that actually isn't worth that much, will barely inherit anything from their parents - whose longevity will use up most of the estate - and will never be able to retire as their pensions will be worthless. Actually, that describes much of my life: the only reason I have a house is that I bought a run-down property in a part of Middlesex most famous for its Young Offenders prison. A pleasant property in Richmond or Chelsea always has been utterly beyond my means. Which doesn't mean that the Jilted Generation should suck it up because I did. I can't afford to buy my house now - not on the same earnings multiple I bought it. I have no idea how young people are supposed to make the life my parents made. Maybe the answer is that you're not supposed to make that kind of life: you're supposed to make other kinds.

Howker and Malik have a conception that there is One True Way for an adult life. It means living in a decent house, working for a sustained period of time in an industry or profession in which one can build a reputation and without immanent fear of redundancy, and of course, marriage and children. It means playing a role in a community - based on where they live, or around children's schools, good causes or some professional activity. It means some kind of political engagement, if only at a local level. They get ideas like this from Richard Sennett, who was doubtless a good man, but whose ideas are pure fantasy for all their grave and sober expression. Which is also where they get the idea that there is only One True Adult Life, and anyone who isn't living it is deficient in moral fibre, especially the kind needed to stand long periods of mediocrity and generalised ennui. It's an idea which had its heyday when the largest employer was the State, which owned and operated the railways, the telephones and post office, the electricity, gas and water industries, the coal mines, the roads, some dockyards and steel works, a chunk of the car industry, was one of the largest customers for house building and office construction, as well, of course as running the Police, schools, hospitals, Army, Navy and Air Force and all the other functions of local and national government. You think the public sector is large now - in the 1950's it was gigantic. All over the world it was gigantic. And it could support the kind of life that Howker and Malik and Sennett regard as the One True Life.

Once upon a 1950's their idea of the One True Life was an adult life. That is, parenthood and adulthood went together, partly because the prevailing ideas of child-raising were consistent with both states. When those ideas changed, adulthood and parenthood were free to diverge and did. My generation looked at its parents and asked: "where's the upside in this whole 'being an adult' thing?" Adults didn't seem to be having much fun and they didn't seem to have many privileges that were worth the wait. As an adult with grey-haired gravitas, I have certain advantages over the young people I work alongside, but only because I have spent my life developing and acquiring a culture, knowledge, an understanding of the human condition and workplace politics, and many years ago, a whole new body by weight-training. Parenting seems to me to arrest the parents' development at the age they had their first child and turn many of them into controlling risk-avoiders who crave stability, rather than independent, risk-taking adults who can cope with ambiguity and change. In the 2010's, parents need to live in Disneyland, while adults want to live in Soho. This is because the prevailing ideas of child-raising force parents to behave in a non-adult manner: for many parents, children are valuable possessions rather than apprentice people. As valuable possessions, nothing must be done that threatens their value, or, of course, brings the sniffer dogs of child services into their lives. Hence the helicopter parents, the traffic-jammed suburban streets during school terms, and the overweight computer-gamers of popular mythology. And, of course, as valued possessions, everything must be done to show them off, hence the risible sight of parents jogging with their prams, the yowling babies in cafes and restaurants, crying children dragged round the Saturday shops in prams and yelling toddlers keeping hundreds of people in an airplane cabins awake for an entire long-haul flight.

The sheer monetary cost of the old idea of adulthood, plus the use of effective contraception, the changing role of women in the workforce, and the far greater opportunities for finding interest in work, culture, travel and sports, mean that many people simply don't want, and now don't need, to fake it anymore. The 1950's were a pretty dull time, and pace the Sennetts of this world, there is no virtue in the fact or toleration of dullness. Whatever synonyms they use for it.

In the next part, I'm going to talk about why the One True Adult Life is neither One, nor True, nor Adult and certainly not a Life

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Real P&L Managers Deal With

I woke up the day after I had read Seth Godin's Linchpin and asked "where are the managers?" His book is addressed entirely to employees. All the cute stories are about busboys, stewardesses, PR flacks and other folk generally regarded as "staff". Compare it with Robert Townsend's Up The Organisation and you will see what I mean: Townsend's book is addressed to managers. Why are there no exhortations to managers to stop ruining their staff's talent, provide some lebensraum and generally behave like Good Guys?

I'm guessing that Godin has given up on managers and management as a force for anything positive in a corporation. He's pretty much open about having given up on corporations as a force for anything except low prices, poor quality and mis-using the workers - and I'm not really reading between the lines here. I gave up on management a long time ago. When I started work, I wanted to get into management: it looked like a place that a real man could go. Now it doesn't. Those who can, do. Those who can't, go into management. If they can't make management, they go into central government. If they can't make central government, they go into teaching. If they can't make teaching, they go into local government. And if they can't make local government, they go into charities.

I've given up on "managers" because middle-management always was and still is there first, to provide a channel of communication between the "guys at the top" and the "guys who do the work"; and second, to handle the P&L. Except this P&L isn't "profit and loss", it's Personnel & Logistics - recruitment, training, development, administration, supplies of tools and materials, and sometimes actual transport and distribution - so that the guys like me who do the work can, well, do the work. What confuses the middle-management is that, while their job is to handle personnel and logistics, they only get promoted if they take actual initiatives and make a difference: but they are given no resources to do this and no idea what initiatives will be received with a smile.

"Management" today in a large company is about delivering compliance with internal rules, delivering the messages to the staff from the guys at the top and selling this year's no-pay-rise and lousy bonus - again. The managers aren't there to run the business, they are there because everyone can't report to the Board. They are place-holders in an organisation chart. Except that the ones who do something that makes a difference get promoted to "near-Board" positions and get some actual clout and decision-making. So "management" is full of people wondering how on earth to make an impact and what the hell they're supposed to be doing for a living in the rest of the time. This is why they have all those meetings: to disguise the fact that they don't have any work to do and couldn't do it if they did - because their technical skills are obsolete.

Some of them are Good Guys. Right now, I'm lucky enough to work for one. Most of them can neither be trusted nor distrusted and some are just bullies and jerks. I've worked for plenty of those. None of them run the business. None of them have a clue what to do next. Even the good guys. And they know that if they don't get a clue, they aren't going any further. No wonder Godin reports that one thing managers want is a clue from their staffs.

Which they would get if they deserved it.  But most of them don't deserve it. And why they don't is another subject

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

September Holiday (Not Much)

I was on holiday last week. I didn't go away, in fact, because the sky was grey, the air full of some fungus that set off histamines in my bloodstream after ten minutes, the temperature neither hot nor cold, the air damp, there was nothing much on at the movies, plus I do not have £1,000 to blow on air fare, hotels and decent meals in, say, Nice or Paris, so in fact, I stayed indoors at home. I listened my way through a fair chunk of the Mariss Jansons' mix of Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies. I read a couple of books, kept trying to get started on Sartre's Being and Nothingness - which is a lot to get started on - and finished watching the first series of The Guardian, which is not a newspaper but a series about a corporate lawyer who has to work as a child advocate or go to jail for doing drugs. It's pretty good. Also I kept waking up at 05:45. I wanted to sleep late - 08:00 would do fine. But no, there I was, bouncing around at 06:00.

And at some point, it dawned on me that it's not me who doesn't get it, it's the management in The Bank. The senior management and the talk they talk? I thought they are smart people being cynically manipulative, but now I know they are ordinary, dull people who actually believe what they say and do. None of them would last a day in a real private sector company, though they might survive in British Telecom or Cable and Wireless. They read pop management books if they read at all. Somewhere inside they know that the whole financial services sector is a badly-run mess, and they think it's cute.

Anyway. On the one day I did go into town, I passed by the Lazarides gallery and had a look at the Botulism exhibition by a Brooklyn artist called Bast. I liked a lot of it. Here's one - Utz - that caught my eye even if it is beyond my wallet. The gallery were kind enough to send me a pdf catalogue.

As ever - if you need me to take this down, I'll be happy to oblige.

Also I downloaded and tried Evernote which is a cloud notebook application. It's way useful - I now draft stuff in Evernote rather than Open Office Word  - and it's on my MacBook Pro and Asus netbook. It's right up there with Dropbox as a must-have.

Monday, 13 September 2010

On Being "Done"

These are due to Bre Pettis.

Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
There is no editing stage.
Pretending you know what you're doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so accept that you know what you're doing even if you don't and do it.
Banish procrastination. If you wait for more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
Destruction is a variant of done.
If you have an idea and publish it on the Internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
Done is the engine of more.

The most important one for me is: the point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done. This helps me curb my tendency to hold back on delivering because it hasn't got this little tweak or that little feature. Doing so means I can't be getting on with other stuff. Which is the point.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Rescuing The Boss Isn't In The Job Description

At the end of Seth Godin's Linchpin is a plea for we poor bloody infantry to perform above and beyond to rescue (the customers and products of) corporations from the mess they're making of running themselves. Will the workers please rescue the managers (and for that matter, the cheap, chiselling, entitled customers as well)?

The answer to that is, of course, NO. Well-adjusted people don't do rescuing of anybody or anything from their own freely-entered-into dysfunctional behaviour. (Unless we are being paid huge fees specifically to do so - like the rehab clinic gets paid and for the same reason.) We're paid to do our jobs, and management are paid to run the company. That doesn't mean I do as I'm told all (or even any) of the time: I can question their policies and propose stuff, but the decision is theirs.

If management decide to outsource accounts receivable to India and the customers go ape hearing foreign voices demanding payment with all the sensitivity of anyone working a script, guess what? They don't get to shrug and tell us we have to make it work - which is pretty much like a gambler telling his wife to make ends meet now he's blown half the week's money at the track. It's for management to cancel the outsourcing contract and bring the work back home, with a mass apology to the customers along the line. No-one gets to screw it up, pay themselves a bonus, deny there's a problem and leave someone else to clear up the mess.

Well, except managements do that every day. However, not rescuing them from their own dysfunctional, narcissistic egos doesn't mean we do a bad job. Godin tells this little story:

"Working the First-Class cabin at British Airways can be a nightmare... Spoiled, tired executives are waited on by flight attendants for hours on end, rarely earning the service they demand. Sure they've paid for it, but all too often, they're not open or receptive to it. The secret of working this flight, I've been told by the people who do... is to realise that the extraordinary service being delivered is not for the passenger, and it's not for British Airways. It's for the flight attendant."

We do a good job for our own self-respect and because being a sabotaging grump is bad for us in so many ways. However, if we're not careful we give the employer and the customers a free ride on our good nature. Not happening. The trick is not to let the chiselling employer or the entitlement-laden customers benefit too much, if at all. That's a tough one for the cabin crew, but it's a lot easier for head office / back-office people.

Let's get this straight. I'm not saying we don't make suggestions about how to improve products or services for the customer, or how to cut costs and improve response times without cutting quality of service and reliability. Above a certain level, that's part of the job. I am saying that we don't "work round" a bureaucracy the management allow to be obstructive, nor do we try to fix the poor service from the outsourcing company. It's a subtle one. A customer who is polite and friendly gets helpful and friendly back: one who dumps their entitlement on you gets the minimum service with no value-add. (This is what I suspect the cabin crew do: what they're not doing is forgetting the bad passenger's drinks or spilling dinner over her dress. Which they would like to do.)

I am saying the company and the customers don't get a free ride. They don't get any more value-add for their business than they put in to us. I am saying we figure out how to get more value-added to us than they are prepared to offer. I'm saying you don't do anything outwith your core job description for the company that doesn't add value to and for you. And I'm saying that the constant re-organisations, mergers, disposals, outsourcing and use of consultants releases us from any obligation we may feel that we have to leave something lasting behind us.

So over some more posts I'm going to examine this idea a little more.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Parkrun Saturday

A few times over the summer, first thing Saturday morning I've parked the car in Bushy Park to walk into Kingston, where I do a little market shopping for things like ripe fruit that supermarkets don't carry sell any more. When was the last time you had a ripe anything from Sainsbury's?

I've been greeted by a sight like this..

... of the healthy professional husbands, wives, partners and friends who inhabit the areas surrounding Bushy Park and do things like jogging at 09:00 on a Saturday. I assumed it was some local club. Until a couple of weekends ago when the crowd was this big...

I asked one of the stewards and they told me it was a 5k run organised by an organisation called Parkrun. It's done every Saturday morning all over the country and at all times of the year - they even run on Christmas Day. You just turn up. No qualifications, no entry fee, no minimum fitness requirement. See website for details. I'm going to pass over the bit where they let you run with a pushchair or buggy (which is carrying ostentatious parenting way, way too far) and stick to the bit where it looks like a great idea.

When I got from shopping at 10:30, the place looked like this...

...which gave me that "But they were here! Hundreds of them! You have to believe me!" feeling. The stuff that goes on when we blink eh?

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Covent Garden Early Morning iPhone 4 Queue

The new Apple Store in Covent Garden is a thing of temple-like spareness and beauty...

This was taken from outside because I had a feeling they wouldn't like me snapping it inside. There are three floors of those tables - never in the history of retail has so much floor space been given to such a small product range. Anyway, here's the thing. That snap was taken at 08:15 on Wednesday 1st September. (If I wake up early and can't doze off again, I'm going into London early and having breakfast there before going into the office.)

Round the corner was this...

This is the iPhone 4 queue. You want to buy a MacBook Pro, just walk right in. You want the iPhone, you queue. I'll say again, this is 08:15. These people were up at 06:00 or so to get there. It's been like this since the store opened about three weeks ago, and if you go at lunchtime, the queue is almost as large.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Fallout From Fruity Thursday

My nephew didn't get into university. He had enough points, but not in the right grades. He went through clearing - Royal Holloway and Essex - but didn't hear anything after three days and apparently, just as in the job market, that's them passing on you.

I'm upset. I was looking forward to telling everyone where he was going and then boring them rigid for the next three years by little news items about his progress and all the cool stuff he was doing. I'm still in a little bit of denial about it - like one of the universities he applied to will call up and say that he can come anyway. Which is not going to happen. There was a baby boom eighteen years ago and more young people applied this year than at any time in history. Just when the government cut back on funding for places.

So in one morning a couple of weeks ago he went from being a young man of promise to the lowest form of statistical life: a NEET - Not in Employment, Education or Training. Now he has to find a job. As he would in three years' time if he had graduated, but at least he would be competing with graduates as an equal. Now he has to find whatever jobs there are for people without degrees. And not just jobs: careers. I'm told that the magic number now is £10 / hour, or £17,860 a year (38 hours a week, 47 weeks a year). How does anyone live an independent life on that? Rent a flat, save for a house, attract and retain a partner and enjoy a hobby, entertainment that isn't TV and some culture? That would be a "they can't". I don't understand careers outside of head office staff and management roles. I know how much I pay tradesmen, but I don't see self-employment as my nephew's thing.

So suddenly life is going to be harder and irritating for all concerned. He's going to have to change his act at home and my sister and mother are going to have to accept he's not going anywhere for at least another year. No. I don't do having unemployed people in my house on a full-time basis.

Economically, coming out of education is a nasty moment. One day you're a respectable student studying hard and living off a loan and whatever subs your family can give you, plus maybe whatever work you can pick up, and then suddenly the day after the end of the final year, unless you have a job to go to... you're an unemployed bum. Maybe for new graduates and their parents it isn't the stigma it used to be, as being made redundant isn't the stigma it was in the 1980's. An economy which cannot provide appropriate starter work for its young people is not thriving - and I don't care how many cool toys the employed can afford.

But he still has to get a job.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Are You Indispensible? Seth Godin's Linchpin

Read the reviews of this book earlier in the year when Seth Godin released 3,000+ copies to anyone who wanted to review it and it's one gigantic love-in. Not so much for me. This book makes me slightly angry. It's this bit, right at the start: "you have no right to that job or that career. After years of being taught that you have to be an average worker for an average organisation, that society would support you for sticking it out, you discover that the rules have changed. The only way to succeed is to be remarkable, to be talked about... The only way to get what you're worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labour, to be seen as indispensable and to produce interactions that organisations and people care deeply about."

Where oh where to begin? Nobody has a right to a career or a job - but that doesn't mean it's okay for the CEO to run the company into bankruptcy or outsource your job to Chittagong. Godin accepts the current view that the behaviour of corporations is like the weather: you can't control it, you can't predict it, it doesn't make sense and there's no point complaining. Except the last time I looked, corporations were run by people who made decisions: it isn't the weather that puts a Tesco outside your nice little town and closes the high street in eighteen months flat, it's some guys in Tesco's operations planning department who know exactly how hard the store will hit the local traders. Godin never even nods at the possibility of a political solution to endemic job insecurity and declining real wages. He only needed to say, as Robert Townsend surely would have, "until the politicians do something to stop corporations behaving like juvenile delinquents fouling the neighbourhood, it's going to be every man and woman for themselves" and perhaps he feels that's what he has said.

Trouble is, the advice doesn't scale. We can't all be remarkable - because then remarkable would be the new average. If everybody's somebody then nobody's anybody - as Groucho Marx said. You can't work Godin's programme if your boss is a bully; if you and your work are recorded, monitored or targeted; or if you have low self-esteem or no confidence. You'll need to move bosses, companies or jobs first. To work his program you need a certain amount of organisational ambiguity around you, or at least a boss who isn't insecure, vindictive or a control-freak. Also you need to be the kind of person who is comfortable taking advantage of the ambiguity, lack of direction, clueless managers and empty policies that characterise the corporate world today. Put those two requirements together and it's not many people.

Neither will being "indispensable" - a "linchpin" -  alter your chances of being laid off one jot. No-one is safe when HR put the names into the hat. Managers use re-organisations to settle scores and get rid of people who don't fit in first, and then think about the job. Many re-organisations are done for the express purpose of removing skilled, experienced (and therefore more expensive) people from the workforce, so that the company can provide its no-quality, price-driven products more cheaply.

I don't like the insinuation that if your life sucks and you're just a decent ordinary guy or gal, well, then it's your fault. It feels like blaming the victim. That stuff about reaching out and trusting the Universe, following our bliss, giving gifts so that we receive a hundred-fold and all that is... tosh. It's a very useful line of argument for the guy who just closed the office in Lower Cokeatington, putting a hundred people out of work: "best thing that will ever happen to you, work out what you want, go after your dream, take responsibility for your life instead of letting someone else run it". Anything the Bad Guys can turn to their use that easily has to be flawed.

I hope one day Seth Godin realises that self-help books aren't enough and only a political movement will do. He would be a superb spokesman and he's nearly there: you can hear the disgust for modern corporations in his writing. It's a disgust felt by most grown-ups who have been through the redundancy / re-organisation mill at least once. Until then, it's every man and woman for themselves, and in that sad world, a lot of what he says - suitably sobered up and de-hyped - is pretty good.