It’s not that i don’t have a sense of my own future, it’s just that I have a tough time picturing the reality of an individual day if it’s more than, say, three months away. If you want to get me to agree to do something I really don’t want to do or go someplace I really don’t want to go, just ask me six months ahead of time. Six months off seems like a hundred years when your workdays are systematically dissected by highly skilled executive assistants, then carefully reassembled to squeeze the daylights out of every single available minute.
That’s how they got me to agree to come here. I’m one in a panel of speakers trapped in one of those cheap, stuffy, windowless hotel meeting rooms half listening to a presentation that’s about as deep as a place mat on the value of a highly structured personal development plan. It’s so boring it’s making my hair hurt. Glassy-eyed, I daydream that I can hear the scrape and clank of the cogs in my head.
Scattered throughout the dusty and cluttered corners of my poorly tuned brain are millions of worthless tidbits of information that come seeping to the surface unbidden and unwelcome, especially at times like this, with greater clarity and detail and more easily remembered than my children’s birthdays. Somewhere along the way I learned that because of its limited storage capacity, a goldfish’s brain can only remember what has happened during the past 30 seconds. If that’s true, that means that if the goldfish is hungry, as far as it knows, it’s been hungry its whole life. If it’s frightened, it’s been frightened its whole life. Or happy, or sad, or tired, or confused, or…oh God! I’m bored.
The guy presenting has a voice like a strangled soprano, with the whiny metallic resonance of an electric coffee grinder. But what he lacks in compelling, relevant content he more than makes up for in attitude. You see, Torquemada here has written a book, one of those overpriced hardcover pamphlets that play to the insecurities of middle managers (desperate to make it to upper middle management) by rehashing someone else’s well-described and proven ideas into simpering platitudes and numbered lists: “Twelve ways to maximize the effectiveness of your most self-destructive habits.”
There are a few things in life that ought to be avoided at all costs, including prison, user conventions in Buffalo, N.Y., the Ice Capades (unless you’re in Buffalo) and books like the one that this clown is plugging. Thousands of books on business techniques ghostwritten for Michael Dell, Bill Gates or Donald Trump, screeds on paradigm shifts and breaking what’s not broken by technology gurus, and pop psychology thrillers about this or that most-effective-yet-annoying personality trait sit on every shelf and every credenza in every executive suite in America. These tomes are proudly displayed, often quoted, rarely read, and chock-full of ideas about as original as the Mona Lisa on black velvet. I have at least one of these for every year I’ve been a manager, sent to me by one boss or another who was deluded enough to think that number one, I’d actually take time to read it and number two, it would do me any good if I did.
It’s long past time we set aside all of this tired self-improvement crap and got back to the habit of just learning for its own sake and in the reckless pursuit of its vague possibilities.
Our conditioned response to deal with ever larger and more complicated challenges is, as Descartes would say, to doubt what isn’t self-evident and reduce every problem to its simplest components. In the face of greater complexity, we are forced to learn more and more about less and less and pursue disciplines that are split into sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines and pared down to pinpoints of expertise. All of the training we get (and give to our people) as we make our way up the corporate ladder is as far from generalist, Renaissance-style learning as you can get, and yet, this mode of study and problem solving is a dominant characteristic of every truly great CIO I have ever known.
Ideas and opinions about business matters such as leadership, creativity, perseverance and integrity can and ought to be gleaned from a place a little closer to the source than our speaker this morning and in a manner that enriches and engages the student on as many levels as possible. A richer source of the material that fills most office bookshelves can be found in the best of C.S. Lewis and Steinbeck, Vonnegut and Walter Miller Jr., Wells and Verne–writers who may not be among history’s greatest thinkers but who effectively restated for their times the best thinking of earlier generations going back to the likes of Democritus, Confucius, Maimonides and Seneca.
About 15 years ago, I got into the habit of sending my direct reports copies of the same book, mostly great popular fiction, to read a month or so before we’d get together for an offsite. The emphasis in selection was that the book had to be at once accessible enough for those whose reading opportunities were limited to airplane rides and what must pass for vacations, relevant enough in theme and message to be considered worth the time, and engaging enough for regular people to actually finish it.
If you haven’t ever tried this, I highly recommend it. To get you started, here are a few of my favorites: On the subject of corporate politics and ethics start with Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. On leadership, I recommend Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, especially the chapters involving the frog hunt. On the notion of sacrifice, try A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Well, Torquemada has finally finished and sits down to thundering silence. Things are about to go from bad to worse for this audience. I’m the next speaker.