Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chicken or beef?

Today was another wet day in Kuala Lumpur; I spent the morning in a freezing cold conference room, the afternoon in a hotel room, wrangling spreadsheets across a spotty wifi connection, and the evening in a club beneath the Petronas Towers, at a team-building evening that made me want to quit the company. I know if it’s too loud, you’re too old, but what does it say about your age when you’re bored with a screeching five foot drag queen yelling at you to have fun, from a stage filled with directors of the company, dressed up as ‘Malaysian super heroes’? Was that somebody’s idea of a fun night out for everyone? Or did I miss out on the memo about accepting cultural differences and terrible nightclubs?

Perhaps it’s just ennui from not enough sleep, accompanied by the petty annoyance of a diet of spring rolls and badly cooked noodles. Or perhaps it’s something else.

I had a strange feeling this morning while presenting; I’d been given five minutes to present some feedback to the rest of the team. I stood on stage and asked a couple of questions that I thought were quite simple: do you like cold drinks? Do you like hot drinks? What I was trying to point out is that people aren’t often excited by what’s tepid or lukewarm – you should define yourselves in terms of things at one pole or another. Why settle for mediocrity, for everything being a uniform shade of magnolia, when you could have something interesting instead.

Hardly anyone answered that they liked cold drinks. Well, it was a freezing cold room. Hardly anyone answered that they liked hot drinks. Well, maybe it was my impenetrable accent. I did have a translator on hand to repeat my questions for me. Still, the response was muted. Was half the audience asleep? Was my microphone on? Did they think I was doing an impression of an air stewardess from the days before LCCs?

But it’s not just a question of chicken vs beef, cold vs hot, this vs that. I was hoping more people would notice that I was trying to get them to remember they were meant to be doing something, and in fact were meant to be grappling with the question of identity as much as anything else.

I’ve been reading lots of books about running lately, and one point that’s stuck with me is that you shouldn’t do medium-hard training. Either you should be pushing yourself as hard as you possibly can, or you should be taking things as easily as you can. You get more benefit from that than you could from just training at a slightly-less-than-comfortable speed all of the time. It’s not just about putting in the hours; you need to be at the edge of your comfort zone, or fully comfortable, all of the time. The ideal isn’t to be just tepid, floating along in a vague cloud of benignity, when you should be oscillating.

Come to think of it, when I started my first job I spent each day either terrified I was going to be sacked for incompetence, or on the edge of ragequitting because I was so cross about something not being done right. That sort of thing is probably a bit too extreme. But I suppose I was engaged, and I was trying to make the rest of the room feel engaged too, to be looking for some sense of what this enterprise was for.

If you don’t have engagement with the question of what you are, how you define yourself in terms of what you are not, just as much as what you are, then I question what you’re doing. Especially if you’re in an airconditioned conference room, ostensibly all involved in defining what strategy the company is going to follow. Back in the first years of my working life I knew what I was doing; I was building something, along with some other, very committed people, that was going to change the world. In the end, it just got bought by a big American company and ground down into something that was the same as everything else, but there was something there to be excited about. If I’m in a room with a couple of hundred people and nobody gives the sense that they can say what they’re working for, above and beyond it being a job where they get paid some money for rendering some services, then I have to worry that I’m not in the right place. Either I shouldn’t be worrying about having a job that is meaningful, or I should be somewhere else.

Or I should just not be in Kuala Lumpur with jet lag.


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