The Thinker

The Good (Work) Life

I thought I’d take a moment out from my usual ramblings on things major and minute and just talk about me for a change. Right now I find myself in a strange and largely happy space. In a way I feel like my whole life had been one long troubling train trip and I’ve arrived at my final destination. I was meant to arrive here. In some sense I have come home.

This won’t be my final destination, of course. There is still too much of life ahead of me. But I do feel that for the first time in my life I am where I should be. I feel like I’ve slipped into a life situation that feels like a comfortable, well-worn glove. Things just fit. I have arrived. I feel respected. I feel empowered. I feel necessary. I feel optimized. I feel above all else useful.

I don’t wish to give the impression that all of life is coming up roses at the moment. I speak today primarily about my career. I have the usual festering family problems that have been part of the dynamic of my marriage and family. They won’t be going away anytime soon, if ever. In addition I have rapidly aging parents with medical issues and two geriatric cats, one of whom has taken upon herself the mission of driving me bananas. But perhaps because I feel so positive about my career these other burdens are markedly easier to bear. I am grateful.

I look around this world and see lots chaos and suffering. So I feel almost guilty that while all this is going on I am so much at peace with myself. The impetus turned out to be of all things: 9/11. I was one of hundreds of thousands of civil servants caught up in the madness of that day. I watched the Pentagon burn that day as I struggled toward the safety of home. Since then every day I worked in the Washington I felt like I was in someone’s bulls eye. I felt vulnerable. I wonder (and still do) how long before some terrorist acquires enough fissionable material to blow a good part of the capital into subatomic bits. I knew I did not want to be another victim of 9/11. So I looked with more earnestness at jobs closer to home. And as many of you long time blog readers know, I finally realized this dream.

But it couldn’t be just any job. With 20 years in the civil service I was not going to give up my career for a job in private industry where I was the new kid on the block. Civil service jobs out here in western Fairfax County are hard to find and the competition from us weary commuters is stiff. Yet somehow I got lucky. When I was offered my latest job at the U.S. Geological Survey not only did I turn an hour plus commute into a ten-minute commute but I also felt I wasn’t a likely future victim of terrorism.

What I did not expect was to find that I would enjoy my new job so much. The U.S. Geological Survey is nirvana for a civil servant. In all my other jobs there was a political context to the job that could not be ignored. At ACF we were a social welfare organization. Consequently we were subject to bizarre political mandates such as the healthy marriage initiative. But there were other weird things, like the bizarre President’s Management Agenda, the inability of our managers to proactively manage, niggardly budgets that got more niggardly every year, pointless and counterproductive outsourcing agreements and other issues too numerous to mention. While in the Department of Defense there was this odd military mindset that was pervasive and bizarre. There were cadres of officers and enlisted coming and going trying to make some fast mark for a performance report. There were bizarre and stupefying processes. For example, it took months to order supplies that could be purchased in an hour at the local Staples. You had to go through so many layers of management that there was no guarantee you would get anything you needed. And there was a demoralized civil service that felt ignored, unappreciated and hassled.

Surviving in this environment required adopting a skewed outlook to work. It was its own peculiar Darwinian struggle and I adapted. But it often felt soul sucking. It often seemed pointless and futile. For example I should have felt rage last year. I had spent a year doing a comprehensive analysis of enterprise reporting solutions for our agency. When it came down to choose a product, I was not in the meeting room. It came down to picking one over the others because we had an enterprise agreement a particular vendor (Oracle), not because it was a superior product. I should have been enraged but I just shrugged my shoulders. That’s the way things worked in the government I knew. A lot of what I did was ultimately wasted and pointless. I hoped that occasionally something I did would effect real and meaningful change. But mostly my work felt ultimately pointless.

But at the U.S. Geological Survey we don’t serve a political agenda. It’s a scientific institution. Unlike other places I worked that pretended to be professional, it actually is a professional place. We don’t just say we value someone’s work and opinions. We actually do value their work and opinions. We value it enough to listen to other people’s opinions and take them seriously.

I find my own management style is evolving. I don’t make unilateral decisions. Instead I bring them up to my team and we discuss the direction I would like to go and come to consensus. After all I am the new person on the team. They have the experience. If an idea of mine is not sound they will know and I need to hear it from them. In return by having their opinions truly count they feel like they can have confidence in me. We are all vested in the solution. I provide general direction. I don’t tell them what to do so much as ask their consent to move in certain directions. I think this is called leadership. It’s exciting, empowering and really a lot of fun to manage this way. The bonus is that it has a multiplicative effect. It also allows for greater productivity and it opens up new areas for exploration.

So I am no longer spending half my time at work spinning my wheels on exercises that eventually prove futile. The lines of authority are very clear but respect flows in both directions. My team is not half multitasked elsewhere. I just have to give direction and focus. A silly example happened this week when I started using electronic To-Do lists to task routine ad hoc assignments. I had tried this before in other jobs and they never worked. Why? Because everyone was multitasked by various managers so there was no guarantee a task would ever get done in a particular time frame. Now I have the authority I need. My staff works from my lists and respects my deadlines. Maybe this happens by default in private industry. But this is the first time I have seen it work in a governmental organization.

I have a terrific boss always willing to provide guidance but who refuses to micromanage. I have numerous travel opportunities that broaden my perspective. I can basically choose to travel to any place I want provided it is business related. I have a team that is geographically disbursed but still works as well together as if we were all sitting in the same office. Biweekly teleconferences and web pages with meeting minutes that are continuously updated work great! If I feel the need to go to a professional conference the money is there. I can bring the team together in person whenever I need to. (We all met here in Reston about a week ago). I never worry that my team is bored or unmotivated because I am confident they like what they do.

Together we are changing our little corner of the universe for the better. Our work is meaningful. It means something to the whitewater rafting community to know if the streams are high enough or flowing fast enough. It means something to scientists to have a way to analyze ground water levels, or to know if their local water quality is getting better or worse. And because the information we provide is meaningful, my work feels meaningful. And I don’t mind so much going to a conference and listening to users. In the process I find out from them what they need that our system is not providing. I can then subsequently direct resources to make our information more useful to the public.

And I can do all this while balancing the needs of my family, without adding the stress and hassle of two hours or more in commuting every day, with more than adequate leave and at a level of pay commensurate with my skills and knowledge.

It’s a good place in which to be. I keep wondering when the other shoe will drop. But I don’t think it’s going to. I’ve been swimming upstream for too many years. Hopefully that struggle is behind me and now I can do the real work that I was meant to do.


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