I hear it all the time: “How did you get into writing these crazy columns, anyway?”
Truth be told, I used to hear it only once in a great while when I started my own weekly commentaries in 1998, emailed essays that through creative accretion morphed into my webzine, What Next?, cyberheir to my 1987-1990 print magazine, Pedantic Monthly: The Journal of Contentious Persiflage. Let’s just leave that all aside for a moment, shall we?
Okay, then, so I started hearing it a bit more when a few of the larger, louder web journals began carrying some of my flammable and inflammatory musings to a larger, louder audience; and then, having reached a crescendo with a regular “Culture Shock” feature at a big-time slam-bang web event known as The American Partisan, I heard it all the time. “Where do you get this stuff? How did your brain come to work like this?” And they still weren’t called blogs.
Like most writers, I’ve been writing since, well, since I could write. And I was raised in let’s-call-it a patriotic household, where Flag Day meant something (or other) and July 4th really meant something or other. So, from an early age, I was both writing and thinking right in lockstep. Something turned me from that conformist path, back to my (everyone’s) exclusive and eclectic one, took me out of the Silicon Valley biz world right when everything was turning to gold, and set me back on my proper journey—artist, not merchant. And I’m good with that.
Okay, then. Take a deep breath. (Not you. The guy in Schenectady.)
By the early 1980s, after thrashing about in a few different careers—insurance agent, financial planner, struggling musician, permanent student, part-time deadbeat—I found myself working for a Silicon Valley computer supplies distributor while recording original jazz in my basement on the “latest” four-track cassette multitrack recorders. On the Day Job, the company branch I worked at was supposedly the flagship of a $100 million fleet, which led me to conclude that the other tubs were probably not even seaworthy.
The general manager was a balding yuppie adulterer with the absolute worst taste in co-defendants, who never convinced anyone to respect him, though he tried long and hard. He was a shallow snot-nose punk kid pushing 40 begging for a fat lip. I figured he’d read a Tom Peters book or some other in-search-of-superlatives management manifesto that succeeded only in making him even more insufferable than he was born.
Bill was my first management role model.
During one holiday stretch, I became a “team captain” charged with exhorting my cross-departmental squad to more phone orders, cash collections, same-day shipping, etc. I tried to get into the spirit of the event. I followed my starchy boss’s directives, and played it fairly straight the first few weeks, until I realized that the contest itself was insignificant compared to what I was discovering about myself and my relations with others.
What I was learning about human beings I had either missed or ignored before. I discovered that exhortation was not motivation; that pride and enthusiasm are instilled, not inserted, into people; that all the one-minute maxims in the world don’t make a manager, mentor, or leader; and that the stress of competition must be relieved by a little fun.
People are bundles of balancing acts, emotional and rational, ephemeral and material. I learned this, as I learned all my lessons about how to lead and motivate, the way any effective learning is done: by making mistakes. My initial mistake was following someone who didn’t know where he was going; in doing so, I committed a second grievous error, which was taking on someone else’s demeanor. I had removed from my team captain persona the gregariousness and joy that make me who I am, as if those traits were inappropriate in leadership.
I was becoming one guy on the job, another guy everywhere else. After about a month of looking at meeting rooms full of unhappy harried faces, I stumbled upon a realization that would make me a congruent person for the home stretch of the contest: I recognized that I had better relationships off the job, when I was uniquely, solely “me,” than on the job, when I was a group member, one of “us.” I seized on this revelation like a stick shift and slammed it into overdrive.
Come back soon for Part 2 of ‘From Hot Air to Second Wind.’