Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Professional: A Euphemism for 'Personal'

This Sunday, I was left stranded with the newspaper supplement that no one else wanted to read, which didn't bode very well for my morning. But I happened upon something that kick started a train of thought - a write-up on how to conduct an 'office romance' successfully. The article claimed that for the most part romantic liaisons between employees are frowned upon - organizations can and do impose penalties on offending parties, colleagues gossip and equations sour. But the  affairs continue to flourish, although only a tiny percentage culminate in fairytale endings. This begs a fairly obvious question - why take the risk? Why chance a reputation, a career, a track record for something that could be fleeting? Why let hope (or baser emotions) triumph over common sense? Why let the potentially personal come in the way of the positively professional?

Personal/professional. It's an interesting distinction, and one that is frequently implied, stated and even demanded. For reasons unknown, every time someone talks about the personal versus the professional, I am reminded of an entirely unremarkable exchange between the lead actors of 'You've Got Mail.' At one point in the movie, billionaire bookstore-chain magnate Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan - 'It's not personal. It's business.' And Meg Ryan, owner of an imperiled independent bookstore responds by saying - 'I don't understand why people always say that. What's so wrong about being personal anyway?

I'm not sure whether there's anything right or wrong about being personal. I'm convinced that we don't really have a choice. I haven't been working very long, but I've been working long enough to know that professionalism is a myth. Work is personal.

People love what they do, hate what they do, or are indifferent to it. They will love some of their colleagues (if they're lucky), hate some of their colleagues, and be more or less indifferent to others. Some will scheme and steal intellectual property, others won't.  People will exercise good or poor judgment, play by the rules or skirt them. Some of us are born leaders, some are born followers, some are manipulators, some will use charm to grease wheels, some are wall-flowers, some thrive in teams, some when alone. Cultures suit us differently. It's true that we are an edited version of ourselves at work, but that's true of most of us in most of our interactions.

Ultimately, any working day and any work-related project essentially  puts multiple personalities in motion - resulting either in great chemistry and great end-products, or a demoralizing implosion. Things really do work better when we work with people we like or respect. 

Of course there are those who take more responsibility for a project than others, but that is a function of conscientiousness. Some people are more invested in what they do and their work holds more personal meaning for them. But even so, I would argue that de-prioritizing work is a personal choice. Those of us who see work as a means to an end may derive less satisfaction from our jobs than from art, sport, movies, reading or family life - but our minute-to-minute experiences of working life are still shaped by preferences, personalities, likes and dislikes.

Organizations are organisms. People collide against each other, suffer bruised egos, fall in love and dislike-on-sight while they work, just as they do in their lives. No matter what boundaries we try to draw, what delineations we try to make, no matter how quick we are to swipe our cards on the way in or out, there's no escaping the fact that when even when work isn't life, it's still a part of life. We only get to choose how big a part it plays.

This is a lesson that takes some learning. I'm reminded of an NYTimes Corner Office column, in which a CEO confessed that she used to maintain separate 'work' and 'life' calenders. But having two separate calendars meant that she was second-guessing schedules and priorities when pencilling in an event on either one of them. Eventually, she collapsed the distinction and bought one calendar, which allowed her to plan and choose better.  

As it is for matters of meetings, so it is for matters of the heart. In grappling with love and lust at work, it's useful to remember that we're actually grappling with consequences. Just as we do in life. It helps to choose well, because euphemisms will get you nowhere.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Prose, Poems, and Pirouettes on Pin-Heads

I like books. I talk about them, think about them, buy them, and occasionally even read them. As I've grown older, my tastes have evolved, and I'm happy to report that they've become more varied. I was always one of those children who was happy to read the back of cereal boxes, and now I am an adult who is happy to read the back of cereal boxes, if nothing else is available.  

Like any self-proclaimed reading enthusiast, I should appreciate fine writing, and seek it out. I should privilege quality over quantity and substance over structure. I should enjoy stories well told, whether short or long, real or imagined, popular or critically acclaimed.  

I should, and I do.

But like many others of my kind, I struggle when it comes to reading poetry.

Years spent in high school and undergraduate English classes have seen me decoding poetic forms and structures. I've read Wordsworth, Keats, ee cummings, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Gieve Patel, Agha Shahid Ali. I can recite fragments from 'Xanadu,' and 'Ode to a Grecian Urn.' I can exercise judgment in reading a poem - I have a sense of what I truly appreciate, and what I only admire. This is the kind of familiarity that breeds neither contempt, nor an easy confidence. Instead, it should breed a happy medium -  a comfortable acquaintance with a literary form.

And yet it is always volumes of poetry that gather the most dust on my bookshelves. I've deliberately stacked collections by great poets by my bed, and persistently failed to read them. Part of this reluctance stems from the way we grow up thinking about poetry - as something abstract, abstruse and impenetrable. It also stems from the way we are taught poetry. In  their eagerness to analyze technique, teachers end up dissecting poems. And Hindi teachers are particularly guilty of imposing 'morals' on poetry, forcing students to extract profound and politically correct world-views from even a paragraph of verse. In sum, we learn how to take poems apart, but not how to marvel at them as wholes. And although I've been lucky enough to read wonderful children's poetry by Roald Dahl and others, the truth is that favorite poems don't populate our childhoods to the extent that favorite books do.

All of this means that as an adult, I approach poems with a certain wariness and trepidation. I'd be delighted to enjoy them, but I expect to be confounded by them. It's easier to just opt for something less mysterious and treacherous - books, websites, magazines, newspapers.

But the truth is that poems allow words to do things, and things to be done to words, that no other form can. The brevity, the compression of meaning into 40 or even 400 words, the non-negotiable demands of an acrostic or a haiku - all of these combine to create a tension that in turn encourages  trickery and beauty. The best kind of creativity is born of precision. And the best poems are the ones that turn pirouettes on pin-heads.

Whether it is Yeats speaking in and of fairie, Rilke describing firs holding up an inky sky, Shelley recounting a half-remembered dream, Hughes taking on the grand themes of race, or even Michael Hulse talking about lizards and snakes - it is the poetic form that goes a long way towards transmuting these  many concerns  and types of content into something moving, poignant and possibly magnificent.

In my version of the ideal world, knowing all this would mean that reading poetry would come as naturally to me as reading prose. But the world and my reading habits are both less than perfect. After years of grappling and negotiation, I've read just about enough poetry to tell me what I'm missing when I don't. Sounds like the makings of a tipping point, and hopefully, I'm just a few pirouettes and pin-heads away from irrevocably tilting the scales.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lost for Words? Pay the Price.

I spent most of today debating the exact meaning of words. My sparring partners were colleagues and clients, and this group of more than twenty adults took over six hours to come to a conclusion about whether a sequence of four sentences, written in a specific order, expressed exactly what we thought it did - and should.

Words are tricky things. We use them as stimuli to evoke a certain response. But in the short distance between expression and interpretation, they acquire another meaning entirely, and what we end up evoking is not so much a response as a reaction, often unintended and frequently undesired. Bandying words is dangerous work, and those of us in the business of expressing meaning and purpose deserve more credit than we are accorded.

Much of what I do comes down to choosing words with which to express an exact meaning and a precise nuance, and I often wonder where I would be without a vocabulary to draw upon. Words are my resources, after all, and what if I were to run out?

'Building a vocabulary' was considered quaint even when I was in school, and I imagine it's deeply unfashionable now. Of course legions of students swot word-lists for GREs and CAT exams, but by and large, having a large quantity of words at one's disposal is not a skill anyone hankers to develop.

But if we think about it (and I most certainly have been, this evening) it is our words that set the boundaries to our imaginations, perspectives and opinions - not the other way around. Is it really possible to dream of the fantastic without the right words? To describe what we see and how we feel? Of course it's easy enough to arrive at approximations for everything - but don't we end up losing the texture of an experience without the right words with which to characterize it? And to take this line of reasoning a little further, doesn't a lack of words actually limit the depth of an experience? Take a moment to consider the fact that we experience life as an internal monologue - each of us has an ongoing sub-vocal commentary that interprets the world and our journey through it. What if some monologues were more eloquent than others? Would that mean that some lives were more richly felt and lived?  

Looked at in this way, a lack of words can stunt. At its worst, it means that a vague haze of 'good,' 'not good' 'awesome,' 'awful,' ' like,' 'don't like,' hangs over ideas and emotions. Opinions can become dangerously simplistic. Discourse becomes reductionistic. And we lose out on all the things that we can't articulate.

Benjamin Whorf, the great hobby-linguist, claimed that the North American Inuit had several words for 'snow.' This meant that the Inuit saw snow differently than other communities did. It's a controversial hypothesis, and it implies that language limits the information available to us. And therefore, the experiences available to us. What a frightening thought. And what a compelling reason for one to dust off a dictionary and brush up on Scrabble. Our vocabularies might actually be one of our most critical life-skills.

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