When it comes to meetings, I don’t discriminate. I hate them all.
Training, project planning, problem-postmortem analysis, quarterly department updates, quarterly sales updates, one-on-ones with management, troubleshooting sessions, presentations, pitches for new products and solutions from vendors, interviewing potential new hires, weekly touch-points with contractors or subordinates — it doesn’t matter much to me.
I even actively dislike team building free-lunch type gatherings, which feels like forced socialization. It’s like letting the lions out of their cages at the zoo for a little while. They walk around and sniff at each other a little and go right back to their corner. It’s dehumanizing. I’d rather go outside for a walk and eat whatever lunch I brought that day.
How is this possible? you are probably asking. If you love your job, then you should enjoy at least some meetings. Like the ones where you share your own initiatives, goals, and interests.
Simple, I’ll say. I would never choose to do any of these things if I didn’t need money. Money is driving my interest in these cases. Not the other way around.
I can’t seem to get it out of my head that
- No matter what I’m doing, I’m pursuing someone else’s goals — the ambitions of my manager, or my organization, or my company and
- It never ends. These meetings and their silly patterns repeat, over and over again. Plus,
- I’m stuck in that room with a whole lot of people, most of whom I don’t like.
Most people just accept these scheduled events (along with the rest of working life) as something you have to do. Something that must be tolerated, and occasionally even enjoyed. I wish I could share their cheerful resignation.
Let’s take a closer look at the meetings I had last week.
One meeting. I gave a short technical presentation to my teammates and manager, detailing a proposed solution to one of our issues.
If I didn’t feel like I needed a paycheck, this meeting would be completely unnecessary to the functioning of my life. The backing research and analysis for this presentation didn’t have to be done at all. It’s irrelevant outside of my own career and ego. The only reason this meeting is necessary is because I’m working. Work begets work, after all. It Is Known.
Work isn’t, by definition, useful. In the language of physics, work is merely an expenditure of energy. There’s no value associated with the word itself. If I set fire to a log in the back of my house, there’s work being done. Fuel is being burnt, heat is released, carbon byproducts are created. But is the work useful? What was the product of the work? What is the benefit of this activity?
Tuesday through Thursday
All-Day on-site technical training for a messaging product called MQ Series.
I already know most of the stuff being presented in this training. I mentioned this to my manager prior to attending and he made it clear that my participation was not optional. Any further objection would make me appear to be a NON TEAM PLAYER. So I went, despite a very low value proposition.
Fun observation: The trainer made time every day to tell us how she spent the previous evening in the city. Ostensibly this was to share some of her personal life, to become closer to her students and forge a relationship. I went out to the North End last night. Spent a hundred bucks on the nicest Italian food I’ve ever had. I can’t believe you all have these wonderful places so close to you. I would eat there once a week if I could.
She would go on to tell us about the exact details of her order and how absolutely fantastic everything was, like a schoolgirl bragging about what her daddy bought for her last night. It felt to me that she was using her experiences as a device to inspire jealousy and awe — a common trick for status-conscious and insecure.
Of course I’m thinking If you didn’t eat at these ridiculously expensive places, you wouldn’t have to travel all over the states to train people on this software forever. You could, maybe, you know, retire and pursue your own interests.
Each of the three days, when it was time to take a break, she would make comments like I don’t know if you all need a rest, but I sure do. All of this teaching and learning is tiring me out. It’s hard to be “on” all day.
The presenter was 56. She said she’d been working at IBM since she was 30. In my head, this means that she’s had a great salary for at least 26 years. Why the hell is she still working?
During the sessions, I sat next to a woman in her late 40s. Let’s call her Miss S. Miss S has been at my place of work for over twenty years. She’s technically competent but takes horrible care of herself. This is evident externally, through her physical appearance, but also becomes obvious if you observe or talk to her for fifteen or twenty minutes. A sampling of exchanges and observations with Miss S. follows.
1) The training lasted three days. Each and every one of these days, she would crawl around her computer on consumer sites and look for products — during the training. She placed orders on Amazon, on overstock, and on sephora. I didn’t even know what sephora was until then. (It’s a big online cosmetic shop.)
2) During a morning break, Miss S. complained about the lower salaries associated with working for a university, i.e. in Academia. They don’t pay me enough, was one of the comments made. In the same conversation she complained about being overworked and disliking the grind. Wow. Shop some more Amazon, that’ll fix the problem. I didn’t mention that despite being underpaid by industry averages, I still manage to save over 50% of my income with very little trouble. Before you go crying for Miss. S. and saying she probably has a whole host of expenses that I don’t understand, let me tell you that she’s a single divorcee with no kids.
3) The third day, she was tuning out buying crap online while the instructor was getting very technical, running through an example of how to implement a feature in the real world. Miss S. suddenly looked up, realized she was lost, and asked questions about content that had already been explained over the previous ten minutes. Minutes when Miss. S was tuned out, locked into a world of great deals and different choices for billion-threaded Egyptian cotton bed sheets.
I bring up Miss S. because when you’re working, you just have to roll with these people. You have to deal with them, accept them, pretend to like them. Having to continually pretend to be friends with people who disgust you is another form of dehumanization. If I didn’t have to work with this woman, I would never, ever associate with her. Since I do, not only do I have to spend time with her, but when she says things like “I think Amazon Prime is a great deal, don’t you? It pays for itself in a single month of orders!”, I’m forced to find non-confrontational responses that promote team unity and retain our relationship, meaning: my ability to work with this woman in the future. As humans, we don’t like people that don’t agree with us, and it’s very important to like people you work with or things get unpleasant quickly, so we all must pretend.
A quote from Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind here: “In the interests of survival, we trained ourselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines.“
Exactly right. Because agreeing is how you get by in the forced-socialization work environment where you can’t choose who you hang out with. Myself and Miss S — well, we’re just lions in the zoo, let out of our cages for a little while, sniffing each other. I don’t want to do anything that escalates the sniffing into an attack. We’ve all got to get along.
Enough about Miss S. The guy to my left was an overweight Indian guy. Let’s call him Mr. T.
Mr. T. is technically competent but lacking in virtually all other areas of life. Your standard one-dimensional geek. He spent the majority of every training day eating nuts that he brought into the sessions. Crunch, crunch crunch. During our noontime feedings, our keepers would come in and drop food off on a back counter. Pizza. Sandwiches. Cookies.
Mr. T would eat twice as much as everyone else. Three quarters of a pizza. Two cookies at the three o’clock break. Homeboy eats like he wants to die.
I share an office cube-farm with Mr. T, one of these rooms that’s been subdivided into eight or nine discrete working areas, so I socialize with him on a fairly regular basis. One of the recurring topics in our conversations is how he’d like to lose weight. I take specific care to not be preachy or overtly judge-y when I talk to him but I do say very high-level common-sense things like it’s important to exercise every day and regardless of what exactly you’re eating, it’s worthwhile to cut calories to a point where what’s coming in is closer what’s going out.
Watching him stuff his face all three days provided all of the data I needed to understand why he had the weight issues. Yet, in the months leading up to this training, I’d hear him talk to co-workers constantly about different techniques for losing weight. It was something he was clearly interested in. In fact, it was normal for me to hear him talk for fifteen or twenty minutes straight about ridiculous dietary strategies which might make the pounds melt away. Or how exercise just didn’t work for him. I’d seen him exercise a few times at the University’s gym, riding the stationary bike while reading a magazine or playing on his phone, emerging from his session with no evidence of sweat anywhere on his body.
A recurring thought: If you spend as much time exercising — really working hard, sweating and making it hurt — as you do talking about wanting to exercise and lose weight, you’d be twenty pounds lighter. At least. It doesn’t take much.
I also observed that during the training session, Tuesday through Thursday, that I had to work extra at night to process day-to-day items that couldn’t wait. Training isn’t a vacation from the grind, but rather something that makes it worse. Since you’re instead spending time in a room supposedly learning, you don’t have time to process other tasks that simply can’t wait. So you’ll find yourself taking time out of your own life to accomplish these goals. If you don’t, you’ll pay the price in short order.
Also, I was denied a lunch hour during these days. Training continued while we ate our feed. I usually run 4-5 miles during lunch, or do some body-weight exercises, so for the duration of these training days, I was waking up an hour earlier to get the routines done. I don’t let work get in the way of exercise.
One-on-One with management.
Security review for an application.
I have one on one meetings with my manager every week. This is typical for the type of position I’m in. It’s an opportunity for the boss to check in on how you’re doing with both short term and long term goals. Over my thirteen years in my industry, I’ve come to see them as scheduled beatings.
This week, my manager asked me how things were going with Project X.
I haven’t done much on that this week, because I’ve been in training, I said.
I understand. But the deadline for Project X is only two weeks out. Are you going to be able to deliver?
Yes, of course, I responded, fully aware that the time that the training had cost me would make it necessary to work extra in order to stay on schedule. I was also fully aware that to suggest we’d have to push the delivery dates out because of the training would be a bad road to take the conversation down. Training, after all, is understood in my industry to be for the benefit of the employee and therefore something to never, ever complain about.
From my perspective, though, the training is not for my benefit. It’s for the benefit of the organization, for the company. So the training has a quadruple personal cost.
- I had to bear the pain of the hours spent in a cramped room with coworkers I dislike, learning about a technology I already understand.
- It was then necessary to work extra to complete day-to-day tasks that the training prevented me from accomplishing during business hours.
- It would be necessary, in the future, to work additional hours to catch up on tasks associated with a project — tasks I could have easily completed during business hours to stay on schedule had I not been stuck in that room.
- The whole point of the training was to get my team up to speed on a new technology set so that we can support it into the future. In another month or two, when we fully own this function, it will mean an overall increased workload for the remainder of my career with this organization.
He then proceeded to tell me that he expected me to assume a team lead position for 2014. This means that I would be managing the load for many of my co-workers. I’d be doing less technical work and more administrative and management work. I told him that I preferred to stay technical, but he responded that as the senior member of the team, that this was simply a function that needs to be met, and being the most tenured member of the team, it falls to me.
For him, it does seem simple. I’m his subordinate. I will do what he tells me to do.
For me, it’s not as simple. I have F-you money. I wasn’t hired to be a manager. If I’m forced into being a manager, I’ll quit instead.
It seems important to note here that I like my manager in general. I’ve held four different jobs in the fourteen years or so that I’ve spent in my industry, and I get along with him better than just about anyone previous. He generally respects me and values my input. I get great yearly reviews and raises. He fucking loves me. What I find is that even in this seeming best-case scenario, where I have, by a wide margin, the best employee-manager relationship of my entire career, it still sucks ass. I still have to do what he wants me to do. The only choice I have in the matter is whether or not I want to stay and work for this organization or leave and go to another one, where I’ll continue to report to someone-or-other who will tell me what to do.
Either way, I’m a slave. My only freedom is in picking my master.
The final meeting of that Friday was a security review of an application. There was a breach in one of our development environments. As it turns out, the activity which resulted in the vulnerability was caused by our application team, and had absolutely nothing to do with me. Still, the lead security engineer pointed a finger at our team as being part of the problem. You need to be more aware of what your application teams are doing. You’re part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Right. The meeting ended at 4PM, after which I left the building as soon as I possibly could.
The meetings I had last week represent a fairly typical slice-of-work-life for me, and, I suspect, most people that toil away in office jobs. If I didn’t have the training filling up my week (and causing me to work unpaid overtime), these slots would have been filled with other nonsense. Meetings are a relentless, largely unproductive, frequently humiliating and always non-optional part of the working life for office drones.
There’s no escaping it. If you continue to work, you are therefore subjecting yourself to a continuation of these patterns. Meetings are one of the central mechanisms that keep the insane machinery of work life humming along.
Personally, I’ve had it worse. In my current position, meetings account for, on average, twenty five to thirty five percent of my work-week. I’ve held jobs where that figure is closer to 50%. Anyone who has an average of 4 hours a day in meetings knows that it becomes a desperate struggle to complete your required work tasks in the remaining time.
Honestly, I can’t see myself, or anyone else, missing meetings once they leave the workforce. Let’s say you’re out hiking at a state park on a Tuesday, looking out at the trees and feeling a pleasant hum in your legs from the exertion.
Are you going to wish you were at a quarterly sales update instead?