The Colonel’s Plan – Working it Through

May 10, 2018

Dear Daddy –

A few years ago, I called you one evening and asked how, in all your years of working with people, you had managed to not lose your temper—and probably your job—when confronted with outright stupidity and obstinacy. I don’t remember what event sparked my question. I think I remember who had upset me—well, I remember that it was one of two people—and I won’t name names. Both of those people are gone from my professional working days, and good riddance. 

But people still upset me. I have trouble working when I’m upset. Let me clarify that—I have trouble using my mind to work when I’m upset. Most of the work I’m paid for involves the use of my mind—writing, programming, problem-solving, project planning and managing people and resources. All of those involve using my intellect to solve problems, to lay plans, to see through the muck of obstacles, complaints and setbacks and decide what needs to be done next. I’m very good at doing that, by the way, except when I’m angry or hurt. 

Last week, I had to abort the letter I had begun to you on Wednesday and revisit it Thursday. A friend and professional associate had made me entirely too angry to focus. So I set aside my computer and spent the day cutting cement boards and mounting them in the bathroom. It was my day “off,” so I was supposed to be doing that anyway. But I also always set aside an half hour or so on the “day off” to write to you. 

I put “day off” in quotes because most people would not call the day a week I now spend away from my office a “day off.” Last quotes, I promise. They’re work days, and they’re filled with a lot of tasks. I’m usually very tired when they’re over. But, unlike days at the office, I can always count on knowing, at the end of the day, that something has actually been accomplished. I do accomplish things at the office as well, but there are many days there which end with more work left to be done on a project than I knew about when the day began. That’s frustrating. If it goes on too long, it can be soul-killing. 

Work that has an end, that shows visible accomplishment, is therapeutic. You knew that, and I’ve talked about it in these letters. But I don’t think you found working on the house therapeutic, most of the time, because of your anxiety. Your anxiety caused you to look at a job you had finished, identify all of its imperfections, and feel bad about them. That drained your satisfaction and nullified the therapeutic value of the work. Consequently, you agonized over planning each task, looking at it and looking at it again, drawing endless drawings on legal pads, stray sheets of mimeo paper, and envelopes, until you were sure you’d gotten it right. We call that “table-topping.” Did you call it that, in your days as an engineer?

There’s another term we use now, to describe that behavior when it keeps things from ever getting done, as all your planning kept you from getting things done. We call it “analysis paralysis.” As I’ve said before, as long as the project is only in our heads, it’s perfect. Once it starts to come together—especially when it comes together with messy, permanent-seeming components like concrete, sheetrock, adhesive and grout—it has flaws. Those flaws are locked in place by the nature of the work. If you want to correct them, you have to rip out walls and start all over again. Talk about soul-killing! Nobody wants to do that. Your answer was to not put up the walls to begin with, or not finish their joints, fill their nail-dimples, or paint them. So the imperfections wouldn’t set in and last a lifetime. 

This past week, I’ve really been in touch, I think, with how you must have felt. I think I get why you couldn’t finish this house, and even why you started to sabotage yourself, and anyone else who tried. It’s not the need for perfection. I don’t really have that. I can live with flaws, chasing away their ghosts with the satisfaction of the job being finished. 

No, building the house was not therapy work for you. It was a product of your genius. You had to use your mind to get it done, every step of the way. I think, like me, you had a very hard time working when you were upset, especially when the people you were trying to serve, the ones your work was supposed to help, seemed to turn on you. I feel that. Certainly when someone you do your job for—whose back you have, who knows the challenges you face—accuses you of just not trying or caring, it makes you wonder “why bother?”

That happened to me last week. There’s been follow-up, and even a sort of apology, or at least an acknowledgement of incorrect behavior on that person’s part. That helps. And, once I was past my initial upset, I was able to focus on getting the job done. I know that, ultimately, the answer to the question, “How’s your job satisfaction?” can only be answered by the person doing the job, and can only be fulfilled by that same person. I have to be satisfied with the job I’m doing. I can’t ask someone else to make me satisfied, and I can’t let their dissatisfaction—fueled by their own unreasonable expectations—override my own satisfaction. If I have met my goals, I am satisfied. If I have not met their goals, well, they need to talk to me. I’ll adjust. I will. Adaptation is one of the things I’m best at. But I can’t tear myself apart because I haven’t always given people what they wanted. When you get right down to it, people usually don’t know what they want. And that’s my strength—I’m the one who can help them figure that out.

But that inability to do mind-work when someone upsets you is much stronger when the someone who upsets you—the someone whose one of the beneficiaries of your work—is a member of your family, or multiple members of your family. 

And I think that, of all the things that slowed you down, may have been the worst. I think I get now why you were often so angry, so frustrated. You wanted to do so much, and all we did was complain—or so it must have seemed to you. “Why did you bring us here? Why did you pull us out of our magazine-spread-perfect suburban home and make us live in an incomplete folly? Why do you make noise working all night? When are you going to get this task complete?” 

We helped. We didn’t always fight you. And God knows you were not easy to work with. But I see now how we also held you back. 

One person who upset me last week has sort of apologized. One person who upset me this weekend I’m sure never will. It doesn’t matter who they are or why they did it. It matters that I overcome it. I ask myself if there’s something I can do better. I ask myself if they have any salient points. I ask myself if I can help adjust their expectations by sharing information. And then I move on. 

I also remind myself not to be unforgiving, because sometimes my expectations are out of line too. 

And I remind myself not to be the person who’s afraid to apologize. 

So I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m sorry for the times we held you back. If we stopped you from accomplishing things you wanted to, that’s too bad. But then you accomplished an awful lot anyway. 

I hope it was enough.

Love,

Steven

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