Monday, October 15, 2012

Staying in the Game

Did anyone out there see Game 5 of the National League Division Series?  I missed it because of work, but it sounded like a spectacular game.  The St. Louis Cardinals were playing in Washington against the Nationals.  The winner of the game would take the series and go on to play for the right to represent the National League in the World Series.  
Washington got off to a 6 to 0 lead, but the Cardinals kept chipping away at them.  By the top of the 9th inning they'd closed the gap to 7 to 5.  Beltran lead them off with a double, but then the Nationals got two quick outs.  The next batter, Yadira Molina, got the count to full.  One more pitch, one more strike, and the game would be over and the Nationals would go to their first World Series ever.  
But Molina walked.  So did the next batter, David Freese, who also was one pitch away from striking out and losing the game. Daniel Descalso drove the ball off the short-stop's glove to drive in two runs to tie the game.  The Cardinals would add two more before someone was finally struck out.  The game ended with a 9 to 5 Cardinals win.  
The comeback is being described as "Epic" in the press.  Everyone is talking about the toughness of the Cardinals.  One sports reporter on NPR talked about the beautiful aspect of baseball, that you have to play the entire game.  "There's no running out the clock.  There's no taking a knee.  You've got to get twenty-seven outs to win."  
I've often said that one of the reasons I like baseball is because it represents the universe.  I'm only being slightly facetious when I say this.  You've got to stay in the game.  You've got to keep playing until the very end.  
I read an article in the August edition of Scientific American this week entitled, "Which Species will Survive?"  The article is about how conservation groups are increasingly facing the prospect of trying to save endangered species with decreasing resources.  This is forcing them to openly discuss the problem they face in the form of triage, deciding which species they will spend their resources on and which they will leave to fend for themselves, potentially dooming them to extinction.  
One point the article made was that, while conservation groups have not discussed acting in such a manner openly, it is something that they have been doing for years now.  By bringing more systematic thinking to the process and greater transparency to the manner in which they make their choices, better decisions can be made.  And better decisions can lead to more and greater successes, which can in tern lead to greater funding for the proposed projects.  
I've been feeling at work that I needed to do some triage for some time now.  I had two employees quit without forewarning.  I was struggling to get the work assigned to my unit done.  I was, as mentioned before, feeling paranoid, certain that I was being judged for my lack of performance and that (for reasons I won't make explicit here) I was being targeted for removal.  
This pressure, that I was putting on myself, was making me an angry manager.  I didn't talk to my employees, I told them what to do.  I didn't talk with my colleagues, my fellow managers who I had to work with, I snapped at them via emails.  I certainly wasn't happy.  I definitely wasn't in the game.  
After a conversation with my boss, which revealed my paranoia for what it was, I rethought how I was doing things at work.  On the drive home Friday night I started performing a form of mental triage.  I stopped thinking of all the problems that I needed to solve.  I started thinking about which people in my unit could solve them.  Instead of thinking about the employees' short-comings, I considered how each individual did things could be applied to what we, collectively as a unit, had to do.  
On Monday, I made the changes I'd come up with.  I changed most people's assignments.  I changed how we approached our daily production goal, splitting it into a mid-day goal I checked after the lunch breaks plus a final goal for the end of the day.  I concerned myself with the final result, as opposed to how they were getting it done.  
On Tuesday, we beat the daily goal for the first time in two weeks.  We did it again on Wednesday and Thursday as well, by a significant margin.  On Friday, we were doing so well by the mid-day goal that I thought I might be leaving early that day.  Unfortunately problems set in, people had to leave early, and we struggled throughout the afternoon.  I started getting back into my "Angry Manager" mode.  It peaked when I checked the final number and saw that we only just beat the daily goal.  
But we still beat the daily goal, for the fourth day in a row.  Once that fact settled in, and I realized that I was angry not because we failed but because we weren't successful as I wanted to be, I was able to get myself back in control.  
Thinking and planning, making explicit decisions and following through on them.  That's part of getting into and staying in the game, too.  
And finally, there is this observation: 
Dead people look stupid.  
I know this from work.  Part of my job is to review the records and other material we collect as evidence.  I had to go into work Saturday morning to do this  (part of the reason why I was late posting this blog).  
One of the files I had to review were reports and photos relating to a single vehicle accident.  Two people, visitors from another country, had died in the incident.  The photos were from the accident scene, with their bodies in place as found, and autopsy photos.  I've seen enough of this kind of file over the years that I don't flinch at doing it the way I did in the beginning.  An observation I made very early in my work career regarding the photos of this nature I've seen remains.  
The expression you see on the faces of people that have just died is what you would expect to find on village idiots.  Open mouthed.  Half-lidded.  An expression of dull confusion.  The calm, sleep-like repose we expect to see is the result of the mortician's craft.  In death, we are stupid.  
And often ridiculous, too.  I remember the first such photograph I had to review to this very day.  A young woman, a lawyer that had just been made partner in the firm she worked for, decided to celebrate by buying the new sports car she always wanted and then drove it to a bar to drink with her friends.  While on her way home, her brand new car, doing about 80 miles an hour, drifted into the on-coming traffic and ran head-on into a family filled Volvo.  No one survived.  
The first accident photo I ever reviewed was of this woman, sitting behind the wheel of her ruined car, naked to the waist.  Her silk party dress was bunched up around her mid-section like a belt.  When I first saw the picture I shook my head in confusion.  Had she been driving home topless as part of her celebration?  Did she flash some truck driver right before losing control of her car?  
Nope.   Her accident disrobed her.  It happens fairly often.  It's like the magic trick where someone pulls a tablecloth from a table really fast and all the place settings remain in place.  In collisions, our clothing can become like the table cloth, slipping and sliding in all directions while our bodies stay relatively still underneath them.  
Another time, there was a photo of a business man behind the wheel of his car.  His coat, vest and tie were all in place on his  upper body, only slightly askew as if he'd finished a long day at the office.  His pants and underwear were bunched up around his ankles, like he was some pervert that had been jerking off on his way home.  
Death is game over.  It's the final out.  The saddest photo I reviewed this weekend while thinking about all this wasn't of either of the two victims, it was of the accident scene.  An empty two lane highway in the middle of nowhere.  The mountains in the background looking like a wall you couldn't pass.  From the picture's perspective the highway seemed to turn left and disappear into the desert scrub, coming to a sudden end.  In the center was the tour bus they had been riding in, looking abandoned.  It might have been sitting there hours, or even days, before someone else drove by and spotted them.  I began to wonder about the people they had left back home, half a world away, and how they found out what had happened and what they went through.  I'd say dying in a foreign country sucks, but dying kinda suck in and of itself.  
But I'm not there yet.  I'm still in the game.  I'm going to keep playing the game until that final out.  Life is the only game in town, I believe.  And even if one is down by two runs, one pitch away from losing, it is still worth playing with all you've got. 


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