Friday, September 28, 2012

In Plain Sight

Starting a new job can be a disorienting experience. When you walk into that unfamiliar office on the first day, it’s a struggle to get your bearings, to figure out what’s up and what’s down. You have no idea where to go or what to do. You don’t even know where the bathroom is.

It’s a huge change, for sure, and with every change comes new challenges.

I’ve been dealing firsthand with this transition over the last several weeks, and it’s been more than a little unsettling. I’d been at my previous job for nearly four years, meaning I had every aspect of it wired. Now, I’m having to figure out a new commute, a new office dynamic, and a new set of responsibilities – not to mention a whole new group of Chipotle burrito rollers.

But more than anything, I’m having to figure out how to not let all this new stuff compromise my status as an obsessed, (somewhat) knowledgeable sports fan.

For as long as I can remember, my life has revolved around sports. They consumed my world as a kid when I was playing them, and they still consume it to this day now that I’m primarily a spectator. Before I commit to anything – a trip, a night out, a haircut, even the holiest day of the Jewish year – I mentally check the calendar to see if there’s any conflict with a game or tournament I want to watch. It’s not something I do deliberately…it just kind of happens. Sports are my passion, and following them can be like a full-time job.

And that can be a problem when you have an actual full-time job.

The single biggest time commitment we make, our jobs chew up an exceptionally large chunk of our lives. At a bare minimum, we’re at our desks, on the clock, for eight or nine hours a day. Throw in another hour for commuting (I wish), an hour of “I can’t believe I have to get up” prep time in the morning and an hour of “I can’t believe I have to do this all over again tomorrow” stress time while trying to sleep at night, and the percentage of our waking hours devoted to our job begins to resemble the completion percentage of a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

(And don’t get me started on the imbalance of the five day workweek. Why isn’t it divided more evenly, like a defense in football? There’s a reason teams almost exclusively run some variation of a 4-3 or 3-4 front: if you commit too much to one area, you’re screwing yourself in another.)

What’s worse is that when we’re at work, we’re expected to actually do work. We’re not supposed to be listening to sports talk or posting on message boards or watching insane, slightly disturbing fan videos. We’re being paid a salary, and in return for that salary, the powers that be (understandably) demand that we fulfill certain obligations to serve the good of the company.

And therein lies the Catch-22 for the hardcore sports fan. Like a character from The Wire, we have to constantly feed our addiction. But to feed that addiction, we need money – for an internet connection, cable, tickets, fan site subscriptions, gambling debts, the removal of historically inaccurate tattoos, etc. – which means we need a job, a job that, in turn, prohibits us from feeding our addiction. We simply can’t win.

Or can we? 

In the years since college graduation, I’ve (embarrassingly) bounced around from job to job. The road hasn’t always been easy, but the one, enduring bright spot through all of it has been that, no matter where I’ve worked, I’ve never had to sacrifice an inch of my sports obsession. While on the clock, I’ve read every column I’ve wanted to read, I’ve heard every talk show I’ve wanted to hear, and I’ve seen every coach’s press conference I’ve wanted to see. I’ve even watched NCAA Tournament games without having to resort to the “Boss Button.” Yes, it’s required some deception, and no, I don’t think it’s wise to admit to any of this in writing, but I just can’t help myself.

So here, cultivated through countless experiences in countless work environments, are a few bedrock practices and principles that will help you – and hopefully me – take care of business (i.e. not getting fired) while still taking care of business (i.e. orchestrating a three team fantasy football trade)…

The Sixth Sense

Beyond the physical ability, mental acuity, and relentless drive to compete, one gift that all great athletes possess is an unspoken, indescribable feel for the game. It’s something that comes naturally, and it helps them see the playing field in a way that others cannot, keeping them one step ahead of the competition.

It’s this same “feel for the game” that will allow you to spend your work days breaking down game film instead of breaking down your clients’ quarterly numbers. 

Unfortunately, nobody was born with this office space intangible. Why would they be? Human beings weren’t meant to spend their lives holed up in cubicles, making other people’s dreams come true.  

So it has to be developed, and it starts with basic awareness. What is the overall structure and flow of your workplace? What are the typical traffic patterns? Who goes where and when?

To beat the pressure, you have to first be able to anticipate it.

You especially want to hone in on your boss’ tendencies, as he/she is the Lawrence Taylor in all of this, the blitzing playmaker you have to always account for. Do they primarily stay at their desk, or do they move around a bunch? Are they clumsy and loud, or are they an effective sidler?

If they’re going to need a pack of Tic Tacs, it’s best to buy them ASAP.

“What are you, a monk?”

In the classic Robert DeNiro vs. Al Pacino scene from the movie Heat, DeNiro talks about the sacrifice it takes to be a professional criminal, how you live under constant duress, and how, if you want to be making moves on the street, you can’t become attached to anything that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the “heat” coming around the corner.

“That’s the discipline,” he explains.
It’s no different for you. If you’re going to live outside the (office) law, there’s a certain discipline that’s required, and there are certain habits that have to be developed. That means doing things like clearing your browser history regularly. That means sitting up straight to block your screen when you’re watching football recruiting videos, and plugging in your earphones in case those videos broadcast at a surprisingly high volume. That means keeping your head on a swivel for circulating supervisors, and that means minimizing the internet window with the live Masters stream every, single time you leave your desk.

These tactics have to be rehearsed over and over and over until they become second nature. You can’t ever get sloppy, and you can’t ever relax, even when there are seemingly no threats on the horizon. Ultimately, you never know when the heat’s going to be coming around that corner, and unlike DeNiro, you might not have 30 seconds to react.

The Stranger Beside Me

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about how whenever a serial killer is caught, there’s never anybody who ever suspected that the guy was capable of committing such horror. Friends, family, neighbors…they all talk about how friendly he was, how nicely he treated them, and how he always gave the impression that he was a respectable, stand-up citizen.

When your company speaks of you, you want them singing the same tune.

It’s all about keeping up appearances, and you have to do everything in your power to come off as the model employee who is beyond reproach. You can do this by showing up on time, by being polite around the office, and above all else, by doing your work, doing it well, and doing it on deadline. Sure, you’ll have to take the occasional break from researching next weekend’s betting lines to do so, but never forget that you are, in essence, leading a double life, and it’s imperative that your public persona be as perfect as possible.

So yes, in this one, very specific way, you want to be exactly like a serial killer.

“F***in’ A.”

My first real job out of college most definitely did not pay me to play solitaire, but that’s exactly what I was doing one afternoon when my boss walked into my office without me hearing. I looked up, saw him – and panicked. Scrambling for my mouse, I quickly minimized my game, but I was too late. He’d already seen what was going on.

So now, not only had I been caught messing around, but I’d been caught trying to cover it up, which had only compounded the issue.

There’s a reason the cover up is worse than the crime itself: it’s more than an admission of guilt - it’s a further demonstration of dishonesty, a validation of your willingness to conceal and deceive. It’s a legitimate reason for people to question whether or not they can ever buy what you’re selling.

That’s why if you get busted listening to a podcast or streaming March Madness, just go with it. The more you can take a nothing-to-see-here attitude, the more likely it is that your boss will just shrug it off.

If things get awkward, though, and you feel like you have to say something, just say that you needed a quick break, and that you’ll be back on task shortly. The last impression you want to give is that you're overly efficient, that you’re not being challenged enough, because that may lead to additional assignments (more work), a hard-earned promotion (more responsibilities), and positive career advancement (more money). That’s definitely not a path worth exploring.

So many sports, so little time.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?