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The Sisyphus Project

Copyright (c) 2010 by Bob Burnham. All rights reserved.

And I saw Sisyphus there in his agony,
Pushing a monstrous stone with his hands.
Digging in hard, he would manage to shove it
To the crest of a hill, but just as he was about
To heave it over the top, the shameless stone
Would teeter back and down to the plain.
Then he would strain every muscle to push it back up,
Sweat pouring from his limbs and dusty head.

–Homer, The Odyssey

I cannot think of a better metaphor for working in corporate America.

We toil at the same meaningless tasks day after day, sharing Sisyphus’ fate. While Albert Camus may have imagined Sisyphus happy, I am not so sure. Sisyphus’ fate–which is also our fate–is tragic “only at the rare moments we become conscious.” (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.)

It is during those rare and fleeting moments of consciousness that I have pondered my tragic human state and spied upon various rules–jewels among clay shards that sparkle with hope–that, while they may not make me happy, will at least help me dodge the stone as it rolls back down the mountain.

Rule #1 (The Golden Rule): Keep your mouth shut. Nobody really cares what you think anyway, and you’ll probably end up volunteering for something. Which leads me to the next rule…

Rule #2: Never volunteer for anything. This does not mean I don’t offer my help when it is asked; I just don’t offer unsolicited help. I’ve learned that when one offers help without being asked, you end up taking more responsibility and having unwanted (and unfair) expectations thrust upon you.

Rule #3: The walls have ears. Don’t say anything you would not want broadcast on a company-wide e-mail. There may be someone lurking around the next corner.  The person in the cube next to you may overhear you rant and rave against the latest policy directive. HR may have planted bugs in your keyboard to record your every word and keystroke. It’s best to ask yourself this simple question: “Would I send what I am going to say in a company-wide e-mail?” Better yet, just keep your mouth shut! (See Rule #1).

Rule #4: Always make your boss look good. People–especially your boss–will trust you. If they trust you, then they will ignore you. And if they ignore you, you are virtually invisible. And if you make your boss look good, other managers may see you as an asset (“Hell,” they tell themselves, “if he can make that moron look competent, then he would make me seem brilliant by comparison. I better hold on to him!”)

Rule #5: You can be replaced. The hard, bitter truth is that corporations are soulless machines made up of many interchangeable parts. If one part breaks down, the machine has a self-correcting mechanism, mainly by redistributing work. Squeaky wheels do not get greased, they get replaced. However…

Rule #6: Never underestimate the amount of damage a single individual can do to a company. True, everyone is a cog in a large machine, and broken cogs can (and will) be replaced. When a cog breaks down, the company can come to a screeching halt until it is replaced. Rule #10 can come in handy in those instances.

Rule #7: Everyone has an agenda. Even I have an agenda, as simple as it may be: Survive until lunch. Then try to make it the end of the day. Repeat as necessary. I am definitely not going to earn the suspicions of a Machiavellian, (see Rule #9, below), but that’s a good thing!  

Rule #8: When in doubt, blame marketing. As a corollary to this rule, when in doubt, blame ignorance. But then I’d be repeating myself.

Rule #9: Always have a back-up plan. Mine involves mosquito netting and tinfoil hats. I figure if things get too crazy, then I will just have to out crazy the crazies. I will don the mosquito netting and the tinfoil hat, and shout, “The Prophecy is about to be fulfilled.” So far, I have not had to fully implement that plan.

Rule #10a: Duck. Quick reflexes are essential, as is flexibility. Therefore, I’ve started practicing yoga. Better yet…

Rule #10b: Be invisible. If they can’t see you, they can’t blame you. But, on the other hand, if they don’t see you, they won’t pay you–unless you’re a consultant! See also Rule #1.

Rule #11: Accept empty platitudes with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you ever get an award for doing your job, say thank you, and get over yourself. You were just doing your job. If the Corporation really appreciated your work, they would pay you more, treat you more humanely, or generally make your work more tolerable. But a meaningless award is just as good. Which leads to a more general rule…

Rule #12: Don’t take anything you do too seriously. After all, anything you do is not really yours, it’s the company’s. Remember, you have exchanged your ideas–the fruit of your labor and genius–for a wage. The company then can ignore it, kill it, or mutate it beyond recognition. But relax, what does it matter? It’s not yours anyway. They can do what they want. Take your wage and buy yourself a beer.

Rule #13a: Avoid metaphysical thinking. That is, don’t think about the way things are, why the company acts the way it does, why incompetent people get promoted and the competent people get fired. It will only cause your brain to bleed, thus defeating the purpose of surviving anything, let alone the absurdity of the corporate world.

Rule #13b: Do not try to understand what it is you are supposed to do. We are all prostitutes. All you really need to know is how to do what you are supposed to do. If you ask “Why?”, you will end up violating Rule #13a and the triggering the resultant aneurysm.

Rule #13c: After further reflection, just don’t think. If you think about what you’re doing, you’ll begin to analyze what you’re doing. When you analyze what you’re doing, you’ll realize that whatever it is you’re doing is fruitless, paradoxical, and a complete waste of time. And since you have nothing better to do anyway, you might as well do whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. And all that thinking and analyzing was itself fruitless, paradoxical, and a complete waste of time.

Rule #14a: Always appear to be busy. Even if you have no work to do, make it look like you are busily engaged in pursuing company goals. Never, ever, say, “I have nothing to do.” It just pisses people off, and the result is never good. Either your boss will give you busywork to do (which is pointlessly annoying), or the company will realize your position is meaningless.

Rule #14b: Never appear to be too busy. Expounding upon Rule #14a, if you appear to be too busy, you may end up getting promoted.

Rule #14c: Send e-mails to yourself. This helpful rule will help you follow Rule #14a. And when people ask you what you are doing, you can answer honestly. However, they will probably admire you for offering a clever observation about the overabundance of self-indulgent e-mails that clog the ether of corporate communications, and you may end up violating Rule #14b.

Rule #15: Never piss off a psychometrician. In fact, never piss off anybody who has the prefix psycho- as part of their official job title. No good can come from it.

Rule #16: Know where to find chocolate. Chocolate releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain and stress reducers. You may also want to keep a basket of chocolate on your desk. However, like all narcotics dealers, there are some risks in being a chocolate dealer, namely, undesirable people hanging around your cube all the time. And, like cocaine, keep the following rule in mind: “Don’t get high on your own supply.”

Rule #17a: There are no such thing as stupid questions, only painful answers. When you ask a question, realize that the answer will most likely result in public chastisement, usually in the form of paperwork, meetings, more paperwork, and a migraine headache. Which leads me to…

Rule #17b: Wear quilted flannel. Asking questions is like swinging a bat at a hornets’ nest. You will eventually get to the center of the issue, but you’re sure to be stung along the way. The flannel will provide at least a modicum of protection. You may also want to keep ibuprofin and psuedoephedrine in one of the pockets.

Rule #18: Make sure there is no more than one sword per office. Once you have two (or more) swords, you know someone will want to have a sword fight. Rule #17b may also help you survive in such a scenario.

Rule #19: Always have a roll of quarters. Remember the game Pac-Man?That iconic video game is the perfect metaphor for the cubicle labyrinth where we spend too much of our time. We are constantly chased by Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde (project managers, consultants, managers, and HR specialists) who suck the life out of you. And even if you do advance in level, your enemies move faster. Eventually, they will eat you. At which point you insert another quarter and start again.

Rule #20: Watch Airplane! Everything you need to know about crisis management you can learn from this movie.

Rule #21: Process improvement initiatives seldom improve processes. Processes do not exist a posteriori, they exist a priori. That is, processes don’t exist until they have been improved. See Rule #13a and enjoy the pointless meetings and meaningless tasks.

Rule #22: Most crises are works of fiction. Unless my foot is caught in a bear trap, or I am missing a limb or two, or someone is in need of CPR, then it is not a crisis!

Rule #23: Show courtesy. More than anything else, courtesy slows things down. And let’s be honest, most bad decisions are made in haste. So, when you type an e-mail, make sure it is courteous. It will make you and your boss look good (cf. Rule #4). When you are in a meeting, always be the last one to speak (if you need to say anything at all); you will appear to be wise (cf. Rule #1). And always let people go before you, so that everyone else volunteers first, leaving you with nothing to do (cf. Rule #2).


3 Responses

  1. My rule. Show up to every meeting, otherwise your charming coworkers will volunteer you in absentia. The jerks!

  2. […] The Sisyphus Project […]

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