Monday, 20 July 2009

The Factotum Experience: Big Dead Place goes SNAFU (and Mistah Kurtz, he lives...)

Factotum is on TV this week. I've always liked Bukowski's definition of the word: 'a man of many jobs.' In this sense, the factotum experience is something with which a lot of writers are familiar. There are a variety of reasons for this. For one thing, writers seek novelty: doing different jobs gets you a wider variety of experiences about which you can write. The paradigmatic example of this is, for me, someone like Poppy Z Brite , whose author bio in my dog-eared copy of Drawing Blood lists, among her occupations, 'mouse caretaker', but maybe Warren Ellis's summary of his pre-writing life as 'doing pretty much all the shitty jobs you can imagine' gives a better sense of the desperation the writer encounters in trying to find a way to fit into the working world.

We're hobbled, we writers, by a debilitating condition: we have to tell the truth. Not capital-T Truth, but the truth as we see it, perhaps: but whatever the case, we can't not tell it. We can choose to avoid telling it, or to run from telling it, we can dress it up in layers and layers of fictionalising and feel smug and satisfied that no-one will ever figure us out - but the result of these strategies will only ever be one of two things: either the writing thus produced will be crap, or it'll work - and wind up, somehow, exposing the truth we tried so hard not to tell.

This is unfortunate for us, however, as much of the working world is based precisely on not telling the truth. On what psychologists call 'impression management': attempting to create an image of ourselves in the minds of those with whom we interact based not on what we truly are (or think we are), but on what we think they would like to think of us.

I once worked with a guy who impression-managed all the time. He read a lot of self-help books, and I suppose that at some point he must have read a book which told him to treat every conversation at work as if he was still interviewing for the job. Every time you talked to him about anything he would look on it as an opportunity to go on about how good he was at every job he'd ever done, how he always saw things the right way, and how much of an all-around success story he was. Like most people who talk only about themselves, he was a crashing bore, but there was something else, too: you could tell that he didn't really believe it. His spiel was for his own benefit as much as for anyone else. He talked incessantly about having a winning attitude, but deep down he was afraid that he had 'loser' tattooed on his heart.

In the end, he got a job elsewhere, and I hope - for the sake of his sanity - that he made a success of it. Experience, however, and scientific evidence, suggest that he probably didn't. Those who become 'successful' in business don't tend to worry, deep down, that they may be inadequate. Quite the opposite.

The problem is that most organisations - when not recruiting on the basis of nepotism, cronyism, or any of the other various forms of corruption to which they are prone - tend, in the final analysis at least, to recruit on the basis of interviews. Interviews favour those who can convey the impression that they are confident they can do the job for which they've applied. Research (by Hoffrage (2004), Lichtenstein (1982) and Baumeister (2005), if you must know) shows, however, that confidence is a poor predictor of performance. Indeed, it can actually have an inverse relationship to achievement.

High achievement, and high competency - the qualities which, theoretically, should be sought after in management level staff - are, by contrast, almost always associated with low self-esteem. It makes sense, when you think about it - the lower your self-esteem, the greater your urge to prove yourself, and the more time you'll spend worrying away at whatever you've chosen to prove yourself with, to make sure you get it right. Inexplicably well-regarded crazy-haired pop-science maven Malcolm Gladwell reckons that it takes thousands of hours of practice at something before you get good at it: it's a fair bet that no-one putting in thousands of hours practising something is already convinced they're the best.

This, of course, leads to the development of a certain kind of culture at the management level of most organisations. Because the management are at best a bunch of overconfident mediocrities, they rub along quite happily in their little shared bubble of mutually-reinforcing high self-esteem. Because the people who actually display high levels of competence are essentially hard-driven monomaniacs with low self-esteem (and the usual range of behaviours associated therewith), they tend to be regarded as a bit, well, weird by the mental midgets of management. Over time, the management level of an organisation will fill up with confident, affable, well-groomed but ultimately useless promotion-getting machines, while the few highly-competent personnel will leave, in varying degrees of disgust, either to strike out on their own, to find a job in one of the few truly meritocratic organisations out there, or to just drop out of the system altogether.

The Discordially-inclined reader will see at once that this is a form of the SNAFU Principle , and the end result is much the same as in Wilson's formulation: robbed of its talent base and top-heavy with a layer of managers increasingly not just divorced from reality, but seemingly under a court order not to go within fifty miles of it, the organisation goes belly-up.

Unless, of course, the organisation in question is a bloated corporate/government bureaucracy protected by a mythology so powerful that it'll be safe from even the most partisan free-market administration - which is exactly the situation in which Nicholas Johnson finds himself working in Big Dead Place , a book about life and work in Antarctica which eschews the cliches of scientific heroism and explorers in peril in favour of a grunt's-eye perspective, a view not from the husky sled, but from one of the garbage vehicles Johnson drove as a contract worker for Raytheon, operating under the auspices of America's National Science Foundation (NSF). Johnson finds that far from being the last unspoilt wilderness, Antarctica is a happy hunting ground for ineffectual corporate drones, and that life at the NSF's three Antarctic stations - Scott, Pole and McMurdo - is like a Douglas Coupland novel or an episode of The Office turned up to eleven.

To his credit, Johnson is too honest a writer to turn this into a simple story of saintly workers versus devilish employers. He details every pecadillo of his fellow staff - the way they hoot and holler in bars, brawl with each other, play cruel and unusual practical jokes on their workmates and fornicate in the Chapel of the Snows - but it's clear that for venality, hypocrisy and sheer mean-spiritedness the contract workers have nothing on the salaried professionals who supervise them, especially those based in NSF HQ in Denver. People are forced to move rooms in double-quick time, with bonuses forfeited if their old rooms are not presented as spotlessly clean for inspection. Dubious 'medical' reasons are found to remove people considered to be troublemakers. The discovery of asbestos in one of the buildings is hushed up and glossed over, while the 'rescue' of a station doctor not in any immediate danger of death is peddled to the media as an authentic tale of polar heroism. And worst of all, when people do demand some standard of moral probity from the crawling middlemen sent to watch over them, they are persecuted, hounded out of work, and sent home under police guard for 'abusive' behaviour.

Those who rise to positions of power may be uninspiring mediocrities, but there is no spectacle in nature more pathetically vicious than watching them deploy, like antibodies, to expel anyone of genuine character they find in their ranks. And Johnson shows, with a diverse range of examples from the history of Antarctic exploration, that it has indeed ever been thus on the world's coldest continent. Decent, intelligent and truly professional workers are forced to toil under prissy, self-mythologizing narcissists who radio civilisation with spurious press releases, force crew members to sign contracts surrendering any diaries they keep - even if those contracts have to be written in pencil and signed in the driving snow - and imprison workers for refusing to continue slogging away after their contracts expire. Like a version of Heart of Darkness in which the company leaves Kurtz to get on with it, Big Dead Place is a nightmare; but like Conrad's fiction, the truly nightmarish thing about Johnson's memoir is the way in which it reveals, in extreme circumstances, the dynamics which underlie our own best of all possible bureaucracies. The best do indeed lack all conviction; and in their absence the worst, passionately intense as always, have moved into the wild parts of the Earth and turned them into business parks. It's small comfort, in this context, that the centre cannot hold.

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