doing a bad job

The continued appeal of business consultants and ‘how to’ books of management resides, partly, in the promise that they will teach you to replace traditional moral order with vague concepts that aren’t tied to anything substantial – ‘navigating change,’ ‘building teams,’ ‘customer focus.’

But try as the modern world might to get rid of it, morality stubbornly keeps showing up for work.

Matthew Crawford’s mandatory book ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft’ is a shot across this particular bow. Crawford teases out the morality inherent in certain kinds of work. He argues for finding the cracks in the economy where mall-sized capitalism isn’t, and occupying those spaces. Basically, that means learning how to fix things.

Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic, and motorcycles work as well for him as they did for Robert Pirsig 40 years ago when he wrote Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.  They are machines that require you to be attentive, whether fixing or riding one. That’s where the mortality comes in.

Crawford puts it like this:

The cognitive scientists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate…

In the real world, problems do not present themselves unambiguously. Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue.

Crawford also writes the single best description I have ever read of the pleasure of getting something right:

If we succeed, we experience the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision, and the growing sense that our actions are fitting or just, as we bring them into conformity with that vision. This conformity is achieved in an iterated back-and-forth between seeing and doing. Our vision is improved by acting, as this brings any defect in our perception to vivid awareness.

As much as anything, that’s what I live for, the sense of increasing rightness in the way that I understand the world. Crawford points out that the experience is that of approaching (though of course never reaching) a Platonic ideal of understanding.

Let me add my own take: conclusions cometh before a fall. Ok, the grammar isn’t great, but the point is there, as a restatement of Crawford’s “you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility you may be mistaken.”

The other day I failed to heed these most sensible notions, with unpleasant consequences. Keep in mind as you read this that I run the newsroom of a small tv station.

The error was as follows: our local military base hosted President Obama. We did what local tv does, which is treat the event like the Super Bowl.

I was producing our live coverage, meaning I was in the control room watching the video as it was sent from our live truck back to the station. I was in charge of deciding when to get us ‘on the air,’ based on what I was seeing.

I saw the Secret Service walk into the room where the President would speak, I saw the camera zoom in on the door he would use to enter the room. I put us on the air. Our anchorman started ad-libbing, as we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Still staring at the door.

All of a sudden, two of our people came running into the control room shouting ‘He’s there, he’s talking, take it!’

But plainly, on the tv monitors I was watching, ‘he’ wasn’t there, and there was nothing to take.

We ended up going off the air, ungracefully, and once the problem  was fixed, going back on to catch the end of his speech.

What happened?

As it turned out, my original plan, to take video from another station, had never worked, but I didn’t know it. Our director had simply seen we weren’t getting the picture and switched to a backup video feed.

Then, in the newsroom, the second half of the problem kicked in. We had been recording the backup video feed from the room for an hour before President Obama arrived. (It’s customary during big events for tv stations to roll tape constantly, even when nothing is going on.) During that hour, we recorded lots and lots of pictures of bodyguards milling about, and a beautiful shot of the door he would use.

In fact, we recorded for so long in advance of the event, the tape ran out and rewound to the beginning. The young man in charge thought he hit ‘play’ and ‘record’, to start the ‘live’ picture recording once again. Instead, he only hit ‘play.’

Which means the whole time I thought I was looking at a ‘live’ picture, I was seeing (as were our viewers) the playback of a recorded picture of the last hour of waiting.

Described that way, what happened is ‘just one of those things,’ an unfortunate accident. But here’s what I haven’t said: I could have stopped the mess before it ever got started, if I had only challenged my own assumptions.

You see, our live truck can only send one video signal at a time. When I saw two signals, (the room waiting for President Obama and an outside picture at the base airport, where the President landed) I should have realized that both pictures couldn’t possibly be coming from our truck.

That would have led me to conclude we were using the backup feed, which would, in turn, have likely sent me back into the newsroom to make sure we were watching the backup feed on a couple of different monitors. If that had happened, we would have seen our ‘tape’ problem quickly and what was a catastrophic mistake would have been reduced to mere annoyance, the kind of thing that makes you feel sloppy, but not stupid.

But all that was contingent on me – and a couple of other guys – realizing what we were looking at and, importantly, saying something. It was very specific knowledge (the video  is not coming from where you thought it was) that needed to be spread quickly so that several different minds could chew it over and work out the possible consequences.

Of course, that didn’t happen. We failed to consider the possibility that we were wrong, and that what we were seeing should not be believed.

(One of the things you acquire in tv is skepticism about  ‘seeing is believing,’ even if you never fully shake the habit.)

How did it feel? Lousy. Like we were (and I was) revealed as fakes, and my preening about being a man for all seasons – He’s objective! He’s intuitive! He does big picture and detail! – was revealed as so much hubris. Like I said, your unexamined conclusions come before a fall.

A few days down the line, it still stings. I’m lucky enough to have a job that continually asks me to use my head and heart. That is something very, very few people get to do these days, even some very well paid people. To not get things like a live broadcast right is to fail yourself and the job – it’s like the motorcycle mechanic who doesn’t bolt the engine back into place. The sting is good because it reminds me that I owe the work, not as an abstraction, but as a living, breathing thing that brings presidents and poor people, disasters and celebrations by my door, and I had best be ready.


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