Archive for category: Worker’s Comp

Emigrating to Oblivia

08 Aug 2015
August 8, 2015

I’m emigrating to Oblivia. I’m leaving this place and its work culture. I have spent too long trying to live with the tenets of our national work zeitgeist. It’s time to visualize my exit. No, I’m not retiring just yet (I’ve got two children to get through college). But I am thinking about it. Eighty years ago, on August 14, 1935, the same day the Social Security Administration was founded, Obliva became a bona fide and well-sought-out destination. Suddenly, retirement was closer to reality for millions. And, today, Americans count on a return on their withholdings to help fund their move. I’m excited about sliding into oblivion, I mean, emigrating to Oblivia.

It’s a state where your work accomplishments have been banished. For those who think work is their life, the move feels like exile: a place where no one cares whether you have a corner office or stock options. I never had either. But I always had another life as an artist and a writer. I’ve put these skills to good use in my day job and I’m taking them (and a few pens) with me when I go.

Recently, my daughter came home from her first paying job as a camp counselor. She was ecstatic, proclaiming her love for her work. I was blown away by her enthusiasm. “Oh, sweetie,” I said, “you’ve just begun your working days. You’re in the first stage of your working life, the idealist stage. In the idealist stage everything seems possible. It’s different from school and, as a bonus you’re paid. What could be better?” It was wonderful to witness my daughter’s exuberance. I never went through the idealist stage.

My first job was at McDonalds and my only duty was taking out the garbage. Not once did I come home waxing poetic about trash, only smelling of it. My first “real” job was working at the post office. And on my first day I was told to come in a 4:30 a.m. to sort mail. Five hours later, my new supervisor then handed me a full delivery route. My first 8-hour day turned into a 14-hour day. As I delivered the last of the mail, I was so tired and disgusted I started throwing letters on people’s front porches. Ah, the petulance of my youth, to say nothing of that federal offense. When I got back to the post office someone had called to complain and my supervisor reamed me out. I came home and told my father I was never going back. I will never forget his response: “You will go back and you will apologize. Then you will do what’s expected of you.” That day forged my work ethic. I never had a chance to experience the idealist stage. On my first day of work I went directly to the second level: the realist stage.

The Three Stages of Work

In this phase you realize there are people who think very differently than you. To succeed you will have to develop major interpersonal skills. You will discover hierarchy, the organizational chart that shows you’re at the bottom. To move up you will need to learn how to listen and do what you’re told. No eye rolling. It’s during these decades you discover coworkers who not only think differently than you, but believe your ideas are “dangerous” and actively work against you. And, they have no qualms about calling you out in a meeting or an all-staff email. If you’re like me, you will take classes on your own dime to learn how to deal with these difficult types. College doesn’t teach you this. To move up, you must learn how to strategically make waves, gathering allies as you do. Together, change may be possible.

When you get to be about 60, you will realize you’ve entered the final stage of your working life, the cynical stage. Let me say from the outset that turning into a cynic has its positive attributes. You come to accept that organizations, by their very nature, are conservative. Change does not come easily. And when it does, it’s often tumultuous. Resistance is often rampant. You wake up one day and ask yourself, “Why am I fighting so hard? What difference does all the sturm und drang I dredge up make?” And you ease up. You become thankful for small victories. And, most importantly, you start to let go. The other day I woke up and decided not to shave. No one noticed. Slowly and imperceptibly, I am slipping into Oblivia.

I have come to accept my cynicism. In fact, I’ve embraced the freedom that comes with it. I saw this metamorphosis happen to others, but never understood it until now. It’s liberating. It’s made my workdays so much better. It’s not that I no longer care. I work hard and I still come up with new ideas. But I have no illusions. I’ve learned to accept the realities of working without all the disappointments. The self-doubt of my early years has vanished. I love being old (except for my closer proximity to, well, “the end”). I know who I am. I know my strengths and what I suck at. And I have no problem accepting both. It helped to remember where I started. “Youth,” my father used to say, “is wasted on the young.” Not so, dear dad. Youth is only the first step. It is a time to be idealistic: to think you can change the world. Reality will set in later. Your early idealism will be buried, but not forever.

In Oblivia I will have all the knowledge I’ve accumulated in my work life while finally getting to experience the idealism that’s been in the closet all these years. I will love whatever I do and be rewarded because I will be my boss, my only employee, and my client. I will be writing my own performance review. Well, I think I’ll do away with performance reviews. They’re quite meaningless. And, in my new home they are against the law.

Long live Social Security and God Bless the blissful State of Oblivia!

Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary

26 Mar 2009
March 26, 2009
Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, popularized the term The Long Tail to describe a strategy for businesses that sell large numbers of items, each at a relatively low volume. Despite fewer sales per item, according to Anderson, such businesses can make big profits if they reach many, many niche buyers.

In the last few years, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been looking at our museum’s online information in the same way. Our Web statistics showed that the number of visitors to our top ten sections paled when compared with the total number of visitors for all other pages, even though only a few people viewed each page. The challenge: how could we make it easier for our online visitors to find things of interest even if that information is buried deep in our site?

Anderson recently spoke at the Smithsonian 2.0 conference. Organized by the Smithsonian’s new Secretary, G. Wayne Clough, the seminar brought digerati from across the country to discuss how the Institution could make its collections, educational resources, and staff more “accessible, engaging and useful” to our visitors with the help of technology. A few weeks ago, American Art’s director, Elizabeth Broun, continued the discussion by holding an unprecedented all-day staff retreat to discuss the use of social media within the museum.

• • •

Museums are changing. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first-century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our online visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. In response, many of us at American Art have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing applications that promote dialogue. By encouraging user-generated content and by distributing our assets beyond our own Web site and out across the Internet, we hope to make our content easier to find. In doing so, we are trying to fulfill our long tail strategy. In order to succeed we will need to approach our jobs differently.

While the traditional visionary makes connections between the big pictures, long tail visionaries look for connections between the small pictures. I am hedging my bets at the grassroots level. And at this level I, along with my coworkers, play a number of roles.

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On Forming a More Perfect Union: Art and Discourse Chat

22 Feb 2009
February 22, 2009
Trees with Mormon Temple

Trees with Mormon Temple, 2009, ©Jeff Gates. Click on image for larger view. Yesterday, as I was driving the DC Beltway I suddenly saw the spires of the Mormon Temple above the leafless branches of Rock Creek Park. With no other man-made structures around, these steeples have always reminded me of the Morlocks’ towers rising above the growth of 802,701 A.D. in George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

I’d always wanted to make a photo that evoked this feeling. And this clear winter day was a perfect time to do so. Bringing the image back to my computer I wanted to enhance the primeval feeling of the woods with the distant man-made construction. I created a slight vignette around the center of the image and reduced the color in the woods, reminiscent of 19th century photographs. I left a bit of color in the center branches at the foot of the tree to draw your eye in.

My latest hobby is photography, which is pretty ironic since I used to teach the subject and considered myself a fine art photographer a few years back. Using that word to describe my interest isn’t really too much of a stretch. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation” and Word Net says it means “a spare time activity.” The word amateur has come to mean “less than professional.” But its original meaning was “lover of.” All aptly describe photography’s place in my life these days.

With a full-time job and a fuller-time family, it’s hard to fit in much more except for the occasional couch potato TV and Netflix sessions. Yet, the enjoyment I get from not only taking the photographs, but the post-visualization of the final image (that is, the after-the-fact manipulation of the photo to elicit just the right feeling) is worth my less-than-ample free time. And, more over, getting it out there –posting it on the Net and connecting with viewers– actually gets back to my original interest in photography. I love both making images and talking about them. I really enjoy the interaction.

When I was a teenager I had pen pals all over the world. From Japan to Czechoslovakia I looked forward to hearing about other people’s lives. In 1992 I had a one person exhibition of my work at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Every day I’d go over to the museum and listen to people comment to their friends as they looked at my photographs. And every once in a while I’d reveal myself, engaging them as they talked. I was never the stereotypical artiste, sequestered in his studio, unable and uninterested in engaging the public. Back when I was teaching art and photography many students would often take on this stereotype as their own: “my art should speak for itself: if you don’t get it it’s not my job to clue you in.” This always shocked me for I always felt just the opposite. I wanted to share and talk about what I was doing. And the best part was when a viewer would interpret my work in a way I’d never thought of.

In 1988 I founded ArtFBI (Artists for a Better Image) to study stereotypes of artists in contemporary culture. I wanted to see how this old artist paradigm would mesh within the burgeoning post-modern one. Sherrie Levine shocked the art world in 1979 with her series After Walker Evans, a direct reproduction of photographer Walker Evan’s work with her name as the artist. It was no longer just about the sanctity of the art object. It was about the discourse generated by the process of making art and its function in society. Flickr and other social media platforms like Twitter are updated versions of my younger interests. (And, in searching out online examples of Levine’s work to show you I came upon this Flickr photograph of Kristina Gibbs’ reproduction of Sherri Levine’s reproduction of Walker Evan‘s photograph.)

I’ve been happily involved in this process for most of my life. In 1996 I wrote about New Roles for Artists in the Information Age. Back then I was a teacher. But now my day job at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has evolved to fit my interests perfectly. A good part of my work –actually it’s written into my performance plan– is to search the Net for interesting ways to place our artworks into new contexts and connect with new audiences.

While many of us at the Smithsonian have been working behind-the-social-media scenes for quite a while, suddenly it’s exploded into a flurry of activity. A few weeks back we invited a number of Net digerati to take part in Smithsonian 2.0, a discussion about moving all the Smithsonian’s interesting “stuff” out of our nation’s attic and onto as many networks as we can. This week the American Art Museum is devoting an entire day with all its staff to discuss this. Our aim: to get it out “there” for pleasure, discussion, and for you to use as you see fit. This is no small task for a museum complex born and, in many ways, still in the 19th century.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m using what little free time I have to continue doing what I’ve been doing for years: constructing images about our lives and introducing myself to you to engage in some chat.

Maybe this is more than just a hobby.

Putting in a Good Word

19 Jan 2008
January 19, 2008

The brain is an incredible organ. Our ability to express complex and meaningful ideas sets us above the rest of the animal kingdom –if you can harness and master it. Without cognitive control humor can turn into fits of hysteria, anger into unbridled rage, and intelligent thoughts into pure pabulum.

Yesterday, I was part of a high level meeting to discuss Web strategy. My strategy in these types of meetings is to sit quietly, absorb the dialogue, and to contribute something meaningful only when the opportunity presents itself. I do not want to appear stupid, or, more importantly, not up to the task before us. Before opening my mouth I seriously consider everything I am about to say. I think it out thoroughly, test my hypotheses rigorously, and organize my words to be succinct. Get in and get out.

This is hard work for I’m a storyteller, heavily invested in narratives and making literary connections on the fly. Workplace meetings require the antithesis of my often free flowing riffs. But over the years I’ve worked hard at being able to move between my two worlds. Bureaucracy demands major left-brain activity, the rest of my life just the opposite.

So when I found the right hook in yesterday’s conversation I began my internal process quickly so as not to miss my opportunity. I would suggest we make public the information encased in one of our internal art research databases. And I would point out that its transparency would serve a wide range of our constituents, from art lovers to serious researchers. With everything in place I opened my mouth.

“The information in this database suppository would be incredibly attractive to a broad segment of our users,” I THOUGHT. In reality, my voice stopped after the second syllable of “suppository.” “…suppos, suppos,” I kept repeating out loud, while thinking “wait, that isn’t right, is it?” I repeated the first part of the word one more time before my body synced with my brain. My hand protectively covered my mouth as it went into immediate triage to save my professional life. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion. It was a professional out of body experience. In the process of resuscitation I scanned the room. Everyone was waiting for me to complete my thought. When I couldn’t think of the word I really meant to say I quickly found an alternative: “This database is a wealth of useful information,” I finally said.

Suddenly, I was transported back to junior high. I was sitting by the door in Mr. Thompson’s English class when a secretary from the school office entered and handed me a note. “Please give this interoffice memo to Mr. Thompson as soon as possible,” she whispered so as not to disturb the class. When I found my opening back then I walked to the front of the room and handed the note to my teacher. I thought I was repeating the secretary’s missive when I stated loudly in front of my eighth grade contemporaries: “Mr. Thompson, this intercourse memo is for you.” I thought all of that was behind me. And now this.

This latest example of buffoonery made it clear I might not ready for the heights of workplace bureaucracy. But, at least, I hadn’t uttered the whole word. No one laughed, I made my point, and the meeting continued.

Yet, for the rest of the gathering I wondered: had everyone been able to complete the word that had stumbled out of my mouth? It certainly had been clear to me. But doubt has always been my worse enemy. And so as the meeting wound down I decided to take the transparent and humorous road to salvation. At just the right moment I interjected: “And I’d just like to go on record as saying this database is an great REPOSITORY of information.” “Oh, you mean instead of ‘suppository?'” one of the assembled replied. If it hadn’t been clear before it was now.

Later that evening, as I stood in front of the toilet peeing, my work ID suddenly snapped off my belt and into the toilet. Yes, it was that kind of day.

Update: Apparently, I’m not the only one with this affliction. (Thanks, Howard)

A Cubicle With a View

20 May 2007
May 20, 2007
Window washers outside my office window

Window Washers Outside My Former Office Window

Our offices recently moved and I no longer have a coveted window on the world outside. But before I left I got the opportunity to document my view and take this portrait.

I saw and almost saw quite a bit out that window. In September 2005 I just missed seeing the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, as he popped in to the Starbucks across the street. A caffeine blast is always a good idea after a meeting with Bush the Second.

But, over the years I did get to witness countless medical emergencies at Pepco’s (DC’s power company) main offices, adjacent to this Starbucks. The ambulance would pull up and shortly thereafter they’d wheel someone out in a gurney. One time I saw a news cameraman filming the whole thing as they brought the poor worker out of the building. What was that about?

In my new digs, if I stretch my head really far out of my cubicle (and my boss has his door open) I can just make out worker bees in the Secret Service headquarters next door. But they don’t give up much for the typical office window voyeur.

My Own Wheel of Fortune

07 Apr 2007
April 7, 2007

You know your job is secure when you make it on Wheel of Fortune. Click the image above to start. (Quicktime, 5.5 MB)

Last night: the end of a very busy week. I’m preparing for my first back-to-back business trip (DC-SF-NY-DC) to give a talk and attend some meetings. So I’ve been in pre-flight high gear the entire week, making sure all my projects are where they need to be before my long hiatus. You know how it is, you want everything in order before taking off.

I’m tired as I sit down for a bit of decompression before dinner. Of course, the best antidote: the mindless Wheel of Fortune. Pat Sajak and Vanna White can make you forget just about anything.

All is going well until the third toss-up. Category: occupation. View the video, then we’ll talk…

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