When the Best-Case Scenario Is to Prevent the Worst

photo from portlandonline.com

A worker stays late on a Tuesday to avoid a hellishly busy Wednesday. A family forgoes a vacation to dodge delinquency on debts. A business owner cancels a scheduled wage increase to avert layoffs. Facing down a dilemma in which all feasible outcomes are bad is no epic saga. It happens every day. The healthy response is to motivate yourself to soberly take steps to mitigate the damage. There’s no triumph in the end result, but there’s a sense of relief and, occasionally, even satisfaction in having avoided outright disaster. In the lives of individual Americans, such decisions are reality, plain and simple.

At a national level, however, choices like these tend to be deferred, sidetracked, or abandoned altogether. Collective aspirations demand vision, vigor, and ultimately victory. Resignation and realism are killjoys. But increasingly, the U.S. is confronting large problems that have no chance of being conquered completely and ending in jubilation. In a variety of domains — the national debt, energy, the environment, public health, among others — recurrent, if not permanent, crisis is the new reality. The only sensible response is for citizens to take the difficult measures that are necessary to avert catastrophe, knowing full well that the best-case scenario is still a grim one. But how do you sell that kind of cruel gruel to a nation bloated on Cheetos, chips, and light sweet crude?

The gulf between what we expect and what we can realistically have is wider than it’s ever been in America. A course correction of unprecedented magnitude is in order. Casting the net wider and thinking bigger and bolder are, however, not the ways to take on the daunting challenge. Only in thinking small can substantive things be achieved when the aims are, by definition, not bloated.

The solution is to be found in the spirit of mundane, individual acts of sacrifice that people understand because they’ve been there. It’s familiar psychological territory, and most folks have found ways to make it not so grim. What they’ve never explicitly been asked to do is to downsize the most unrealistic of their national expectations — in short, to find relief, satisfaction, and maybe even pride in coming together not to achieve the impossible but to temper the threat of the worst-case scenario, much as they do in their own lives.

Consider the person who weatherproofs and fortifies the structure of her house to prevent the worst of the havoc that a storm could wreak. If the storm is powerful, some degree of damage is inevitable, and the homeowner knows that. The envisioned best-case scenario is no picnic, yet in putting in the time, energy, and money necessary to avert the worst, she can find satisfaction, peace of mind, and even pleasure in the preparations. “I’ve done what I can” fills the belly like a hearty oatmeal breakfast, even if it’s not tantalizing to the tongue.

Imagine this kind of sensible resolve applied to threats on a larger scale. We know, for instance, that widespread coastal flooding is coming as polar ice melts, even if carbon emissions are halted immediately. Instead of continuing to build recklessly on waterfronts, why not cast it as both a national and a local priority to rethink and redraw the boundaries between land and sea, thereby reducing the chances of a future worst-case scenario? There’s a sense of mission to be found in such planning. Yes, the message must be delivered with a calm voice and the plans executed with steady hands so that resolve does not balloon into alarm. But by drawing parallels with the individual choices that we all routinely make to avert disaster, we can stiffen our collective resolve into a strong national backbone.

Not all of these efforts need to be universal, of course. Even within narrower interests, such as that of political parties, best-case scenarios that nonetheless remain grim can be motivators. Take, for example, midterm Congressional elections in which the party that holds the presidency almost inevitably loses seats. That knowledge, once the sole province of experts, has trickled down to the masses. The awareness now itself inhibits turnout among voters who affiliate themselves with the president. Many assume, “We can’t win anyway, so why bother voting?” Indeed, the best-case scenario probably is a modest loss, but neglecting to act in the face of that loss ensures a worst-case blowout victory by the other side.

“Vote late on Tuesday to avoid a hellish Wednesday” is a message most people can grasp, even if it’s not as thrilling as the promise of a heavenly win. Seeing collective aims through the lens of a common-sense need to “do what you can” in the face of an inevitably negative outcome can achieve more than pundits and political operatives suspect. But, true, it won’t achieve victory. No horns will blare. The aims of this vision are not lofty.

It is Tuesday. I plan to work late. Wednesday will not be paradise, but if I have any say in the matter, it won’t be hell either.

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When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

Having worked as an editor for a long time, I’ve plumbed pretty much all the depths of the author-editor relationship. Most of that mine, fortunately, is filled with gems, especially when you get to collaborate with people at the top of their disciplines. And when the raw material isn’t great, experience teaches you how to make it so. But, like everyone, I have an Achilles heel — one situation in which I simply don’t know how to find diamonds in the dirt. It’s when I face the self-deluded author whose content really and truly isn’t worth a damn.

Now I’m not talking about bad writing. I’ve plumbed that depth many times, and those situations are eminently rectifiable. Making good writing out of bad writing — and even good writers out of bad writers — is at the heart of what I do in my various roles as editor and teacher. I’m instead referring to the folks who, whatever their skills as writers, are selling snake oil without even realizing it.

For some authors, this foray into uselessness is a one-time journey: They’re digging in an empty hole on a mostly gem-filled landscape. If you have a good relationship with an author like that, you might even be able to state the truth plainly, thereby allowing him or her to save face in the end (you’ll be thanked for it, too). If you don’t know the one-time fool well, you might just have to enable the behavior, do your best with what’s in front of you, and console yourself with the knowledge that this author will get back to the worthwhile stuff soon. But maybe I’m just chicken that way.

For other authors, a whole career has been built upon the useless. At this point, I can spot chronic sterility a mile away, yet I still don’t know what to do about it. When possible, I’ve refused assignments by making up an excuse (“I’m booked” does just fine). However, such refusals aren’t always feasible, for a variety of reasons, and then I have to just grin and bear it — and release the grin the minute I turn my face away. But the whole time I work on material like this, I can feel my innards disintegrating. I can’t help but think about how everyone’s time is being wasted — mine, the publisher’s, the public’s, and actually the author’s, too, blind to it as he may be.

Many people I know in publishing say, “Who are you to judge what’s useless? You’re just the editor, not the expert.” Besides, what counts as substance is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. Call it my perception, call it reality, call it what you will. But working with an author whose entire career appears (to me) to be built upon promulgating poppycock is the one indignity I’ve never learned to suffer well. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it go. But wasted time and wasted space, even on the limitless internet, is criminal to me, and I can’t help but feel like an accomplice.

Luckily, I don’t have to do this Ruth Madoff routine too often. But I still hate it, and I don’t how to escape it. If you do, please lend me a hand here. I’m numb from the digging.

Did That Employee Motivation Plan Come in a Can?

Everyone wants to feel motivated at work, and managers know that motivated people produce better results. So it’s not surprising that the literature on motivating employees is vast. But it’s hard not to feel depleted when you sense that “motivating the team” is a line item on your manager’s agenda, a means to an end, a notch in your boss’s belt.

Articles and books about motivating employees don’t put it that way, of course. The tone is usually energetic, even inspirational, and certainly practical. Confronted with low morale, managers who read the literature looking for tips and solutions have learned to wheel out the team-building efforts, listen more actively, increase positive feedback, and use an array of other no-brainer tactics to make people feel valued at work. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The end goal is a worthwhile one.

But most employees know when they’re being tinkered with, when attempts to motivate them are coming from a calculated place, when there’s simply too much deliberate effort in the endeavor, well-intended as that effort may be. People, especially the talented ones, recognize the prefab packaging of an off-the-shelf purchase. Sometimes you even see it lying around, like when I noticed a dog-eared magazine article about employee motivation on a manager’s desk, only to find myself a participant in the article’s recommended team exercise two weeks later. Sure, the effort was better than apathy and inaction, but I felt pity for that manager, and that’s pretty much a downer.

I have never conducted rigorous research on employee motivation, as many who write about it claim to have done. But one thing I know is that data-hungry managers seeking valid, usable evidence of best practices will eventually see, if they’re honest with themselves, that they’re on a wild goose chase. Even the rare manager with enough research savvy to analyze the data astutely will find that the very act of casting about for solutions and trying to apply them in a troubled situation looks pathetic at best — and cynical at worst — to the people he wants to motivate. That perception is inherently depleting, not motivating.

What to do then if you’re a manager with an unmotivated team? Give up? Well, maybe so, if you find yourself routinely in need of imported tools and prefab crutches as you try to motivate people. But the problem might instead be that you’re looking around for answers instead of looking within. People get most excited when motivation is incidental to the task at hand, not an end in itself. Motivation endures when you learn from someone who is enthusiastic about the intrinsic value of the work, is fascinated by how colleagues and subordinates think, is able to articulate her keen observations, and is just plain good at what she does. I’ve seen that happen time and again in both the workplace and the classroom. Never have I witnessed anyone respond in a genuine way to a canned motivational plan.

Motivation, like laughter, is casually infectious. It blindsides you when you least expect it. Administering it via syringe doesn’t work, precisely because people see the needle coming.

Sure, some managers get deft with needles and seem to obtain results despite their inorganic approach. All sorts of little tricks are out there to help you in that effort. But tool kits and bags of tricks make me feel numb. And you’d be surprised how many people would admit that if you weren’t the one assigning them grades or writing their performance reviews. “Yes, sir, thank you for giving me this motivation. Here it is on my desk. I love it. Very beautiful.”

For Big Projects, Try a Cone-Shaped Schedule

Procrastination is one of the most discussed topics in freelance circles. Tips on combating dread, getting started, and powering through abound. Some of the advice out there has value, but the very focus on procrastination is often misplaced. I’ve found that, in terms of productivity, there’s more to be gained from shaping your project’s trajectory than from shaping your anticipation of the work. That holds true whether you’re working for yourself or for someone else.

The single biggest motivator in getting a project done — and done well — is a sense of progress. Sure, there’s an art to getting started (as I’ve discussed previously), but once you’ve begun, awareness of your forward movement is what carries you through. One way to achieve that is to spend less time on each step than you did on the previous one so that your schedule looks like a cone turned on its side — with the broad base on the left and the pointy end on the right. That doesn’t mean scheduling work sessions to artificially force earlier and earlier quit times; that approach just leads to a marathon “final push” right before the deadline. The cone-shaped method, in contrast, means observing these five, more organic principles:

1. Survey the entire geometry. To identify where the base of the cone is, you first need to look at your project in all its initially shapeless complexity. That allows you to see what you have, what you don’t, and how everything might fit together. You can’t possibly create an efficient plan without knowing which end is up — or, in this case, which end should be on the left and which on the right.

2. Respect the inherent properties of the work. Every project has its own deep structure that may not match how the people who ultimately see the work will experience it. In short, the beginning is not always the beginning. Sometimes, working backward from the intended endpoint for your user allows the earlier pieces to fall into place more easily as you develop them. Other times, the most substantive part (the part where you should start) is in the middle. Bottom line: your process and the end user’s experience are often two entirely different objects. Your audience need never see that you’re really just a conehead.

3. Make gross movements before fine-tuning. As soon as you’ve identified the heart of your project, start doing the heavy lifting. The first full-fledged work session should be your longest and most difficult. At that point, the project is likely to feel relatively new and fresh, and fatigue won’t be as much of a limiting factor. Besides, you’ll feel freer to move things around and take risks with the basic structure when you haven’t invested yourself in minutiae and aesthetics, important as those things are in the end.

4. Gradually narrow the window between sessions. As the cone narrows, so should the time between the periods when you sit down (or stand up) to do the work. A key to creating momentum on a project is having session duration decrease as the gap between sessions also decreases. That creates the illusion of speed — like you’re walking downhill rather than uphill. And, actually, it’s not entirely an illusion. You are, after all, moving toward the end at a faster pace. It’s just that you’ve deliberately structured your schedule to achieve that effect.

5. Take pleasure in the polishing. With the toughest parts behind you, enjoy the little pleasures of the tip of the cone — the niceties, the trim, the tassels. Imagine yourself sitting in the audience at your own play and appreciating the small things. Doing that can make a deadline feel like the celebratory debut it should be rather than the exhausting finale it often is. A cone tip is most pleasing when it’s sharp and shiny. Take your finger to it (gently) and see just how good it feels.