Getting back on track

fry cook

Life happens to everyone. Sometimes things are great, and sometimes your kids get sick on Saturday morning and force you into round-the-clock parent mode until Tuesday night. You know… normal stuff.

But depending on your definition of life, it’s hard to know where work is supposed to fit in. In those sick-kid parenting moments, it doesn’t fit in at all. Yet it does. The couch your kid is sitting on? Work gave you the money to pay for that. The Netflix account your kid is using? Work gave you the money to pay for that, too.

Like it or not, work and life will be intertwined for the rest of our lifetimes (probably). So it’s up to us — all of us — to best manage how much funding life needs. Or what the right ratio of work to life is. Work hard and live large until you’re dead? Sacrifice your 20’s and 30’s for your 70’s and 80’s? Take it easy like Peter’s neighbor in Office Space? It’s different for everyone, I guess.

What’s interesting to me is how hard it is to jump between the two when you intentionally try to create separation. For instance, right now I’m clearly still in non-work dad mode, but I’m on the clock for work. And it’s not my own work — I’m being paid to fit into a very specific slot to perform a less-specific task that someone else decided they needed. I admittedly have been given a lot of intellectual freedom to write whatever I want on this blog, but “making a dent in the universe” requires focus.

Focus. It’s focus I lack right now.

I read a tweet a while back that said something like (pardon the language), “It takes equal time after time off to start giving a shit again. So one week of vacation requires another week to resume giving a shit.”

Perhaps it’s true, but the feeling I’m having now isn’t that I don’t give a shit, it’s that my mind’s eye is pointed inward. I want to provide value because I’m valuable, but sick kids, in particular, reframe everything. The societal cogs you lean on to work without having to watch your children have to be contacted. Basic bodily functions have to be monitored. Creature comforts have to be considered. And you matter zero. Like, not at all. If your back hurts and you’re home alone with a sick two-year-old, you learn to suck it up real fast.

In a way, the office is kind of like a family. Not one you would do anything for, like your real family, but a rich tangle of knots just the same. Perhaps that’s the problem — we’re all spiders with two webs. One you have to build and nurture, but loves you unconditionally, and one that naturally exposes your flaws and assigns a literal dollar figure to your total package. And if you’re working for yourself, that web is the market, and the market is a fickle thing (there’s a reason not everyone is an entrepreneur.)

We just jump from web to web on autopilot — it’s just something we do as modern humans. But when something disrupts that pattern and keeps you on one web longer than normal, the other web starts to feel alien. And the problems go from real and awful to silly and pointless.

I think we all go through these funks at times, but it always fascinates me when I look at someone and can’t be sure. I was watching a show on Netflix last night and it had a bit about a taco truck, and these two ladies had been churning out probably the most delicious tacos I could imagine night after night for eight years. Eight years of tacos! And it wasn’t even their taco truck!

What struck me though was something the owner (Roy Choi) said about his team: “They are a part of Kogi’s flavor now more than I am.” He made a specific point to say that while he provided the initial recipes, so much of the magic came from tweaks and changes his employees made. The truck and the original menu was his dream, but the loyalty he created came from providing a certain level of autonomy — to let others flex their expertise.

“This taco needs this.” Done. Not, “let me ask my boss and run it through endless abstraction.” Just do it. Make small changes, learn small lessons, optimize. Always. It’s all about empowerment.

I imagine those taco ladies have minds that wonder like everyone else’s, but at least from the outside, it seems like they’re doing alright. I admire their work ethic so much. But I also admire the structure built around them — it sets very clear goals (make awesome tacos) with clear instructions (here’s the menu), then allows for improvisation as needed to move the needle.

That’s the kind of structure people need to get back on track quickly and want to be back. Don’t confuse it with all-caps STRUCTURE. The person at the french fry station takes seconds to get back on track after time off — you rinse the potatoes, cut the potatoes, drop them in oil for a set amount of time, then put them in a container. The structure is so sound a tornado couldn’t knock it over, but no one wants to be a fry cook forever.

There’s this great talk I posted last week about creating a “culture of learning” to get things done. And a bit that stuck with me was about framing the task at hand. Most people intuitively go into a hole and emerge with some kind of grand plan to be executed, but this speaker preferred to frame things differently. To him, management or leadership (whatever) should simply present problems to interdisciplinary teams. So instead of saying “we need to do X, Y, Z” to a dev team, you’d say, “what we’re missing today is A, B, C. Is that possible?” to a small group of doers who are given the freedom to allocate personnel and resources accordingly. It seems like a really smart plan of action.

Fortunately for me, that’s roughly the structure I have here on this blog. I’m over here feeling aimless and unproductive while doing exactly the task expected of me because I have a creative outlet and room within an expected framework to break small things. Mmm, I guess I’m back.