Twenty Years of Boredom

30 minute challenge – Q&D blog post…

I have been having a renewed relationship with lyrics and poetry of late (and when I say ‘of late’, I mean for the last 4 years or so.) I find myself reaching for snippets of poetry when faced with difficult ideas, situations, concepts… My high school English teachers would be so proud!

The opening lines of Leonard Cohen’s song, “First we take Manhattan” go:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within.

I heard this song first on Famous Blue Raincoat in the late ’80s, when I was an enthusiastic high school student, engaged in politics, going to camp for entrepreneurs, participating in Junior Achievement, and bound for a life of Making A Difference. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the whole song, although I have carried it in my head ever since.

Well, finding a way to Make a Difference turned out to be a staggeringly difficult row to hoe. In the deep past of my life, I wanted to work on the solar car, but one of the professors suggested that everybody wanted to work on the solar car and maybe I should lower my expectations. (1) I wound up working on dams and nuclear power instead. The nuclear stuff was interesting; the dam project took place at a company that shall remain nameless… but it convinced me that corporate engineering was a nest of vipers that I had no interest in working in. However, at that job (one of my first summer jobs as an engineering student) I had a couple of formative experiences:

1. We were always behind schedule and over budget. They already were when I got there. The mechanical engineer that I was working for needed sign-off from the civil and electrical engineers, but they never provided the drawings in enough time. One day my boss sent me in to his colleague with a stack of drawings on a completely unreasonable time scale – like, sign off on these five drawings in the next hour, please. The civil engineer eyeballed me and said, “How come he always sends you in here with these?” And I said, “Because you don’t yell at me.” There was a lot of yelling in that office. However, I recognized that what we were asking for was completely unreasonable and was a favor.

2. Every time I did anything the slightest bit out of the ordinary, I got told, “That’s not how we do things at $LARGE_CORPORATION.” But in my performance review, my boss said to me, “You have so much creativity… How come we never see it in your work?” Ha ha. ha ha ha ha ha. Sigh.

3. That same boss was a small-aircraft pilot. He had his own plane, but he only got to fly a couple of times a month because he was working so much overtime. So I asked him whether there was any way of having both enough money and enough time to enjoy it. He said that he didn’t know of any, yet, but if I figured it out, I should let him know.

I gotta say, though, that at 19 years of age, I couldn’t draw the links. I got the barest inkling that there might be a problem with my plans. But after I left my last professional job four years ago, I said, finally, “OH! That’s what he meant.” Slow learner? Or just stubborn? Or does it take twenty years of gnawing away at the oak tree before you start to say, “Maybe this isn’t going to work.”

1. At 18 years of age, I was extremely easily dissuaded, despite holding scholarships and good grades. I would like to caution professors that ‘cushioning the blow’ may actually turn out a lot like ‘discouraging people to the point of giving up’.