(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

I get paid to do nothing

I call in to meetings, I hug my dogs, I surf Pinterest. Am I missing something?


Cary Tennis
March 9, 2012 6:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 45-year-old professional working at a large corporation. I'm a middle manager and I think I make pretty great money for what I do. Or rather, what I don't do. I'm incredibly lazy and unproductive, at least in my opinion. My job entails listening to marathon conference calls as we are geographically diverse. They are all so boring and I distract myself reading email (we are expected to multitask during these long meetings) or reading news online. I'm a voracious reader. When it's my turn to talk I say my few words and then go back to perusing Pinterest or looking at my Facebook for the millionth time that day. I do have things I'm supposed to do and when I have a block of free time I promise myself I will write that report, or procedure, or email. What I end up doing is telling myself, "five more minutes" and then the time slips away. I end up working late into the evening because I drag 60 minutes of work into three hours. I'm a sick procrastinator.

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I'm lucky enough to work from home because I spend my conference-call time hugging my dogs and walking them during lunch. To try to put some structure to my day I sometimes go into the office. It doesn't matter if I go or not because my boss and team sit in another location in another state. I usually leave the office early because everyone is on their own conference call and the voices make me crazy. I can't hear myself think. So I go home.

When I travel to meet with my boss and team it's great. It's like a party where you get to see all your best friends. I'm on task, productive, excited about work. Then I go home and totally crash for a couple of days. It's exhausting.

I'm writing because I want to change but I don't know how. I've been diagnosed with ADHD but don't take medication. I really don't want to. I'm healthy and I have as busy (or non-busy) a life as any other working mother with kids. This is a great job, with great money and benefits. I know I can do great things. I've produced some big wins in the past and my bosses like me. I want to stay with this company for a long time -- as long as I can. I don't expect to be thrilled and excited every day. It's just work. How can I do better for my employer and feel pride in myself? To illustrate my point, writing this letter was much more fun than listening to this call I'm on right now.

Sign me,

Blah blah blah

Dear Blah Blah Blah,

There will always be pockets of luxury and stillness in the midst of frantic capitalism. In a system so given to pulses of mad devotion and weeping disillusion it stands to reason that there would be these little overlooked places where big sums of money quietly flow to supposedly important employees hugging their dogs and luxuriating in Pinterest.

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I don't imagine many top management types read this column. I sort of hope not. Let's hope they don't find out where you are, lest they sic their snarling dogs of arithmetic on the payroll.

Your situation is a rare cultural oddity peculiar to late capitalism, and particularly rare in a period of global recession. Don't get too down on yourself. See it for the magic that it is. Be creative. Start giving some of the extra money away. Find interesting projects on the Web and donate. Walk down the street and give money to people who seem to need it. And enjoy yourself. These frothy peaks and valleys are in some ways as random as ocean waves. You catch one and see where it goes. But they don't last.

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It's too bad that fear seems to prevent many people from enjoying such little organizational eddies of good fortune. We worry. We try to be good, as if teacher were looking over us, checking our work.

But the teacher has left the building!

This is a gift. It won't last forever. Some day an equity firm is going to come in and find all these airy spaces and plug them up for greater efficiency, and then, after a brief, bright inflation of value, the thing will turn gray, asphyxiate and die. They'll have their money. You'll be out of a job. You'll see the wreckage from the freeway on your way out of town. They'll leave the corpse for others. Scavengers will take what they can. Carrion will lie in the sun.

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So have a good time while you can.

Nonetheless, some anxiety must attend your peculiar luck: Have they forgotten you?

But ADHD? I dunno. Did the person who diagnosed you take into consideration your strange work environment and, in general, do those who routinely diagnose ADHD and prescribe drugs for it ever meditate on just how awfully strange our sensorium has become, and how rare it would be that we would perfectly adapt to this mad influx of swirling inputs? ADHD may be in fact just one generation's trial adaptation -- one that requires adjusting, of course, to get the kinks out, but which might be just what's needed?

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I know I'm probably talking through my hat, but still: Let's not be so fast to pathologize and medicate every human variation.

Maybe you, like most of us, are just not prepared, i.e., have not been taught what to do with all this nebulous, unstructured time. You've fallen into a warp, a luminous gap in the penal colony death march so many of the rest of us are in. (Wait: I'm having a flashback: The junior high boys are in the hot May sun on a steaming field, doing punitive wind sprints, and we see the girls in their strange blue bloomers doing some kind of dance step and we just can't quite keep our minds on the wind sprints and the coach's whistle and his bulging biceps. They, too, seemed to have fallen by chance into some luminous gap in the rigors of the penal colony.)

Your letter and your mention of Pinterest evoke a world like the exquisite courts of Heian Japan. You might as well enjoy it.

And to make things right, as I say, start walking down the street and handing out money to people who don't have any. It will be fun and interesting and will make you feel good and even might do some good.

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"Pinterest as Free Market Research."

Ontology is overrated, says Clay Shirky.


Cary Tennis

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