Monday, May 2, 2016

The pleasures and sorrows of work.

You've probably never heard of Robert A. Caro, much less read him. 

Caro's won two Pulitzer Prizes, three National Books Critics Circle Awards, the National Book Award and the Francis Parkman Prize.

Caro is most famous for his ongoing biographies of Lyndon Johnson. He's published about 4,000 pages on LBJ, broken out into four long volumes, and fans like myself are waiting for the fifth, last, volume, which will, presumably cover the last years of LBJ's political career--his passage of Great Society legislation and his Vietnam-related demise.

Caro has been studying, researching about Johnson for 40 years. 

Caro first burst on the scene with an almost 2,000 page Pulitizer-winner called "The Power Broker," the story of New York's master-builder, Robert Moses. I am 200-pages into my re-read of this seminal book. If you live in New York, or love or hate the city, you owe it to yourself to read the book. It explains how New York's become the city it is. How our suburbs grew and our city crumbled. It explains why our traffic sucks, why our subways creak, and in general, why things are the way they are.

Caro works slowly and painstakingly. To write about the early days of LBJ, he didn't just fly to Texas for a few interviews. He lived there for three years. He's been writing about Johnson longer than Johnson was alive.

I read recently an item in a long article about Caro. And the words stuck with me, and made me think about our business.

"We know that form and content are linked in significant, meaningful ways. But contemplating Caro's work makes me think about how process and content might be linked, much does the nature of our own writing processes...shape what the reader ultimately encounters on the page."

Sitting in an ad agency in 2016 is like being the steel ball inside a pinball machine. We are batted and battered this way and that. When the day is in full-fury, interruptions come almost as often as breaths. We have convinced ourselves that distraction (open-plan workspaces) are good, when all evidence--scientific evidence--points to the contrary. We praise ourselves for being adept at multi-taking when again, all scientific evidence says that distraction and lack of concentration leads to, in effect, a decrease in IQ.

What's more, time is our enemy.

Working on something and having the time to walk away and consider it with fresh eyes, is a relic of the past.

What's happened during our lifetimes, as industrial society has given way to knowledge-based economies, is that we have industrialized knowledge. We are, in short, meant to work like machines.

Our usability and billability are tracked like we are a huge lathe. We are interrupted every micro-second by beeps and chimes and myriad banal requests.

When do we have time work?

Never, we're too busy working.

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