In fifth grade at Westtown school, we were assigned “artist reports”; a ten page(!), illustrated biography of an artist we admired. To a fifth-grader, ten pages is a dissertation, a monumental scholarly work that consumed the whole second half of the year, so we selected our subjects pretty carefully.
I picked Norman Rockwell. Partly, I think, because I had come across something snotty in a World Book (O, pinnacle of academic scholarship! O, font of wisdom!) entry about how many considered Norman Rockwell not a Real Artist because he sometimes used photographic techniques, projecting an image onto a canvas and using that as a template. I was indignant: look at the command of the brush! Look at the work that went into the detail of each wood-paneled doctor’s office! Damn it, that mastery of craft and that attention to detail was ART, and I was going to write an artist report about him to put him next to Van Gogh and Kandinsky and Manet and other artists that didn’t need a championing in TEN WHOLE PAGES of carefully prepared erasable pen.
Looking back, I realize that the more salient criticism may have been that Norman Rockwell was mostly an illustrator, rather than an artist, and that being simple and popular (and, especially, funny) is anathema to serious critical success. This is a serious error that people make all the time. With Pascal and G.K. Chesterton, I think that most things worth knowing in life are not the things that come with lots of frowning, brain-wrinkling mental calisthenics. Life does indeed require a hell of a lot of effort, not the kind of Important Effort that we usually spend time attributing gravity to. From Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy“:
“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
You see that last bit on (wood-paneled) doctors’ office walls, sometimes. Chesterton also had a lot to say on the subject of such difficult and non-serious subjects like why a pompous man sitting on his hat is funny and reminding alarmist Victorians that just because the errand-boy is reading “The Red Revenge”, it’s unlikely that he’s really dripping with the gore of his own friends and relatives. That essay, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, is one of my favorite historical essays to point to when people get hysterical about television or game violence. That’s an old, old argument.
Okay, returning to the point once again, I think that we tend to take the wrong things in life seriously, and think that the easy bits are the hard ones. Love is easy (which is the staggering, amazing wonderful thing about love); the daily activity of showing love is hard. Faith is easy; works are hard (nb: I’m an atheist now, in case it matters.) Getting told what to do, then doing it? Easy. Making sweeping strategic decisions? Easy.
Middle management? Hard.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think work is easy. Work is, well, work, and just in case any of the members of my team is reading this, you do a great job of it: cheerful, speedy, competent, efficient execution. What I’m talking about is the fact that the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ACTIVITY OF BUSINESSES EVERYWHERE AROUND THE WORLD seems to get trivialized: the act of figuring out what the hell needs to get done next, who the hell is going to do it, whether they understand what you asked them to do, how long it’s gonna take them, whether they’re on schedule, whether they’re done, whether they did what you asked them to, and what the hell to do next. In other words, middle management, and that’s the hardest work that people who work for me do. I guess I started to learn this building houses in Mexico, where we had thousands of cheerful, energetic, and completely clueless high-school students on hand. Move ten thousand pounds of lumber? Easy. Figure out where to put it? Harder. Keep all thousand smiling Southern Baptist teenagers busy at the same time? Very hard. I learned another piece of it in the days after September 11, 2001, in Manhattan, when I got to see first-hand how the Red Cross ministered to volunteers by putting them through emergency training sessions, even though doing so was a net drain on resources — there was nothing useful that a thousand raw volunteers could do except feel better that they were doing something, and that’s the service the Red Coss provided to them.
Monster.com’s 1999 Superbowl ad featured kids talking about what they wanted to do when they grew up: “I want to claw my way up into middle management!” At the time, I shuddered. Because I was a programmer (well, a coder), and I thought that middle managers were the useless buffoons who wore short-sleeved dress shirts, polyester sansabelt slacks, and drove uninteresting cars. Now, I know the truth: middle managers are the incredibly useful buffoons who wear short-sleeved dress shirts, polyester sansabelt slacks, and drive uninteresting cars. (Actually, that’s not quite true: fully 66% of the people who have ever worked for me have been, at some point, involved in a punk-rock band, and two people on my team right now have one-letter names; letters down towards the end of the alphabet, which makes us sound like a dangerous, nerdy spy organization. Which we are, you know.)
So, what’s my point? Now that I’m in upper-middle management, a hugely important part of my job is trying to convince the folks that work for me — emerging managers — not just that their job is useful (it’s pretty immediately apparent that somebody who actually, you know, knows what the schedule is supposed to be is a VIP), but that middle management is a kind of holy, life-affirming activity that spreads joy and peace, and lets everyone go home on time so that they can do the fun, easy things in life (like love) and the fun, hard things in life (like buy groceries for the baby and wash the kitchen floor and try to make intelligent conversation) and that middle management is so hard because it’s so important, and that what I anxiously scan resumes for these days is the unwritten message “brings order from chaos; brings understanding from confusion; brings lovely, completed objects from a churning sea of uncertainty.” Damn it, THAT’S the middle manager’s job description.
And it’s, you know… hard.