Speed, The Career

A friend of mine, who also happens to be a client, recently referred to his work within a highly successful software company as a “campaign-based career.” Not specifically marketing or advertising campaigns, but campaigns as discrete projects, none spanning more than, say, two years. Some looming large, then dissolving in a matter of mere weeks. I think we in this high-velocity age can instantly understand a “campaign-based career.”

Yet, there is a performance clause built into this idea. You’re only as good as your last ad or marketing plan or quarter. When you’re running with the bulls, to stumble is to die. And, make no bones about it, we are all running with the bulls.

The web, digital phones and PDAs are speeding us up, making us, by degrees, more anxious. We have to worry about internal competitors who are mastering new tools and skills, as well as external competitors.

And if that’s not enough, there’s a headline on the cover of a major business publication that declares, “You Are Your Projects.” It quotes a popular theorist whose name you’d instantly recognize. Even as I write this, I am certain that in some time zone or another, he is smiling a toothy smile and being paid lots of money to tell managers over a gulped breakfast, “You are your projects.” For me, that’s a very disquieting concept. It appeals to the littlenesses within my heart: The urge to concentrate hero-style credit upon my glowing brow; the uneasy feeling that somehow I am only a set of clever words or nifty big ideas; the confusion of product and producer.

Given the pace of events, I suggest that the new symbol of retirement is the gold stopwatch. “To Michael Williams, for 3 Minutes of Intensely Loyal Service.”

I had a phone call from a 20-something marketing manager a couple of weeks ago, inquiring about a print project that was going to require five whole days, including time for the ink to dry. She was aghast. The idea of something taking five days was completely “unacceptable.” The printing process seemed to her like a “black hole of waste.” I was at once sympathetic and bemused. I understand the intense pressure of deadlines. I know what it’s like to have 30 minutes to be somewhat brilliant or just barely above average. I comfort myself, and sometimes others, by saying a giant idea can happen in the batting of a gnat’s eyelash.

But, as the marketing manager became more exercised, I found myself inwardly cheering for those things that take five days, five years, even 50.

During this past winter, I was driving at four in the morning to get to Dallas from Austin. The car was low on gas, so I pulled over at a truck stop. There in the buzzing fluorescent light that makes all flesh look slightly blue, I was going through the motions of pumping the gas but focusing my mind on the day ahead. Then I heard them. There were these little birds up high near the lights, perpetually unsettled and chirping in what appeared to be bursts of some kind of mania. I went inside to pay the clerk. Just before pocketing my change, I asked him about the birds.

“I think the light gets ’em out of rhythm,” he remarked from behind the glass cage. “They don’t know day or night anymore. A buddy says it cuts their lives in half.”

Makes you wonder. Okay, enough of that. Next.

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