Chapter 10 – On Codes and Standards
BUT what if you must have approval and acquiescence in one phase of your work before you go on to the next? What if your work is contributory to a group effort? That is, of course, more complicated, but imagination can still come to your aid. It can show you where you stand in the chain of causes which go to bring about a certain result, and thus teach you to be patient during the time when your work is being considered, to hold yourself in a state of balance until the verdict is passed.
Then, if it is adverse – as it occasionally must be – you can do one of two things: tackle the same problem from a new angle, hoping this time to reach a good working basis with your co-workers, or you must put your reasons for believing that your original idea is good in such a way as to show that you are not defending it simply out of a sense of outraged proprietorship.
The only way to do this successfully is to have a well-thought-out set of standards drawn up for each type of work that you do, and in advance. If you wait till any one item is finished you may find yourself reasoning after the fact, defending the fact accomplished, and perhaps blinding yourself to real insufficiencies in it.
Here again we call on imagination. If you were to envisage the best possible example of the work you are about to undertake, what would it be? Find the best example of similar work that you can. What qualifications does it have? Which ones are vitally necessary? Which were added by the originator of that example? With this analysis in hand, draw up a set of standards for your own use, putting down first those things which are absolutely necessary if you are to succeed at all; next those which are desirable if it is possible to include them; last, but most important to your personal success, those things which are your own contribution.
Now, before getting to work, drop your own point of view and see your prospective task from the position of your audience, of the “ultimate consumer.” Who is to benefit by the activity? Who, if you are a creative worker, is your audience? Who, if you are selling an article, is your predestined customer? If you were in his shoes, what would you like to see included in the offering? If you can imaginatively enter into the state of mind of those through whom you hope to attain your success, you can frequently add just those elements which will make your work irresistible.
(Take a very prosaic instance with which we are all familiar, the simple matter of kitchen equipment. Why do you suppose that for years most stoves, sinks, laundry-tubs, continued to be made so low that the women who worked at them tired quickly from the abnormal positions they were forced to take? There was no good reason; but the moment some inspired person thought not merely how all such things were already being made, not merely of selling an adequate object, but of the comfort of those who were to use his product when sold, a revolution in kitchen equipment came about. Often such an improvement is staring us in the face; an obvious small change can be made which will bring an article, which we all buy in its unsatisfactory form simply because no better one is offered, out of its traditional shape into a form which will have, besides the element of novelty, that of greater convenience or usefulness.
That change will only be made by the person who is imaginative about his work, who can not only analyze the present form of an object into its essential parts, but who can imaginatively enter the life of the person who is to use it later.) Oddly enough, it is more often the creative worker who fails to expand the standards for his work by considering the half-formulated desires of his audience. Part of his intention, at least, must be to convey an idea or an aesthetic emotion to others, and he fails if he does not do so. It is true that to have a constant gnawing fear that you are not pleasing others has a bad effect on work. It is true that if you look exclusively to please others what you do will seldom be worth doing; but if your idea of success includes recognition, then the more you can learn imaginatively of your audience the better. If, knowing their tastes, you can give them not only what they want but something much better than they, being non-professionals, could imagine, you are sure of your success.
Having taken all these things into consideration, having formulated as clearly as possible the ideal towards which your own work should tend, before launching it into the world you should check it against a set of questions which arise logically from the possession of well-defined standards. Each line of activity will have a different set, each individual worker will alter the emphasis, or have his own idea of the proper order for these critical questions, but roughly the finished work should be measured in somewhat this way:
Is what I have done as good as the best in its field? Has it everything necessary for all ordinary purposes?
Have I added any special values by way of an original contribution? Have I made it as attractive and convenient as possible for those who are its logical users? (Or audience, or clients.) Have I considered whether there is another group to which it might also be made to appeal? What more can I do before I release it from myself and send it out to make its own way? (Try reading these questions in two ways: as referring to an item of commerce; as an attitude towards a daily task.) The artist will necessarily have a different set of questions, although they will be cognate with those above. As an example, one of our best poets asks herself these questions:
Have I conveyed what I thought?
Have I conveyed what I felt?
Is it as clear as I can make it?
Is it as distinguished or beautiful as its matter permits?
Again, if you are one of a group of workers, imagination can help you in still another way, by showing you where you stand in relation to those around you. When you have seen this you can work out a code for yourself which will remove many of the irritations and dissatisfactions of your daily work. Have you ever been amused and enlightened by seeing a familiar room from the top of a stepladder; or, in mirrors set at angles to each other, seen yourself as objectively for a second or two as anyone else in the room? It is that effect you should try for in imagination. If you can see yourself and your fellow workers as impersonally as men on a chess-board, you can often find what it is that you are not doing, or what you are doing imperfectly, and move to correct the bad practice.
Many of those who believe themselves overworked are doing less than they should ideally do, and could do easily if they saw what is expected of them with imagination instead of anxiety. Often the excess work is something which they have almost officiously undertaken, many times from a real sense of duty and obligation. No large office is without one example of this type who is its reductio ad absurdum, the panicky job-grabber: from fear lest he, or, usually, she might possibly be considered as not doing all that is expected, or might be considered unnecessary to the organization, he gets a hundred small details in his hands, with the result that he is overworked, performance is not perfect, time is lost, and others who might be well occupied have time to idle and lose interest. If such a worker could see his position in perspective he could do more of the work he was really engaged for, do it better, and do it with less sense of strain and fatigue.
Those executives and administrators who continually do far more than they can without incurring fatigue and irritability are frequently pandering to their own self importance and conceit, although usually they would reject the charge with wrath.
They are certainly allowing the Will to Fail to operate in their lives. It is good to extend one’s normal activity till its capacity is reached – and that is far oftener much more than we habitually do rather than less – but the tasks taken on thereafter are the first steps towards failure – towards that trouble, beloved of Americans, the “nervous breakdown.”
When you have found your function, perform it very fully, but do not overstep it except in emergencies. In most large enterprises, or joint enterprises, there is – or should be – some one person whose decisions are final. Sometimes each member of a partnership has the power of command or veto for one aspect of the work. Often these decisions are given after the opinions of all have been canvassed, or suggestions invited. Right here comes the necessity for a code: if the decision goes against you or your suggestion, abandon your own idea and cooperate in the decision whole-heartedly. If you feel that a truly grave mistake is being made, take a few hours to draw up the situation as you see it, show how you think the new decision will alter matters, why you think it is a mistake, or why an alternative plan should be adopted.
Try to be as fair about this as you can. Often we think an alternative plan precious because, and only because, it is our own. “Pride of authorship” comes in.
Many of those who believe they have given up their own ideas and are working along other lines will unconsciously go on obstructing and objecting, holding up the work, trying to defeat its ends. The trouble here is that this obstructionism is often unconscious; but the way to escape the danger is to realize it as a possibility, and to look at yourself and your attitude scrupulously to be sure you are not putting up unnecessary hazards, doing your share of the new program slowly or indifferently – trying to bring about a failure, since your plan was ignored or modified.
If, on the other hand, you are the one whose decisions must be accepted, you will save yourself trouble later by watching the initial stages of the work to be sure that some such unconscious sabotage is not going on. A quick challenge to the troublesome person whose feelings have been hurt will sometimes whip a whole program into shape which might otherwise fail. And by such watching you can see that each is doing the work assigned to him.
A little imaginative overseeing of a staff or partnership in the early stages of any activity will often result in clearing up a disorder of long standing.
Perhaps, however, you are really miscast, and your usefulness would be on, say, the planning end of an enterprise rather than the executive, where you are placed. In that case, your problem is to bring your talents to the attention of your superior officers with as little crowding and bustling as possible. Learn to write clear, short, definite memoranda and present them to your immediate superior until you are perfectly certain that he will never act upon them, in no other circumstances are you justified in going over his head. Try also to be willing to see your work and suggestions acted upon without receiving immediate acknowledgment that the ideas originated with you. This frequently happens in a large organization, and to sulk or stand out for having your rights recognized in every case will only cancel the advance you might have been able to make. If your good idea is one of a series and not a flash in the pan, you can be sure your caliber will eventually make itself felt. If not, the organization is a bad one for you, and you should set about finding a better connection as soon as possible.
Partnerships, and particularly the universal partnership of husband and wife, are almost always individual cases. In general the rule should be, try never to assume what is the normal function of the other partner until you have almost indisputable evidence that if you do not do so some vital balance will be destroyed. Often to do one’s own part fully and well is enough to call out the complementary activities of the other. In any partnership, once you are sure that you are doing your own part, if there is still some obvious weakness to correct it can usually be talked over, the reason for it found, and its correction arranged. Occasionally this cannot be done. Only those who are in such a relation know when it is impossible to talk over any matter because of an over-sensitiveness or blindness in the other partner. In such cases, assume as much of the overlooked responsibility as you can discharge well, but no more. There is always the possibility of sudden illumination, of belated growth, which will be endangered if you take upon yourself more than you should. But notice that where you must do work not your own, assume these responsibilities; see that you do not allow them to be thrust upon you. What you undertake open-eyed will seldom be made later a cause of martyrdom and sullenness.
When once you have seen imaginatively what your scope should be, both as an individual and as a member of a group, a society, or a partnership you are ready to teach, discipline and exercise yourself till you reach your state of maximum effectiveness.
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