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Saturday: Takin’ care of business

Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

As I was saying, I’ll be out of work in about a month.  But my lab partner (let’s call her B.) and I are still incredibly busy.  That’s not an attempt to make us look irreplaceable, because no one is, really (except Steve Jobs).  It’s just a fact.  There’s just an incredible amount of work on our plates.  I have about 4 reports to write up and, if I’m lucky, three more datasets to solve on Monday.  We’re also transitioning our projects to other people and other sites so there are meetings to attend.  Oddly enough, B and I are still having fun.  In that respect, we are a lot luckier than some of the other people who were laid off with us who we met up with at an outplacement orientation recently.  B and I are in a pretty good place right now mentally, well, comparatively.  We know that there’s more than enough work to keep us occupied until the very last day and even then, we might not get it all done before we leave.  Work has become our refuge.  There’s nothing more relaxing than spending time in the lab doing things that make us feel competent.

But some of my laid off colleagues have been told not to attend meetings anymore.  That has been devastating to them in so many ways.  They’re bitter, defensive and hurt.  Verily I say unto you, oh corporate overlords, don’t do this to your people if you can help it.  There’s nothing more morale deflating than to be told that your input and expertise is no longer needed.  If you still have people on site who are waiting it out, by all means, put them to work doing something. You and the employee will benefit from keeping a positive outlook.

B and I are very thankful to our colleagues, past and present, who have offered us sympathy and support.   Some of them have sent us messages out of the blue to reassure us that we are good and dedicated scientists and they want to help us.  Others have made sure to include us on project meetings and have encouraged our input.  Some of our friends ask why we even bother at this point.  It’s just that we are working on stimulating and interesting projects right now and are learning a lot of new things.  We want to keep our skills fresh and we want to keep learning in this area of research long after we leave.  B and I seem to be of a similar mindset in this respect.  We do it because we want to, we do it for ourselves and our colleagues who will still be working on our projects after we leave and we do it because one of these days, we expect to see our work turned into real results.

Which brings me to a new book I’ve been listening to, Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan.  Well, that wasn’t a very smooth segue.  So, why do I bring it up?  Heffernan has written a book about the perils of conformity and competiveness.  Heffernan’s book suggests that competitiveness leads to conformity and, subsequently, to blindness, that inability to see or acknowledge when you’re going off a cliff in your business, political and personal life.  I’d recommend this book to Obots who could really benefit from its insights but, ironically, I doubt they’d see themselves as suffering from the shortcomings described in this book.

What Willful Blindness describes really well is the pitfalls of modern corporate culture and the deleterious effects that conformity, distancing and competitiveness can have on a business’s core function.  Heffernan uses BP, Electronic Arts and Enron as poster children for what not to do to your employees if you want to succeed.  BP, Enron and two Wall Street firms, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns are particularly egregious when it comes to the number of business school grads who are assimilated and conform to climb the ladder to success.  They are so caught up in their own careers and oneupmanship that they become completely disconnected from the industry they oversee.  In BP’s case, cost cutting measures and staff reductions at a refinery in Texas City, Texas, resulted in the death of 15 people.  The operators were burdened with so much work after a 25% reduction in staff that some of them had gone over 30 days without a day off and were subsisting on 5 hours of sleep a night.  The Texas City explosion whalloped BP in the stock price for a couple of years and the stock was only beginning to recover when the Deepwater Horizon disaster hit.

Willful Blindness recounts many such corporate horror stories of cost cutting for bonuses and lax oversight due to disconnection that you’d think the business community would have learned their lessons by now.  But, paradoxically, their lemming-like behavior in pursuit of out Jonesing the guys in the next office up or the next corporation over has accelerated.  While the underlings look on with horror from their sleep deprived minds, the business guys drive the whole enterprise over a cliff.

I’m on the last chapter where Heffernan poses some possible solutions.  Most of them involve having the guys in the front office appoint independent auditors and reality checkers.  Heffernan’s experts recommend that the CEOs and executives encourage dissent and reward people who do not have a personal agenda.  But that relies on the executives realizing that they have a problem, er, which seems to be the point of the book- they don’t want to know.   And anyone who has been in an environment where cost cutting is all the rage knows that to speak up is to invite an unwelcome outcome.  So, for the time being, in the Obama age, don’t expect there will be a new honesty from the people most affected by the conformity in the boardroom.

I haven’t found anything technically wrong with Willful Blindness but I’m going through it slowly and critically, as the author would suggest, to see if all of her points hang together.  In the first chapter, she explains how it is that you will probably never hear anything out of your comfort zone on Pandora because your preferences have all been carefully analyzed.  All the recommendations will be based on what you already like.  Oddly enough, her book was an audible recommendation for  me, probably because I had read Malcolm Gladwell’s books that are similar in style and content.

She also talks about the Cassandras.  Anyone who has read this blog for the past three years will know I and other co-bloggers here and in a subset of the left blogosphere fall into this category.  Psychologists don’t know what makes us tick yet.  There’s no clear pattern that emerges.  Maybe we’re just born that way.  I do suspect it’s a bit of both nature and nurture.  Someday, they’ll pin it down.  Maybe it can be taught.  But maybe it just has to do with being comfortable in our own skins, not seeking or needing as much approval from our peers as other people.  If there is a neurotransmitter feedback loop in conforming to the crowd, we have either less of it or have learned to neutralize it, substituting our own positive reinforcement.  But until we figure it out, we should expect that target audiences, whether they are in business or politics, will “go along to get along” and savvy manipulators will exploit the tendency to short circuit analysis with group dynamics.  The Cassandras will see it coming, speak up and get ignored until the rest of the population suffers enough to catch on.  Until then, we can expect a lot of sleepless nights as the wheels of business grind on.

28 Responses

  1. Your loyalty to your “employer” is exemplary.

    Here is a Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator that has gone viral:

    • I’m not sure I would put it that way. I’m committed to my work as long as it lasts. Most of us in R&D could not do what we do without the support of a corporation to provide the overhead. So, yeah, I consider myself lucky that I had that support for so many years. It was mutually beneficial.
      The pendulum swings from one extreme to another in this business. Sooner or later (probably sooner), they’ll wish they hadn’t been so hasty.

  2. yes I check in every day R.D. rain or shine.hugs.

    • Me too – thanks for this RD – it’s interesting, insightful and tells us much about you.

  3. Fine, fine writing.

    Can’t believe I’m the first to comment on it.

    I had the same debilitating experience back in the early 90’s after the Cold War had ended and the contracts had almost completely dried up.

    My life was turned upside down as I lost the ability to even be seen as serious just because I was so overqualified – and old!

    As HR people for over a decade after told me constantly that 20-somethings with a year’s tech school could now do my job.

    I’m getting that book.



    • The weird thing is that the freshness quotient doesn’t apply to people in R&D. You can’t do this job if you’re not current with the latest technology and literature. It’s literally impossible to be employed in science today if you have never updated your skills since you graduated. Researchers’ minds have to stay young and flexible or they’re useless.
      The people I worry about are the PhDs who kindle and flame early in their career and then just settle in a niche. They’re still good at what they do but they can sometimes get stuck in a rut. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, even when it’s a single sleeved gas powered turtleneck these days. Their brains are asleep. But it’s not like they don’t know what the current technology is. That argument just doesn’t fly. We cut our teeth in the Internet age and in the age of an explosion in biological sciences. As science goes, if doesn’t get any better than this, right now.

  4. RD,

    I’ve been through six or seven layoffs in a rapidly-changing scientific field, and I’m going to offer you some free advice (which you probably won’t like):

    I know you love your job (as opposed to your employer), but I think your level of dedication is a mistake and may in fact constitute denial of your current circumstance. The job market is tough right now – and your primary responsibility isn’t to your field, your colleagues, or your soon-to-be-ex-employer. It’s to you and your family. Frankly, your employer gave up any claim on your time and effort when they gave you the heave-ho. You don’t owe them a nanojoule of extra work. Every second you devote to their profit or benefit is stolen from what ought to be your primary focus: finding your next position. You should be polishing up your CV and networking, not puttering around the lab (even though we both know that’s what you really like to do). It is always easier to find a job when you have a job – and that seems to be particularly true in this twisted economy. Don’t wait for your last day to start job-hunting in earnest.

    • I hear you. But I do have a stake in the outcome of these projects. It isn’t the fault of the people who are left behind and have the additional burden of their work on top of ours. They don’t like this situation any more than we do.
      We also have an obligation to the people who are sick. I’ve seen cancer take my dad’s life. If I can contribute something of value to curing cancer, are you proposing that I don’t do it because I got screwed? Is that the fault of someone who is dying? Do my project team colleagues have anything to do with it?
      Ive already polished my CV and have started my next job search. You don’t have to remind me of how dire this economy is for the unemployed. I see the ravages of unemployment on the R&D community everyday. It sucks to have no reliable income or health insurance. No one here looks forward to poverty, bankruptcy and foreclosure. It’s hard to make a case for a career in the sciences when we know damn well that there’s no future in it.
      But I’m not going to get bitter about it. I’m not going to withhold my work from people who need it, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem now. There are rough times ahead for me, that’s certain. But it could be so much worse.
      I’m not going to let some thoughtless disconnected Wharton graduate ruin my work day.

      • Plus, it’s hard to network when you show everyone you work with that you’re willing to check out mentally when you’re laid off.

        • I’m not suggesting that – I’ve just seen too many friends who have completely immersed themselves in their work, only to find themselves in really bad shape when the axe fell. There’s a former Group Head at the national lab where I used to work (PhD and all) clerking at my local hardware store. Someone from the chem division at the same lab checked me out at Whole Foods last week. A friend of mine who was a research professor at Duke took 9 months to find a job after he lost his funding. It’s friggin’ ugly out there, no matter what the BLS says.

          Please cure cancer in the next month, RD, but don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.

      • Look for another job, the cancer patients will be fine without you for the next month.

    • If you want to read bitterness and anger in the science community, you should check out the comments in this post A Postdoc’s Lament at Derek Lowe’s blog, in the Pipeline.
      Scientists are very aware of what’s going on and they’re getting restless. Some of these comments may shock you. They’re really pissed and disgusted at the way research has been run into the ground and ruined the careers of so many talented people.

  5. Sounds like an interesting book.

    The cassandra thing strikes a nerve because, honestly, I can’t understand choosing things just because everyone else does. I am always suspicious of the “everyone” is doing it justification.

    People going along to get along never realize they were warned. They aren’t ready to understand or comprehend the information and have an incredible ability to accept the re-writing of history. We were always at war with Eastasia!

    • Ain’t it the truth. They have to see Troy ransacked before they get the “Greeks bearing gifts” adage.
      The ideology is strong with the Obots. They were totally played but they’ll never admit it. They’re determined to get Obama to live up to their expectations, which will never, never happen.
      I think we should make clear, right now, that neither Obama or Republicans will get our votes. The Obots need to grow up and get serious.

  6. Are protests happening anywhere else, or just Wisconsin? For how little discussion is taking place on WI, I’m wondering if all the others are just not being mentioned by the media at all.

    • Sorry about that, gweema. I had every intention of covering them but I’ve been thrown off track temporarily.

    • Actually, according to journalism.org from February 21-25 “the political turmoil in Wisconsin” was the No. 1 subject on blogs.

      For the second straight week, social and mainstream media shared similar news agendas as the labor stalemate in Wisconsin and the violent unrest in Libya garnered the most attention. But while the traditional press focused more on the events in the Middle East, bloggers spent more time debating the standoff in Wisconsin between unions and the governor over his effort to curtail collective bargaining rights.

  7. Rd, glad you checked back in. Cassandra, yes — Cassandra. RD I read this the other day? You might want to also?


    In my FB the other day a guy who works with the deaf wants to read me on my Ecopsych? So, one way to do that is on the Kindle or the Ipad publishing thing? I did a test with two stories on the K several years ago — and not that happy with the results.

    You have always been concerned with girls and science — a memoir about yourself from that spinning water bucket you talked about? Might be a really cool book for young girls and boys?

    Like Nancy Drew but? How a girl became a scientist?

    Hugs RD. Have been thinking of you and really glad you checked back in.


  8. ps: I also think, given what I read over at lamberts the other day on that whole bot ahem — that the old Conf peeps need to band together? Get past their differences and renew their friendships. Mean that.


  9. Psychologists don’t know what makes [Cassandras] tick yet. There’s no clear pattern that emerges. Maybe we’re just born that way. I do suspect it’s a bit of both nature and nurture. Someday, they’ll pin it down.

    I would love to see someone “pin it down”. And in so doing also explore whether, if only the ‘right’ person/ the ‘right’ message/ the ‘right’ persuasiveness emerges, everyone is actually prone to be “bamboozled”, “hoodwinked”, manipulated?

    Watching how otherwise sane bloggers, who never bought the lies surrounding Obama or the “Democrats=good, therefore Obama=good”, never the less bought the “WikiLeaks=good, therefore Julian Assange=good” and the lies advanced by Assange and his lawyers – not only reiterating those lies but also going out of their way to defend Assange – in a manner not unlike “Obots” and their defense of Obama – to vilify and discredit just about everything Swedish, politicians, the government, and the judicial system included, as if Sweden was a corrupt, dysfunctional, bought by the US, Banana Republic, made me wonder: Could it actually happen to any of us? Is any- and everyone, after all, “bamboozable” – even those of us who vehemently repudiate the mere thought as unthinkable?

    • I always had an open mind about assange. Interesting concept. But he totally blew it when he failed to go after the financial evildoers first. I’m also not sure I’d call him a rapist. The incidences had too much ambiguity. There was a violation but I think it stops short of rape. no doubt, the swedes will punish him accordingly. But I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Assange seems to have failed to plan strategically. For that, he’s not a hero. He’s just another guy who tried to climb the mountain but forgot to bring enough oxygen.

      • I like that description “He’s just another guy who tried to climb the mountain but forgot to bring enough oxygen” … only, he hasn’t noticed yet, as his fans still provide plenty. I don’t so much blame him for having become addicted to celebrity-status as I blame his fans and the media for continuing to give him a platform. I don’t know if you’ve seen him ‘bloviate’ in front of a dozen microphones and cameras whenever he’s been in court? He’s pathetic, but seems to revel not only in being the center of attention but also, as he paints himself, a victim too. Poor innocent me! Cruel, unfair World!

        I’m all for giving whistleblowers a safe outlet. They deserve it and we owe it to them. But I’m not all that sure that dumping those huge amounts of seemingly unchecked material is what anyone needs. It seems more like scattered random shooting, hoping to hit just something.

        As for the case in Sweden it has been blown way out of proportion. It started with the two women going to the police to ask if Assange could be forced to take a HIV test. The police person they spoke to judged that unlawful coercion and sexual molestation had taken place and, as they are obligated to according to Swedish law, reported this to the Prosecution Authorities. Who agreed. And from that point on it was out of the hands of the two women. Unfortunately a tabloid got hold of this news and from there on forward … well, rumours, hearsay, and conspiracy theories completely ruled the day and for the most part left facts out of the picture.

    • Oh, yes, I think we can be bamboozled. We should never identify ourselves as a coherent group. Cassandras need to stay independent to some extent.

      Don’t be surprised if the Obots start making overtures to women, particularly educated women of a certain age. Don’t know what’s up their sleeve yet but I’m sure they’ll roll out something. We have to be on our guard. Or just shut off the media. I don’t need a talking head to tell me how bad (or good) it is out there.

      • Do you really think they have it in them to “court” women? I honestly don’t think they know how to – at least not without appearing all too obvious and insincere. And will women fall for it? I’d like to think “no way”, but sadly 2008 taught me never to trust my instincts in regard to whom can be manipulated.

        Actually, and I’m sure this is not a popular view, I think Hillary Clinton managed to manipulate many of her voters into voting for Obama in the GE. How often didn’t I hear her female primary voters say “I voted for him because Hillary told me to”. Never understood why she didn’t just call it a day, let McCain win, and then make a shot at it again in 2012. Which probably just goes to show my naïveté when it comes to politics, heh!

        • I think a lot of hillary voters wanted to give Obama a chance. And it’s very hard to resist the idea that you will become part of history by voting for him.
          But now the chance has been given and he has performed exactly as we had predicted. Will they have it in them to court women? Cynically, yes. They will consult some political psychologist and social anthropolgist and marketing specialist and identify our weak spots. Then, they will set up some scenario where Obama will look like a hero for defending the one thing we cannot live without.
          That’s the way they operate. I can’t imagine what that one thing is but I have no doubt that they are feverishly looking for it. The choice thing isn’t going to work. Not sure anyone believes they did anything on paycheck fairness. The data says otherwise. \Maybe they’ll prey on our fear of losing social security. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

          • I think O will get the default votes because the Repub candidate will be too awful to consider. As usual, he wins by default…no real competition ever except Hillary. On the other hand, McCain was a throwaway candidate, but he would have been a contender without the financial crisis being given central media time. I remember a video of candidate O discussing economics, and it was at the level of an employee who first picks 401-K choices and spouts the financial industry cliches. Of course, he thought he was brilliant, which is often the case when one has little exposure to real thinkers.

    • I see the Cassandra thing as a necessary aspect of evolution. No matter what everyone is doing, there needs to be people who are contrary, even if it is just for the sake of being contrary. A lot of times it doesn’t work out well. Sometimes it’s the solution.

      Look at people who have these weird bilogical mutations that have no impact except that it makes them immune to AIDS. Then there are detrimential conditions like sickle cell anemia that make a person resistant to malaria.

      It takes all kinds.

  10. I just want to give a heads up to a great Black Agenda Report that I read today. That blog has been spot on, as has this one about so many issues and most importantly, Obama. http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/wisconsin-end-obama-ism
    Good Luck, RD, on your job search. I am shocked by your situation and this country.
    Keep writing…. you are great.

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