24. Dangling from the last helicopter out.


What a lowly position feels like.

Sometimes Depression is a sign that your predicament is poor. Surveys show large numbers of people think about quitting their job, but very few actually do so.

A life-time ago, I can remember spending Monday afternoons in an operating theatre, assisting my boss, who was a vascular surgeon. Every week, at about 4pm, there would be a commotion in the theatre next door, as the very temperamental colo-rectal surgeon working there went slightly berzerk. Sometimes he would hurl items of equipment at the wall. Usually he would announce his resignation and storm out. He was always back next week though.

Remember the last scene in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callaghan, throws his police badge into a pond?

What symbol of your job would you throw into the water if you decided to quit in disgust, as the camera zooms out and the credits roll?

If you are a gynaecologist, perhaps an laparoscope would do, an old style – rigid model, thrown like a javelin. The butcher could throw his white trilby hat like a frisbee. But what about the Timpson’s shoe repair and key cutting man, who looks increasingly fed up? He’s big, but how far could anyone throw a lathe?

I have just the thing, which is a John Major era ‘Chartermark’ badge. The citizen’s charter was a policy intended to elevate the concerns of ordinary folk, like the increasing numbers of traffic cones. The problem was, there were no ordinary folk left. The baby boomers were all special.

The badge is made of bronze and about the size of a broad bean. I could skim it far out onto the river on a calm day. I’m sure though, if I went to the river there would be a queue of disgruntled workers hurling various emblematic work items.

What expression should one choose for the camera, just before the zoom-out? Sad inevitability? A mixture of guilt and relief? Or – it’s video remember – deadpan? As though all the life has gone out of you?

More and more people are fed up with work and a lot of them have suffered ‘burnout’. Neil Young said ‘its better to burn out than to fade away’, but in a sense the two things are the same, just different types of oxidation reaction.

The phrase burn-out, which was hyphenated in those days, apparently derives from Graham Greene’s book, The Burnt-Out Case, which features an exhausted celebrity architect who goes to work at a leper colony. The parallel is between architecture and leprosy in terms of their effects on people, which is to make them quite interesting and very thin.

The ‘Whitehall’ studies looked at sickness in various groups of workers within the civil service. They seemed to show that the more lowly paid the job, the more stressful it turned out to be, which is the exact opposite of the commonly-touted belief that high-flying jobs are the most vexing.

Nevertheless, even in medicine, which is quite rewarding in many ways, my impression is that an increasing number of people are walking away, sometimes after a dozen or more years of training and dedication.

I tried to research the number of doctors who are qualified but don’t work in medicine, but it is hard to get these statistics.  A sizable number are still registered and licensed by the GMC but will quit as they come up for revalidation (or to give it its proper name, The Cull.) Many more work part time or intermittently, via agencies.

Whatever the number in work, if you look around your locality, ask yourself: are there any more GPs than there were 20 years ago? And: how easy is it nowadays to sign on with a GP?

As far as I can see, the answers are, ‘No’ and ‘as easy as getting through Tintwistle’. I’m not sure where the GPs are going, but its probably the same place as the bumble bees. Studies have shown that GPs have the highest burnout rate of any professional group, up to 40%, at least in Holland.

Not been to Tintwistle? Let me explain:

The giant industrial cities, Manchester and Sheffield sit about 35 miles apart on either side of a small set of hills called the Peak District. Because they are in the north of England, there is no proper road joining them up. Things start well enough, as you leave Manchester on a fine new highway called the M67. After five miles, the M67 ends abruptly and you are frozen in traffic, as though liquid nitrogen had suddenly been sprayed over the road from a giant cartoon airship flown by Mister Freeze.

During my time at Tintwistle, which was longer than many prison sentences, I reflected on the notion of helplessness, and how it affects the nervous system. The most accurate description I can think of is that helplessness hits the human organism like a rubber hammer. There are no wounds, no broken bones, not even ruptured internal organs. Just a sense that something deep inside of you is broken.

I can remember similar effects from going on fairground rides with inappropriately high and sustained circular motion. What initially seem to be expressions of happiness on people’s faces turn out merely to be rictus grins caused by G force.

Getting stuck at Tintwistle has much in common with being in a low paid job in the civil service. You have little control over your destiny. And its too late to wonder what you were doing there in the first place.

The truth is, no-one gives much advice about the really important choices in life. Things like which partner to choose, what career to follow, or which team to support. These often start out like the M67, wide and promising, and then, suddenly, the road just runs out.

It’s easy to see people who have chosen completely the wrong jobs. There’s the lollipop man who attacked someone with his lollipop. There’s the science teacher who battered a pupil with a 3kg dumbbell, shouting ‘die, die, die’. There’s Tony Blair as peace envoy to the middle east. And there’s the man at Tesco who prints the yellow price stickers, who should be a master villain in a Bond movie.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize – winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman reveals that he and his team of experts were quite unable to predict who would succeed as army officers, despite all kinds of aptitude tests. So it seems unlikely that the school careers teacher will succeed in putting everyone on the right path.

Perhaps people are more likely to change job nowadays in mid life, giving a chance of redemption.

Otherwise I think I have a solution, based a bit on Prime Ministers’ cabinet re-shuffles. My idea is to put someone like the town mayor or an official psychologist in charge of employment. He would be able to shuffle people from one job to another if they are looking burned out.

So the Timpson man becomes the science teacher. The butcher becomes the gynaecologist. The science teacher gets to cut keys. And the gynaecologist gets to kill serial killers in San Francisco.

The civil service can be moved to Tintwistle, so that everyone is always late and the activities of the government will be frozen, like in Italy.

There was no scene showing Harry Callaghan with a snorkel and flippers, retrieving his badge for the sequels, but he returned several times. Even worse, none of the sequels allowed him to move to a less bureaucratically-frustrated role, such as running the police pottery workshop, and the body count continued to rise.

Perhaps the GPs will return for a sequel one day, or even turn up at the end of the movie, like the old naval warriors in Battleship.

Or, just as all hope is abandoned, the bumble bees will swarm back over the horizon in giant black clouds. They have made enough honey not only to feed us but to run our cars too.


15. Searching for Weapons of Mass Distortion*


In Glasgow, its safety in numbers.

Every Sunday morning I see the same lady in the newspaper shop buying lottery tickets. I’ve always wanted to ask her why she didn’t just send her money straight to Chancellor George Osborne, cutting out a chain of middle men and reducing the queuing time in the shop for the non-gambling section of the public.

I expect her reply would be something like, ‘I know my chances of winning are statistically not significantly different from zero, however the excitement of watching the draw and the possibility, however remote, of coming into sudden riches, beyond my wildest imagination, taps into a part of my mind that believes in dreams and miracles’.

Or, she might say, ‘I won a small amount once or twice, and it seems that intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful conditioning paradigms. I am simply powerless to resist’.

Or she might just say, ‘you cant take it with you, you tight git!’

Or, the killer retort: ‘why don’t you send the £2.50 you just wasted on the Sunday Times directly to Rupert Murdoch?’

Secretly, I ‘d love to have a go on the lottery but I cannot begin to understand how you go about it. People ask for things like, ‘two butterballs and a blingo’ and receive mysterious cards, some of which you can scratch. They seem happy with their purchases, even though they have exchanged real money for imaginary money.

It’s the same kind of cellophane packaged trinket as a cigarette packet, something that lights up the anticipation of  reward pathways, if you still have them.

It strikes me that Lottery Behaviour illustrates the theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This means that people have sets of thoughts that conflict with each other, but find some way of reducing the disparity.

Gambling provides a bit of a buzz, but goes against the value of prudence. The mind works to justify the behaviour.

For example, the lottery is ‘for charity’. So it is OK to give money away. The lottery company will help you with this argument by not telling you how much of the take actually goes to charity (28%). And of the 28%, how much is left for the actual good cause, after the charities have employed their staff and paid their overheads?

What does it matter anyway; the money is all recycled within the economy, generating employment?

Apart from the fact that Camelot, who run the UK national lottery, is wholly owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension fund. Nevertheless, I have nothing against retired Canadian teachers and have no problem with sending them any spare money we have. Its a way of thanking them for providing the current generation of Canadians.

Lots of people can help us reduce our cognitive dissonance, and make a good profit out of doing so.

The workings of the National Lottery mix a few different processes. Which is the odd one out:

1. Giving to charity?

2. Tax?

3. Gambling?

4. Profit for shareholders?

5. Pensions?

Clue: one of them is supposed to be a vice.

One way of reducing the difference between ideas is to soften the ideas and make them less distinct in the first place. Since ideas are usually written in words, if the words themselves are made meaningless, the ideas will get soft and fluffy enough not to jar against each other in our pockets.

Its a win/ win scenario.

Managers are people who make a living out of Cognitive Dissonance. Part of their job is to distort and reduce the meaning of language.

If you are working anywhere in business or the public sector you are  probably experiencing stress and frustration attributable to managers.

Take a typical scenario. You are sitting in a small hot room pretending to listen to someone giving a presentation. There is an ‘action plan’ to formulate. Something has to be written in 28 small boxes on a spreadsheet. People who are unable not to volunteer or avoid eye contact are given tasks to complete that will spoil their weekend. A pointless deadline is set for completion, leading directly to the affected person pulling a sickie that day.

Managers are people who like Audis, ties and bar charts, and I have no wish to offend any of them.

True, their claim to be a specific profession is undermined by the fact that the most successful managers of all have had no training whatsoever (e.g. Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Steve Jobs…). The same cannot be said for eye surgeons or train drivers. Their main offence, however, has been to pervert the course of language. The question is, why do they do this?

Some people have suggested that there is something very sinister in the distortion of language. Gore Vidal, for instance, wrote:

‘As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate’

George Orwell wrote about war propaganda as far back as the 1930s. I am sure he would not be surprised at the ‘dodgy dossier’ and other more recent examples of war related spinning of information.

People are pretty reluctant to engage in homicide, so to wage a war, some massive dissonance has to be bridged. Orwell noticed that those people creating the most extreme propaganda tended to be those furthest from the combat zone.

The more foolish the military regime, the more the medals and uniforms get brighter and shinier.

The paranoid theory of management is that it is a propaganda machine to pretend to people that capitalism is fun, like a game, and that companies are benign.

My own theory is less conspiracy orientated and more based on seeing managers as a cult. Their world is highly ritualised. They are very fond of assembling in groups, presided over by a priest-like person.

Their prayer-books and rosary beads are laptops and projectors and their altar is the Powerpoint screen.

They speak to each other in jargon, but they do not fully understand the meaning, much as Catholics used to say prayers in Latin.

Though lots of commentators have recorded items of management-speak few have attempted to explain the phenomenon.

Like any species, managers’ main purpose is to increase in number and safeguard their various niches in the social fabric. Sometimes they are parasitic, but parasitism is only one of their methods of survival. They often prosper where there is chaos and decay, since they promise to create structure and harmony, mainly on diagrams.

A recent survey of 2000 managers, carried out by ILM, found that management jargon is used in two thirds of offices across Britain and nearly a quarter of workers considered it to be a pointless irritation.

The incredibly frightening interpretation of these findings is that one third of offices had not noticed they are jargon-infected.  And over 75% of workers did not think it was an issue.

That’s like 75% of people not regarding bubonic plague as a serious health problem.

The same survey listed the most – hated phrases, such as Blue Sky Thinking, Going Forward, Touching Base, Close of Play, Drilling Down, Right Sizing things, etc.

Is such misuse of language a harmless eccentricity to make dull work seem more exciting, or does it have a more sinister purpose?.

Many professions have invented their own jargon, doctors being prime offenders. It’s much more fun to call a male person ‘a 46XY’ than ‘a man’, for instance.

The main difference is that professional jargon usually serves to sharpen a meaning, whereas management jargon does the opposite.

In IT for instance, we have become used to acronyms like RAM, LAN and WiFi, not to mention Killer Apps. In sport, we know exactly what a Try, or a Birdie means and we have strong views about LBW.

Engineers can tell us what a double over head cam does. In Costa, we have the Latte, the Cappuccino and the Flat White. All these terms are highly valid and reliable.

Compare the expression: ‘granularity’. Or ‘leverage’. Or ‘synergy’. Not valid or reliable at all.

Two explanations here: Managers are simply aping other professions’ use of technical terms in  pretending they are a distinct set of experts.

Or, management speak is actually a way of reducing disharmony by abolishing conceptual distinctions.

This leads me to a surprising conclusion.

Management is not an exclusive club at all. Almost anyone can join in. No special qualifications are needed. Management speak is a free for all. Like Esperanto, its an attempt to unite all the professions and none. Managers can go from one type of company to another without having to know that much about what the company makes or provides.

Managers don’t need to be able to do maths or write proper sentences, let alone buy lottery tickets.

The management icon, the Venn diagram, celebrates the easy maths we can all do in year 6. Management is like bingo or ten pin bowling. Anyone can do it and they’re glad to have you.

Maybe we need managers to provide this kind of unity that masquerades as conflict. To portray the world of work as an exciting drama, or gladiatorial contest.

Just as we need politicians to give the illusion of political argument and lawyers to give the illusion of adversarial justice.

Managers may function as a kind of ecumenical movement to stop people fighting about whose God is best. The penalty is having to sand down the theological edges.

In serving to reduce cognitive dissonance, managers are probably helping us survive in a hopelessly conflicted world.

Perhaps the problem, again like politics and religion, is not the profession itself, but rather the type of people it attracts. The danger of abolishing the meaning of words is people taking liberties with the rule-book. Bullies and narcissists love to hide in these kinds of hierarchies.

If you feel that management culture is ruining your life, try re-framing your managers differently. An old – school CBT technique was disempowering a tormentor by imagining him wearing a tutu or sitting on the toilet.

Try imagining your manager as a pirate.

The empire once needed pirates to advance its cause. This resulted in one of the best PR exercises ever done, in effect re-badging cut-throats and thieves as swashbuckling heroes.

Your company might need pirates of a kind, if only to fiddle the government targets.

Your manager is just a pirate who likes to dress up.

Like Captain Shakespeare, (Robert De Niro) in Stardust, he’s probably got a penchant for ladies clothing.

Watch that movie if you haven’t already. Your manager won’t have seen it. Beware of pirate copies though.

*Weapons of Mass Distortion was a book by Brant Bozell III about a supposed liberal bias in the US media.

Your manager won’t have read it.

Much better, it was a track on Crystal Method’s Legion of Boom album.

Your manager won’t have bought it.