December 26, 2013

I want to help every unemployed person find rewarding work if they want it. What I have to say applies to everyone.

Understandably, many people discount what I have to say because I am a successful well-educated, debt-free, married white male who is a product of a different era. Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, women, single parents and debt-laden liberal arts graduates all want to know how I could possibly understand what they are facing.

Well, there is one thing about me that gets me pre-judged, and that makes it hard for many people to find jobs.

I am old.

How Can I Make More Money?

I am 60 years old now. When I was 26 I asked my boss, "How can I make more money?"

He said, "Be worth more. Spend time with Bob. We pay him more. Watch what he does."

Bob was perhaps five years older than me. He did what I did, only better and faster. He knew answers to problems I did not know existed, and he had more tools in his kitbag. In short, he was a more skilled craftsman than I was. I respected Bob.

Then I asked my boss, "How can I make more money than Bob?"

He said, "Spend time with me."

Walkabout

What he did was completely different. My boss did not seem to do any work at all. He wandered around, asking people questions like, "What are you working on?" and saying things like, "Isn't that just a special case of an inventory management system?" or "Sally worked on something like that last year; you should talk to her." Often when people could not answer his questions, he would say, "You'll figure it out," and then walk away.

Previously, I'd considered him innocuous. He had taken up very little of my time, and usually everything he said seemed obvious. I figured he was just stopping by to be friendly, and that he must have a real job elsewhere doing what managers do: Getting people to do things they would not do otherwise.

But now I saw that he treated everyone the same way he treated me. When someone had a problem, he didn't roll up his sleeves and pitch in. He got others to do the work, and he seemed to be the epitome of, "It's not what you know, but who you know." I hated people like that. They should do their own work; not rely on connections to get ahead, or cover for their own lack of effort.

That is when I lost all respect for him.

Respect Regained

But as I started to observe him more closely, it began to dawn on me that all the things he would say seemed obvious only after he said them. It's a trick of the mind that as soon as I would understand a self-evident truth, I imagined I knew it all along. But an honest audit of my behavior might indicate that previously, I had had no clue. Apparently, he was dispensing wisdom, not knowledge.

He was superb at getting me to see the essence of a problem rather than its surface or details. When I needed help, he could get others to help me with enthusiasm, and when someone needed my help, I'd do so gladly because it seemed like the least I could do in return. I had been taking credit for solving problems, but I hadn't been giving him credit for clarifying the true nature of the problems, or for getting me help so I wouldn't have to do everything alone.

Around age 30, I became an independent computer consultant. I was pretty good technically, and unafraid of learning new things. However, I could imagine that in 10 or 20 years I might not be able to keep up with the youngsters, and sure enough, that is what happened. As I gained experience, fearless agility faded, but in its place I began spotting general principles and uncovering self-evident truths that I could express simply, and therefore remember more easily. As I met more people, and did little favors for them, it became easier to connect them with each other so they could get things done without me. In short, I was becoming more like my old boss.