Leon? Who or what is Leon?
Leon was my boss a few eons ago, back at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He was a good boss, but one thing about him frustrated me. Day after day I'd work steadily, creating algorithms and developing computer programs for our laboratory. To all appearances, this did not impress him; it was simply what he was paying me to do. What made him light up with pleasure and praise, however, was when I'd take the extra time to create a computer display related to my work. Although I learned to produce these displays periodically, mostly to please him, it drove me crazy that I was being recognized for the "flash," and not for the bulk of the work, the more important work, that was behind it. However much he might have trusted me to do good work (he chose to hire me, after all), he also needed the occasional, tangible reminder that I was worthy of his trust. As it turned out, so did I.
Fast forward to every homemaker's frustration, every mother's least favorite question: What do you do all day? We know how long and how hard we work, and how critically important our labors are. All too often, however, the people we meet at parties, our friends in paid employment, and even those closest to us seem sincerely puzzled as to why our jobs take up so much time. That is frustrating to no end, but in fact it's true of most professions. No one from the outside can truly appreciate what it takes to do another's job, particularly since the hallmark of the best in a profession is the ability to make the work look easy.
I've discovered over time that Leon was not alone in his need for tangible measures of the value of our work. Maybe there's no purpose in sharing the details with people we meet at parties, but bosses, co-workers, spouses, fellow-strugglers, and even (no, especially) we ourselves need occasional reassurance that we are making progress. We are all Leon.
Why, then, do some of us find it so difficult to provide measurable documentation of our work? I've come up with a few suggestions, based on my own experience and on what I've learned from others.
- It takes time away from more important work. Who needs to add yet another camel-straw to the crushing burden of work undone versus sand slipping through the hourglass? As I learned in the computer biz, however, documentation is essential, however much it feels like a waste of precious time. Without documentation, others can't step in when we have to step back. What's more, putting what we do into words brings clarity to our own vision. If we don't know something well enough to explain it, we don't know it well enough.
- We don't like to make our work public until it's in final form. This is perfectionism, and Don Aslett would not approve. In fact, he insists that telling others about our work while it's still in progress is a good way to get help. It's also a good way to get kibitzers and critics, however.
- Our goals have long paths and far horizons. How do you quantify a happy child? A valued relationship? Growth and development? How can we help people appreciate our work without making their eyes glaze over? A journalist can point on a regular basis to articles published, a doctor to patients cured, and a trash collector to clean streets, but in many professions success, when it comes, is preceded by thousands of failed experiments, research lines that didn't pan out, apparently fruitless counseling sessions, and draft pages ripped from typewriters, crumpled and tossed away. It's all part of the process, but not conducive to marking milestones and erecting ebenezers ("hither by Thy help I'm come"). The employed can at least point to a paycheck, but unpaid work lacks even that.
- We're not "announcers" by nature. Some people like to chat about all the details of their lives, no matter how intimate or trivial. These are good people to have around, as they take the greater share of the conversation burden. But some of us don't see the point of such loquaciousness, or are simply uncomfortable with the idea. This is another good reason for developing a documentation strategy: we take control over what and how we share.
- We want to be trusted with our own work. We are not employees, and don't like the feeling that we are being supervised. As it turns out, however, this is not as significant a factor as I had once thought. We're not employees? Well, the self-employed have the hardest taskmaster of all, one who knows best all our weaknesses, struggles and failures. That boss needs the comfort of tangible markers more than anyone.
In light of these meditations, I've developed The Leon Project. Call it a New Year's resolution if you wish. I have hundreds of ongoing projects in various stages of completion, including not-yet-started and not-in-this-lifetime (genealogy is never finished!). This year I'm making an effort to document where I am, what I'm doing, and where I want to go, with hopes of developing a better road map, complete with milestones to which I can look back and say, "thus far have I come."
A large part of this effort will involve partnering with my sister-in-law in her "101 Things in 1001 Days" project. I have approximately two and a half years until my 65th birthday, which falls a bit short of 1001 days, so I'm calling my version, "95 by 65." (That will become a link when I publish its own post.) She started her project last year, but has graciously adjusted her schedule so that we both will finish on my 65th birthday. We are hoping that by doing our projects together we can encourage each other to keep going and reach our goals—which range from the trivial to the highly ambitious.
I've created two new post categories, The Leon Project and 95 by 65, in expectation of keeping some of the anticipated documentation here. I look forward to the adventure with both enthusiasm and trepidation.
Aside: This is not the first Leon Project post I have written. A few days ago the first one was nearly ready to post, but somehow overnight the bulk of the long essay disappeared. (Note to self: never assume that something you thought you saved actually succeeded in that process.) It took a while before I got to the point of being able to rewrite, and of course the two are quite different. Which is better we'll never know. This one, at least, has made it to the finish line.