Wolves and Weirdos, or Skin in the Game for Bureaucrats

One of the books I downloaded during my recent convalescence was Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’ve been a fan of his work since I first encountered The Black Swan in my local library back in 2008. His books show up variously under “business,” “finance,” “systems,” and “self-help” in bookstores, but basically he’s a philosopher, complete with his own collection of aphorisms. His prose puts me in mind of Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae days, only he’s writing/lucidly ranting about financial markets, probability, ethics, and the many wrongs of academia instead of writing/lucidly ranting about literature, aesthetics, sexuality, and the many wrongs of academia. (Paglia and Taleb are also loosely connected in my mind by their their pugnacity and their Mediterranean cultural frames of reference – his Lebanon/Phoenecia, hers the Italy of her grandparents and Greco-Roman antiquity. Also, I find myself alternately relishing their wisdom and wanting to argue with the conclusions they draw from it. But arguing with famous people on the internet when one is not famous has always struck me as a pointless activity.)

Skin in the Game (SITG) is heady stuff. Taleb’s invective is learned, literate, and fun to read. His descriptions of meals make me hungry. His excoriation of the ways that conventional wisdom fails in recognizing and responding to extremes and rare occurrences is downright invigorating.  Then it occurs to me that I’ve long since forgotten how to read the equations in his books and that I bear more than a superficial resemblance to one of his Intellectual Yet Idiot foils. I deflate.

Still and dialogue from Beavis and Butthead

Indeed, what skin in the game can a Salary Mom (or Taleb’s latter-day Salary Man, the “Company Person”) actually have? That was the main problem that preoccupied me after I finished reading SITG. I understand the Maestro to be saying that, in purely economic terms, we People of the Paycheck are somewhere between debt peons in the counting houses of antiquity and landless vassals who give fealty to a particular House (or Constitution or a corporate mission statement) and do homage to the Sovereign or CEO in hopes that we will be rewarded with modest lands and sufficient means to educate our children for their own eventual service at Court.

Juxtaposed info about medieval fealty oath with ad for federal employee training

So let us say I take my oath seriously* and try to make myself a better vassal by improving my understanding of Real World Risk. I read Taleb’s books and adjust my physical fitness regimen.** To my horror, I come to the conclusion that I am adding to the ultimate fragility of the U.S. Government just by showing up for work. If I consciously try to simplify processes, by David Graeber’s Iron Law of Liberalism (not in SITG, merely a connection in my brain), I will ultimately wind up creating more bureaucracy and hence more fragility. In the event that I achieve anything significant, it will likely lead to counter-productive consequences. On the other hand, if I go Bartleby and refrain from further work, I could lose my livelihood. Quit smirking, this does actually happen sometimes in federal government.

(A couple of years ago I asked Taleb on Twitter what a self-identified IYI should do to avoid causing harm. He suggested taking a relaxing job with lots of free time. That sounds like more fun than taking extended periods of sick leave every couple of years to birth children or remove/repair body parts! but I think the net impact winds up being similar.)

In SITG Taleb speaks of wolves among the dogs***, Company Persons who signal their independence from organizational mind-lock with unorthodox behavior or dress at risk of their “corridor reputations.” His examples of this tendency include temperamental geniuses whose contribution to a corporate bottom line makes them irreplaceable, people who curse a lot, and – in a separate discussion – people who do not look the part of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing (surgeons who do not look like surgeons).  The idea is that these Company Werepersons put their skin in the game by inviting scrutiny or blame for their actions, having made themselves too unpleasant or just plain weird to blend in with the rest of the dogs and debt peons. In this, at least, I can see where my skin in the game is beyond just earning my keep. I am good at “plain weird.” But to what purpose if everything I touch supports an inherently counter-productive enterprise?

My father is a long-retired Salary Man who spent his career working for utility and transportation companies and trying unsuccessfully to make engineers out of his children. Early on in my professional life, he told me two things about working in a bureaucracy: first, that middle managers exist for the purpose of absorbing the resentment and fear of their subordinates and their bosses, and second, that the purpose of a bureaucracy is to prevent stupid things from making their way out of an organization and into the world. I guess that this via negativa winds up being the name of the game for the Company Person and his or her skin. So the true end of all worthwhile bureaucromancy is apophatocracy, or the attempt through selective application of institutional rules to prevent the institution from loosing bullsh*t upon the world as it performs its stated purpose. I wonder what Taleb would think.


* Have some disclaimers with that.

** Taleb’s thoughts on physical fitness (spelled out in Antifragile) are persuasive. That being said, after birthing three human kettleballs and failing to maintain core strength for years thereafter, I have no intention of deadlifting anything any time soon. Using my son’s barbels did make my time on crutches much easier, though, so I’m sticking with getting better at that.

*** I see where the wolf metaphor applies in terms of differentiating between the run of Company Persons and the rarer individuals who can hunt their own game in the wild even after years of organizational captivity. But what dog doesn’t see himself as a wolf? Howling, scowling, and marking the carpet tile are empty signals in an organization without a mandate to turn profits or a real likelihood of failure. Real wolves do not lurk the halls of such institutions, by and large. You want something done in a dog-ocracy? Find a vulture or a raccoon.


Rabbit Hole

My boss is on leave. I have a number of tasks to complete. Two of these involve providing instructions about using software to people in the office. The office has installed a video capture/presentation program on my computer to help with exactly this sort of thing. I am inexpert in its use, alas, but the end products genuinely seem to help people understand how to do the stuff they’re being asked to do. One of these tasks is Urgent and Important and potentially complicated; the other is neither, in comparison, but it has fewer moving parts.

I decided to spend a few minutes on the one with fewer moving parts this afternoon – you know, because it would be easier and help me do the other one (Urgent and Important) faster and better. Four hours later, I had a poorly edited video which I will have to totally redo before it will be of much use to anyone.

The Business Management Institute at Muppet Labs ™ is quoting reliable sources as saying that saving work frequently on a computer may prevent wasted effort. They are also reporting that doing the most important work first is more likely to result in faster completion of important work.

In unrelated news, I just spent the last 90 minutes playing Solitaire (with an actual deck of cards) over and over again.

Economy Act

Last week I took a course at Graduate School USA, the venerable training institution formerly known as the USDA Graduate School. I learned a lot about the subject matter of the three-day course (“Non-Defense Working Capital Funds,” or the financial management basics of administering USG activities that are supposed to run off of earned revenue instead of base budgets). I liked the instructor. I liked the location. But I really did not like the text-bound materials or the relative lack of computer access compared to Management Concepts. I also missed the free coffee, danish, and soft drinks provided by same. C’mon, Grad School USA, up your game.


Resume Killers

Liz Ryan is one of three HR writers I follow on Twitter, and I agree with all of her picks for “Ten Phrases That Are Killing Your Resume” on Forbes.com. Here is another resume formulation I’d like to see less often:

  • “Seeking to advance my career”

Not that I begrudge anyone the opportunity to advance, but that’s not why I need to hire someone. I need to hire someone because I have an unmet need in my organization. Candidates who demonstrate awareness of that fact and pitch themselves accordingly warm the cockles of my bureaucratic heart.

My pet peeve as a federal hiring manager is when I can’t figure out from a narrative descriptions of position duties what someone actually did at a job or how they demonstrated the knowledge, skills, and abilities* I’m looking for. Five thousand characters gives you enough space to simply say what the job was and how you did it before you start plugging in all the key words and phrases from the job announcement text to satisfy the Hiring Manager Algorithm.

For federal employees, I recommend keeping a human-language version of your resume on hand. It will give you something to share when a prospective boss or mentor wants to see your CV. It also helps in customizing your USAJOBS resume(s) when you’re applying for positions.**

*Yeah sure, they say they got rid of KSAs on federal job applications. What they really did was eliminate the KSA essay you had to include along with your resume on each job application. So instead of having a resume you could use for multiple job applications …

**Now you have to weave the KSA language from the job announcement into the narrative for “position duties” for each job on your resume. In other words, you have to customize a resume for each and every job application. Thanks, OPM!

Voyage of Learning

This morning I embarked on my first live-action procurement class. It’s two weeks long. The instructor is much livelier than Procurement Woman and Procurement Man, plus the school has a nice break room with generous refreshments. (Someday a bureaucrat blogger will review the private sector purveyors of training to federal employees and their amenities. Input welcome in the comments.)

Life lesson of the day: sweat and sunscreen can really highlight lady whiskers. Second life lesson of the day: olive oil really soothes the delicate skin of the upper lip and chin post-waxing. Much better than the awful chemical they package with the little Sally Hansen facial waxing kits.

Games People Play

I attended a Virtual Human Resources Training Conference last week that was offered by the Office of Personnel Management. I don’t currently work as an HR specialist, but I am trying to stay as looped in as possible so that I can eventually find my way back into the HR fold. This was a good investment of $95 In Ur Takses in so far as it provided me with at least two nuggets of information that I can use/share with colleagues – even non-HR ones – and one or two ideas I might be able to use later. The format was novel, at least for me as someone who rarely participates in web chats, and the networking was more robust than I expected for a virtual event. Thank you, OPM.

The last session I “attended” was one on gamification, featuring a case study from FEMA. I don’t know from Game Theory, but I have watched my kids play a lot of Fallout 3 and Assassin’s Creed, and I once played a couple of hours of Cards Against Humanity. I have also taken a lot of online training for my contracting warrant (two more in-person classes to go and I’ll finally be eligible!) and things HR. Friends, online training for office work can be deadly dull. Given the potential for procurement and HR matters to go horribly, horribly wrong, it seems like some game-based training for these disciplines could be reasonably entertaining as well as memorable and effective.

“Bureaucracies create games – they are just games that are in no sense fun.” (Andre Spicer paraphase of David Graeber)

If any attempt to dismantle bureaucracy creates more bureaucracy (Graeber again), and if big fixes create bigger unintended consequences and more fragility (as I understand my other brain hero Nicholas Nassim Taleb to be saying), then maybe the simple introduction of more play into the seriousness of bureaucratic games is the best chance we bureaucrats have of disrupting the system in a positive sense (making the rules of the game more transparent, helping our taxpaying customers “win”) short of simply throwing down our rule books and going off into the woods to live deliberately or whatever.


This whole “branding” thing just isn’t working for my blog. For one thing, I don’t post often enough. I haven’t figured out a way to blog in a timely and career-enhancing manner about the professional topics dearest to my heart, namely employee relations and supervisor-craft in large organizations. This is largely because I find blog-worthy inspiration on these topics primarily at work and forget what I wanted to say by the time I am home. When I do post, it’s usually the kind of personal stuff I posted on my old blog, only less of it.

One problem common to large organizations is the way that individuals find themselves feeling far removed from core functions. I can reasonably argue that that the work I do frees up people who do perform those core functions from worrying about adminstrativia, and that’s neat. But it’s not the same as really owning a piece of the action. When I blogged regularly about personal stuff, I felt uniquely entitled to speak about it because it was my life. I can’t summon the same feeling about my professional interests, and it shows.

Marx would describe the organizational issue as “alienation.” (Nothing says “finger on the pulse of today’s workplace” quite like name-checking Karl Marx.) I’m reading a book about alienation now to try and figure out what it is I’m alienated from that keeps me from wholeheartedly writing about professional topics. Is it the David Graeber factor?  A lack of professional confidence on my part? I shall have to ask my alienist.