Posted by: spacewritinguy | April 25, 2008

What Does It Mean When I’m the Voice of Reason…?

What, exactly, is it a sign of when I am the voice of reason in my office? It’s probably a sign that I’ve become more cynical earlier than some of my coworkers. Take the 50ish guy I had to counsel today about his behavior with management. It’s one thing for someone to go above and beyond on his job when he was already busy (he did, and I’ve done similar things in similar circumstances). It’s another when he gets cranky about being scolded for going above and beyond and decides to go above the boss’s head about being scolded.

Here’s the painful truth: you don’t go above the boss’s head. I learned that the hard way by doing it myself. So on the one hand, I agree with this guy for doing good work, but on the other hand, I have to slap him down for pissing off the boss. Or, if not slap him down, at least caution him on political reality. I must have been brasher in my youth. How else do you explain that I knew a lesson that a 50-year-old does not?

And I can’t help but wonder–will he listen? Perhaps my advice will make him more bitter about me, the system, the boss, who knows? It has to be better for a semi-peer to talk him down from the “This isn’t right!” soapbox than for the boss to come down on him, right? Am I being a bastard because I’m telling him to toe the line, do what the manager says, and shut the hell up about his offended sense of righteousness? I felt like I was talking to my younger self, say, about 15 years ago. I dunno. Maybe I’ve just become an “organization man.” I’m obviously a bureaucrat. Hell, I’ve been one for at least ten years. What defines a bureaucrat?

  • Knowing when it is safe to attack a problem directly and when to “let the system do its work.”
  • Not necessarily knowing everything, but knowing who knows things.
  • Understanding how to “work the secretaries (now called administrative professionals)” to get access to the big bosses.
  • Knowing when you can act with impunity and when to CYA with paper.


It’s not necessarily a grand profession, middle-class bureaucrat, but it pays the bills nicely if you’re willing to live reasonably cheaply and don’t have grand delusions of fame, fortune, or romance (which, fortunately, I do not). Should I be more of an optimist? Someone who believes he could and should change the world? No. Somewhere along the line, I realized that human nature is not perfectable, or even particularly good. Once you reach that point (and I think I reached it sometime around 30-35), your perspective changes. Instead of thinking of ways to improve the world, period, you look for ways to improve the world gradually, within the constraints that you know exist.

This willingness to accept “people as they are” and to believe that they are, at heart, self-interested, slow to change, cantankerous, and combative about anything that might change their life as it is now is at the heart of conservatism. When you’re younger and/or more idealistic–not as battered, perhaps, by the realities of human nature–you’re more liberal, more willing to believe in an unlimited, better future. The space advocacy community is filled with such people. They are liberals by long training and conviction or by dint of never having grown up. If it’s the latter (and I know such folks; I was one, once upon a time), then you are still willing to fight uncompromisingly for your bright idea to make the future better. Undauntingly. Unrelentingly. Until your dying day, you shout defiantly, “But I’m right!”

In the meantime, those of us who operate in the less ambitious real world struggle to hold things together while the idealists screech for things to constantly improve. As Pournelle puts it, despair is a sin, and God help you if you’ve sinned in such a fashion if the predominant political culture believes that anything is possible and progress is inevitable.

Does this seem a little lofty for a simple office dispute? Okay, perhaps. But this is how I operate: I’m an inductive thinker: I believe that bigger points can be derived or determined based on smaller evidence on a lower level. In essence, I watch the behavior of people at ground level and guess at the bigger and future consequences of their behavior. All I know is, I’ve met many people of the nerdish persuasion who believe that their way is the right way all the g-d time, and even when reality proves them wrong time and again, they insist on their way even more forcefully. And then they wonder, occasionally (if they even give other people’s thoughts much attention) why other people avoid or exclude them. I have no answers for them. I can only answer for myself. And what I had to do when the world refused to comply with my wishes was reexamine my premises and figure out what ways I would have to act to make sure that the world would work my way…at least in a limited fashion.

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