I could sense something was wrong with Phil. Or, maybe, he had sensed something was wrong with me.
We were walking side-by-side to the cafeteria on the campus of large financial institution. I had run into Phil on my way to enjoy what had become the highlight of each cube-dwelling day while working for big, traditional IT company. Why, it was the burritos in the cafeteria, of course: The subsidized burritos cooked up by foodservice workers who gazed upon our polo-shirted and khaki-pantsed affluence with some measure of envy. They longed for our careers. We, in turn, gazed at them with awestruck wonder: For they could actually see the fruits of their labors, and weren’t expected to be pageable 24/7.
Phil had asked me how things were going. Rather than offering the acceptable responses of “Great!” “Fine and dandy!” “Another day!” or somesuch, I searched my soul brought up one major challenge I was facing that pointed up the essence of our jobs: We were paid to pretend to care about shit we couldn’t change, but were in some way responsible for, anyway.
Phil slowed in his steps. He was already a longtime veteran of the IT corps. He’d been in telecom for almost as long as I’d been alive. His stooped posture was locked in a permanent hunch conforming to his daylong stance at his desk. His neck was bent to one side where a telephone receiver had been lodged for a few decades before the advent of speakerphones and several expensive OSHA-based lawsuits. He sneered.
The tech business had been good to Phil in the way most interpret the word “good.” Phil had a big suburban house that was almost paid off. He had a Corvette.He had a boat. He had a bunch of almost-grown boys who didn’t listen to him but spent his money, anyway. He had a wife who blamed him for everything that had gone wrong in her life for almost thirty years. He had some retirement to look forward to. He had lived the American dream.
“Bill,” he said to me, eyes squinting. “You’re smart, aren’t you?”
I couldn’t tell if his tone was sarcastic, serious, accusatory, or whatever else it could have been. I knew him well enough to to have drunk with him several times around campfires while out on 4-wheel-drive adventures with other frustrated microserfs. But I didn’t know what else there might be to know.
I narrowed my eyes and shrugged. “I . . . I like to think I am, sometimes.”
For the record, I don’t think I’m that smart. I have my moments: both of them. I get through life on a constant stream of divine intervention and my persuasion of others that they just give me a break. Sometimes verbal flow seems to indicate “intelligence.” By that measure, Vanilla Ice must be an f-ng genius. But, I digress.
Phil stopped just outside the cafeteria. He turned to face me. He looked off to his side and then back at me. It was a fatherly moment of candor — like he was going to tell me I was really adopted or that I didn’t make the football squad but he loved me anyway, even if I was doomed to stay in home-ec with the girlies and fancy boys.
“If you’re smart, this isn’t the place for it. Just take the money and do whatever they tell you. That’s all there is to it. Don’t try to be smart.” He shook his head. “It’s not going to get you anywhere.”
Then he turned and shuffled off through the cafeteria doors.
I had heard this before. But, just like my dismissal of the idea that “work-life balance” actually was a codeword for “How much of what really matters to you can we stomp on in exchange for giving you a few bucks?” I always thought it was a joke. It was a cynical little jab at the way things had been, but weren’t anymore. Or at least weren’t in our enlightened surroundings in our careers at large financial institution.
Of course smarts will get you somewhere! This is an enlightened culture that values innovation and the strength of individual contributors! You funny guy. Phil. What a joker.
That’s what I might have thought had I heard it only a year or so earlier.
But no, this was different. This was from the depths. This was wisdom from the trenches, where business decisions made for all the wrong reasons cause slow-motion, $200,000,000.00 train-wrecks levelling everything in their paths, and anyone who speaks up gets sternly told not to spoil the fun. There were boats to be purchased, you see.
I nodded. I’d have to seriously consider not being smart. I’d have to try to stay focused while just doing whatever I was told, regardless of how stupid I found it to be. Phil had spoken truth.
But in the end, I just couldn’t do it.
I have two settings: “Kick-Ass” and “Burrito.” While my “Burrito” setting wasn’t nearly as troublesome to the corporate hierarchy as the other, eventually they catch on and realize they have too many burritos on the line. It takes a special sort of mindset — one that escapes me — to do just enough to not be found useless, but not do so much that one becomes a target for discouragement. It’s a fine balance that Phil and some others with similar careers had perfected, and the lack of which proved my undoing.
This should be enough to convince anyone that I’m not really that smart. I just talk that way, sometimes.
* * * * *
Hey, you’re never too smart to be a novelist, though writing is generally a foolish way to try to make a living. Pick up my debut Eye of the Diamond-T and tell me what you think. Available in print and ebook through links HERE.