“Stupid Question”

Posted by jlubans on October 28, 2022  •  Leave comment (1)


Whenever I use kitchen plastic wrap I am reminded of a long ago incident when a staff member reacted in a negative way to a simple request from me.
I edited something called the Suggestion/Answer Book. It was an open book, literally, and clients could write in it for all to see their questions, compliments and complaints. (If you want to know more about it, you might find this article of interest.)
In any case, the student client asked “Why does plastic wrap cling?”* The staffer to whom I sent the question rejected it, saying it was a stupid question, one deserving a stupid answer. I assume her rejection was the stupid answer.**
Her humorless response forfeited the opportunity to engage a client in a positive way.
As always, a “stupid question” can open the door to a “teachable moment” and more.
Another staff member to whom I sent questions made the most of each; it never crossed her mind to think a question was not worth answering. If it did, she resisted the temptation to ridicule.
For her, each question was a spring board to opening the doors to more information – just the right amount – and she would invite the reader to tag along in the process of getting to an answer. She never talked down, was always level-headed and respectful.
Her answer was a pedagogical tool to not just the questioner but to the many who read her response.
In over 3000 questions/suggestions I avoiding sarcasm in my answers.
I believed it would turn off readers.
In my run as the Answer Person with hundreds of my previous responses on display in a very public three ring binder, the user knew action would be taken to fix bad policies and procedures, or if no action were taken, the reader would be told why.
And, importantly, I deliberately edited my responses to be welcoming, and, as often as not, wry and whimsical.
My style of humor added, it seems, the right touch to keep passing readers interested, amused and coming back for more.
That tone also assured the reader no comment or question would be dismissed as “stupid” – a not unusual anxiety on a campus brimming at times with an intellectual hubris that could infect any full-of-herself librarian.
But it did happen; as kitchen wrap never fails to remind me.
Rube Goldberg, back in the early 1900s had a regular newspaper comic strip; he called it Foolish Questions, and provided zany, madcap answers. Here are a couple for your entertainment
Women in apron to man puffing away on an immense stogie:
“Anthony, are you smoking again?”
The smoker responds: “No, Cleopatra, I’m taking a bath in a bowl of clam chowder.”
Silly but not a brutal, dismissive put down. Might even bring a smile to Cleo's face.
Another cartoon by Rube has a man in loudly checkered pants asking a bald friend chasing something:
“Did your wig blow off?”
Baldy responds, “No, I’m chasing butterflies for my coin collection!”
More zany than acidulous, there is an essence of silly humor there.
More recently the satirical magazine, Mad, offered “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.
An example: A woman, looking at a ceiling dripping with water, asks the plumber “Is that from a leaking pipe?”
Plumber offers three responses:
“No, it’s from someone watering their lawn upstairs”.
“No, your house is crying because you are so stupid
“No, the water is coming from a basement in China.”
That's supposed to be humor; it’s not. It’s churlish, and boorish. Al Jaffee, the illustrator and author explained: While going through a divorce, “I got a lot of my hostility out through Snappy Answers.”
Had I done that in the S/A book, the readership would have disappeared and I would have spent my time battling nasty comments, like in the anonymous Twitter-sphere.

*In case you were wondering
Why does clingfilm cling? The Internet provides an answer:
“Most cling wrap is made of one of two materials; polyvinyl chloride or low-density polyethylene. Both of these are long polymers - chains of molecules. These chains cling to each other very well. In fact, the polymers in polyvinyl chloride are so bound together that they do not let water or air get through them. The military used to spray "Saran," the early name of the chemical, on fighter planes to prevent corrosion. It was also used in upholstery. To make it suitable for home use, companies add platicisers to make it softer and more malleable.”

**I was bewildered by her response. Among the 200 in this organization I rated her among the top 5 or 6. Early on we worked well together, but now I did sense a growing antipathy towards me, but never figured out what or why. Not long after this incident, she and her professor husband departed for another university, presumably for greener pastures.

My book, Fables for Leaders, full of whimsy, is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

A Literary Curiosity: The Nimble Fat Man

Posted by jlubans on October 24, 2022  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Homer Nimbling Along.

Have you, when reading fiction, wondered why the author invariably describes a fat man as nimble on his feet?
To compound the cliche, some authors add “surpisingly”.
I have seen this countless times.
Here are several I picked up in a quick Internet search:
“Although he was fat, he was very nimble.”
“He was one of those men who are surprisingly nimble despite massive weight.”
“Moving with that nimble quickness peculiar to many fat men . ...”
“()(f he had not been wondrous nimble for a fat man she would have caught him…”
“For a fat man, he was nimble.”

But nimbleness is not just limited to the feet:
“Standing at the table , the fat man opened the book with his thick but surprisingly nimble fingers.”
Is this a result of an author’s insightful observation of fat people or is it an attempt to ameliorate with something positive what could be seen as fat shaming?
Just found! A titillating titbit from 1930*:
"She was breasting the stairs with a celerity surprising in one so plump, and her rather protruding blue eyes positively bulged with excitement?. she looked like nothing so much as a fat Pekinese, aquiver at the sight of food."
(Excerpt From The Case of Sir Adam Braid By Molly Thynne)
And, another quote:
"Moving with surprising quickness for one of his ponderous build, he hurried from the dining-room ..."
Excerpted from Molly Thynne's The Murder on the Enriqueta (1929):
Is this fictional nimbleness related to an organization’s seeking to be nimble?
An example:
“For an organization steeped in decades of bureaucratic tradition it was surprisingly nimble when it came to justifying a larger budget.”
Want to see an elephant dance, stand on its head, and do back flips? Come to a budget hearing!
Our next literary curiosity: The Infamous Deal Table”.

My book, Fables for Leaders, full of literary curiosities, is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

The Anti-Birkenstock*

Posted by jlubans on October 17, 2022  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: My Teva’s. Like Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man.

Why write about a pair of shoes? Because they are my Teva’s and they have served me well for over 30 years.
Yes, 30.
The above photo was taken a few days ago.
When I venture to Mexico this January, they’ll be in my suitcase.
Durable (obviously), easy on and off, the velcro strips still function and keep the sandals snug to my feet.
No flip flops these.
I can walk on rocky creek bottoms or in muck in a bog and not worry about my tender toes or spraining an ankle – or losing the shoes!
Back when I got them – at a store no less than LL Bean’s in Freeport Maine - Teva’s and fleece jackets were all the rage especially among the outdoor adventure crowd.
Teva’s were invented out of necessity; in 1984 a river guide in the Grand Canyon was fed up with his sandals floating off downstream. So he devised a way to strap the sandals and keep them in place when on the river.
Years later, Teva is a shoe company embracing all that can be wokely embraced.
And, there’s a gazillion competitors, even Birkenstock has a Teva-like sole and velcro strips to keep the shoes snug.
Many others have taken and run with the idea.
How durable are the competition’s sandals?
You’ll have tell me. I’ve only worn the pictured pair.
In salt water, the Pacific and Atlantic, the Adriatic , the Aegean and the Baltic, and in Maine lakes and ponds and Colorado and Texas streams, on sand and sea, in mud, muck and gravel, and dusty paths through Guatemalan village markets, and Riga’s cobblestone streets.
From Uluru in Australia’s outback to the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, NYC.
I’ve been everywhere, man, in my Teva’s.
I write this not as much a tribute to the Teva Company as a tribute to Mother Nature and foreign cultures and getting out in it.
Remember my last blog, “Doing Nothing or Nothing Doing”?
There’s less stress with Teva’s on your feet when quietly quitting or becoming a Great Resignee. And, if you are retired and “bored out of your gourd” well, Teva’s can help get you up and out.

*I’m not against Birkenstocks. If you must, wear them and love them; the German brand has been around since 1774! But, the hippy’s emblematic Birkenstocks (the “fitness sandal” only since 1966 in the USA.
If you want to stay with Teva but seek the Birkenstock gestalt? It’s achievable by wearing black socks with your Teva’s (a genuine geek look).
White socks get you the nerd look.
But, with wool hiking socks and Teva’s you are forever Teva.
Got it?

My book, Fables for Leaders is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text and photo by John Lubans 2022

Doing Nothing or Nothing Doing

Posted by jlubans on October 11, 2022  •  Leave comment (0)


In this era of the Great Resigners and the Quiet Quitters we are encouraged to do nothing. Why?
Doing nothing, we are promised, could result in a much happier mindset.
One advocate advises: “Doing nothing can be a waste of time, or it can be an art form which improves your life, melts away the stress and makes you more productive when you actually do work”.
Examples abound of great minds wool-gathering and having eureka moments.
So, is doing nothing just a trick we play on ourselves to get a leg up, to get ahead?
Could be.
A colleague wrote me: “I like the idea of doing nothing, but am too aware of how that does turn into something. But perhaps that is a character flaw, always seeing/knowing the next thing to be done. … My doing nothing is known as a Free Day.
We all need to take a free day to enjoy more why we work so hard/diligently on our non-free days, and to give us energy to deal, make good on other days.
So you see, free days have a purpose, and are not nothing days, but are really disguised perhaps as a free day, but are still a something day.”
When I took part in Outward Bound wilderness adventures, I got to experience a truncated version of doing nothing, something called a “solo”. Essentially, you got to be alone in nature for several hours.
No phone, no smokes, and no food, only water.
Luckily, it was a sunny day.
The solo may well be a greater challenge than the other segments of the week-long adventure which includes climbing cliffs and navigating an open boat in a Maine fog.
I was told, some soloists sleep; apparently it's better to zone out than to confront one’s self.
One participant in a month-long OB class became legend during his three-day solo. Nightly he made a clandestine swim across a stretch of water between his small island and the larger, populated island of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay.
After a night of partying, he’d swim back to his solo shelter.
Was he that bored with himself or was he just as silly an ass as I was at that age?
Caption. Solo in Maine. Photo by Devin Shunk.

I did not sleep.
After settling - in dog-like circles - into my isolated 30 square feet of the pine forest with a few granite outcroppings, I started to pay attention to what was going on in the dirt - the detritus of the forest floor. Ants, as I recall, and other creatures were busy pulling and hauling. Nearby, swarming in a puddle of sparklingly clear water, were some tiny shrimp-like creatures. I gazed at them minutely like a Gulliver peering at a crowd of Lilliputians.
Time passed. It slowed down. I felt calm and refreshed.
Back at work, I tried replicating an abbreviated solo with a team during a corporate “day in the woods”.
Alas, it did not go well.
Maybe it was the two bow-hunters in camo who made their way past our camp just before we went off into the brush for our solos?
What was that twanging sound?
I use a children’s book (depicted) in my leadership workshops.
Two industrious boys, Frankie and Sal, are bored.
What's left to do?
Nothing! They challenge themselves to do ten seconds of nothing! Can they do it?
Be a stone statue? Not easy, as pigeons cluster on their heads and shoulders.
Be the Empire State Building? King Kong crawls to the top.
They soon conclude, since “we can never do nothing, let’s do something!”
In Lao Tzu’s book of sayings, The Way, the leader “leads” and the people exclaim, when all is done, “We did it ourselves!”
Isn’t that really the leader’s “doing nothing” which leads to something, something grander?
My book, Fables for Leaders is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

Word of the Day: Iatrogenic

Posted by jlubans on October 06, 2022  •  Leave comment (0)


I took notice of a new word (for me) in a WSJ opinion piece written by a college president opposing the proposed forgiveness of America’s student debt.
While making most debtors happy (but many debt-free tax payers unhappy) there are other side effects.
To quote the college president “it’s iatrogenic, inflating college costs as schools continue to pocket the subsidies Uncle Sam showers on them.”
The word comes from medicine. Essentially it means an unintentional side effect, an illness caused by the doctor, sometimes fatal. But, it is not only doctors who unintentionally make a mess of things.
Managers should be aware of iatrogenic effects. A policy decision may result in unanticipated, unintentional negative results. Like the infamous “unintended consequences” caused by recent public health policies.
So, organizational iatrogenesis is something for a manager to think about when making decisions: how to avoid it!
Do undertake risk assessment. Or, consider worst case scenarios. Or, have red teams and blue teams explore for iatrogenesis prior to policy implementation.
Anyway, a new word for me.
My book, Fables for Leaders is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

Belloc’s The Learned Fish*

Posted by jlubans on October 02, 2022  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Lord Ian Basil Gawaine Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood or, if you prefer,
B. T. B., 1896.

This learned Fish has not sufficient brains
To go into the water when it rains.

Hilaire Belloc, The French-born writer who became a British citizen in 1902,
had a thing about some academics (dons) at Cambridge and at Oxford of which he was a distinguished graduate.
Belloc, a boots-and-all Catholic, regarded these dons as the most scurrilous of Britain’s Protestants.
His grievance was that many dons educated the young to enter the labor market thereby aiding and abetting capitalism, one of his many bête noires.
Confrontational in all things social and political, Belloc apparently never read Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
So this absurd, silly, kids' couplet, gleefully humorous, is more than a little disdainful of the overeducated and inutile academic.
Belloc did not regard all dons as bad. Some he championed as “Dons admirable! Dons of Might!”

*Source: The Bad Child's Book Of Beasts (1896) by Hilaire Belloc
My book, Fables for Leaders is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright original text by John Lubans 2022