What to do when your office feels like a Kafka novel

There may come a time when you work in an office, or maybe on a project, where the environment feels like something only Kafka could have invented. I worked in an office environment like this for a few months once (not presently, my current job is much more straight forward) and I have found myself in several conversations with peers in the last few weeks about what can only be described as Kafka-inspired office environments. I want to share my learnings from the experience as… survival tips.

First: It’s not you. Sometimes, it’s just not. You may look around the room at the people sitting there in front of you and feel like either you or the entire room must be insane. There may a time where the room is insane and you have to keep yourself out of that comparison, for your own clarity. First step is to stop comparing yourself and find a way to stay centered. Even if the room is no longer making sense, you can maintain your own sense. 

Second: Once you have stopped comparing yourself to the group/event/goal that does not make sense, take stock of what matters to you and what options are available to you. 

On a scale of “this is manageable and I can survive with my sanity intact, I am in fact learning some useful soft skills while I navigate this situation” (Score: 1) to I go home and cry almost every night and fear I will fall down into a hole of darkness that I am not sure I will survive (Score: 10), let’s say 5 is “I’m miserable when I’m at work but will get through this and move on. Where are you right now? (At one point in my Kafka office, I was at 8: go home, cry every night, question my sanity regularly, complain to the same friends in nearly non-stop rants. It was time to remove myself from this project.)

If you’re under 5, make a list of things you are going to learn about yourself from it. Give yourself back some control and ways to see how things are going for you as a worker. Are you learning to rephrase your arguments and questions better? Are you making friends with another teammate who offers some perspective on the insanity? Are you learning to negotiate better? Are you learning how not to run your next project/structure your next team? Build this list of goals, focus on your growth there, and survive it. You’ve got this.

If you’re above a 5, your next question is: How important is this current job/project to your long-term goals? If you lose your sanity or your hope and good energy, it’s really hard to get that back. If the answer is anything less than “if I don’t do this I will be black-listed from my industry and all of my dreams will turn to sand” maybe you need to remove yourself from it. Even if you do say “black-listed in industry and dreams turn to sand,” ask yourself, why do I want to suffer for this particular dream, and are there in fact other ways I could reach an equally appealing dream?

Third: If you have some reflection time and realize this job/project is burning you out and you need to leave, find a way to quit in a way that allows you to continue respecting yourself. Sometimes it is ok to say, this isn’t working and I need to go. You can and will find a way that works for you, and you should not be ashamed for acting in a way that preserves who you are. It is not the company or your team’s job to figure out how to preserve you, they can only do that if you are clear with rules and boundaries for yourself. If too many of your rules and boundaries are repeatedly violated and you know you cannot move forward as you are now, act for yourself. Preserve your sanity and hope and good energy.

I believe, from working on different teams over time and watching different political structures play out internally, that every person has a few “good” environments for them that bring out the best versions of themselves, and a handful of really “bad” environments that bring out the worst. I was not proud of the version of myself that I became in my Kafka office experience, and ultimately that was what pushed me to leave. I had trouble respecting and recognizing the person I became to survive in that particular environment. Now that I’m in a much healthier one for me, I see what a really good work experience can be like and what I am like under much better working conditions. I am also much better equipped to interview my potential managers when I interview for jobs/new projects.

Now, especially when I offer feedback to contractors or interview, I try to remember the value of environmental context. Sometimes an experience in a different office might not say a lot about a person’s potential if it was the complete wrong one. I appreciate people who’ve been through the battles of defining and preserving their boundaries, because it means they will tell me clearly what they can or cannot do, what they do or do not enjoy, and how I can support them as a manager. Maybe there are ways we can work together now that were not available in a previous job and this is where this person can really grow and enjoy their work.

In Summary: If you need to leave your Kafka environment, you need to leave it. If you decide to stay, let it be about your personal growth as a manager and teammate and let the rest go. Good luck!

Grateful for… my grandfather and life’s questions

I’m out in Provincetown, in the woods, where my family likes to spend a quiet thanksgiving reflecting, reading, and enjoying thanksgiving dinner.

This year, I want to repost one of my interviews with my grandfather from August. I am working through the recordings to build a profile of him in his own words, but this was one of my favorite episodes from our interviews.

On Life’s Questions.

I hope you enjoy it!

Song of the Twenty Something

Sometimes I think about my time in New York City and think about my life as a ribbon, like the ones from the elaborate May Day dances around May poles that I watched when I was little. My thread moves around and twists into a whole mix of different colors, sometimes weaving into and weaving out of the fabric created by the dancers.

While I lived in Manhattan, my life was woven into a steady stream of carefully planned dinners and drinks with friends who worked in Capital C for CORPORATE jobs. The timelines were clear, the hours ground them into the ground, the bonuses served as a metric for their success. Time was scarce, time to think freely and ask interesting questions at work… even more scarce. Projects they wouldn’t have dreamed of working on as undergrads were justified with just a handful of words. A tense sort of existence and interaction with time dominated our conversations… and it was hard to tell when we were doing a good/bad job taking care of ourselves.

I moved to Brooklyn in June and soon the colors I was weaving into were more forgiving. They asked questions and explored concepts that didn’t have answers yet. My friends had day jobs, and learned the most from what their did in their own time. The questions they explored over dinner tables and hours in the public library, were more in line with my own thinking and desire to explore.

With this opportunity to reflect and collect myself again, I cracked. Pausing long enough in the doorway one evening after I had fully moved in, I collapsed into the bones and flesh in my body, finally tacking stock of the two years of damage from living in Manhattan. My metrics and expectations for myself were fucked up. I had to come to terms with that. The joy I had derived from exploring new questions and developing tools for difficult academic explorations… were finally acceptable again. Not having an answer was ok. I was free to build, anew.

I started to weave my life back into a world of artists and academics and explorers. People whose day jobs explained far too little about who they were, what they thought about, and what they wanted to do with their time. I was at home, once more. ‘What do you do now?’ meant so little.

University was the last time I found this freedom. A space where my academic pursuits devoured 3/4 of the day, but the last 1/4 was for me to do as I chose… and I chose, frequently, to build things.

What I loved about the Liberal Arts program at Yale was that people had these small points of interactions with people who were completely different from them where we built teams and shared thoughtful critique to help each other improve. My natural science requirements brought me in touch with more of the pure science students than my life did normally and I learned as much from them as I did the students who were on a similar technical trajectory in my political science/sociology/latin american studies programs. It meant recognizing my stronger points and weaker points immediately, and asking for help or advice regularly.

Perhaps the best part was that we were pushed to create and innovate. To develop our own projects, learn the practical skill set of executing projects and seeing them through to the end, evaluating our own results, asking for constant feedback, building and changing teams, developing product concepts and testing them… everything that has been so useful to me post college. It was food for the mind and the senses…. and such a necessary contrast to constant work in abstraction and academia.

I think this “side hustle” in extracurricular work prepared me most for the work force. Well, maybe that and experiment design from my academic work. I learned to play by doing and I learned to think by working with my peers in seminars and team based coursework.

For me, the balance I found in college, among the builders and the thinkers, was what kept me sane. I needed to play in both spaces with time to evaluate. I lost that sense of balance in Manhattan, amid the high profile, high focus jobs and culture and regained it in the fluidity of Brooklyn.

It taught me, most importantly, that the concept of “home” is so much more about the people and the pulse of thinking that I wanted to surround myself with. And sometimes that pulse comes in much less obvious forms that I had accepted when I first moved to New York. I am thoroughly enjoying this new exploration process.

What is the Extended Eulogy?

For me, growing up in a Mexican family meant that death was about curation.

See, in Mexico, we remember the dead regularly – to us, the line between living and dead is not so thick. In those moments, we are expected to interact directly with the person we are remembering.

Our communities created profiles of our loved ones … in their own words. On the Day of the Dead, We reread letters they wrote, quote them, relived our interactions and favorite meals… and because these people do not exist as a static, as they might in a formalize biography, they live on as a multi-faceted memory.

But I wondered, how did other people design these profiles? How often are we able to remember those that we love through their words?

I started a research project for my Learning Wednesday – I call it, The Extended Eulogy.

It started because I had a mentor figure from college who died in April after a long battle with cancer. We knew him as the Master of Saybrook College, my program at Yale. We remembered him through the events he hosted and the comforting words he offered when we needed them.

But to the rest of the world, Master Hudak as a super hacker. For the months that he was in the hospital, receiving treatment until the end of his life, he was as the subject of discussion within the top 10 hits on major hacker chat boards around the world.

I started thinking about the profiles that each of Master Hudak’s communities would build around his memory – how would they curate his profile?

To date, I have interviewed several curators for Extended Eulogies. The first was a friend who was a major curatorial voice behind the NYTimes Best Seller “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which is a collection of essays written by my former classmate Marina Keegan. Marina passed away tragically in a car crash in 2012. This book lives on as her legacy.

The second is an artist who was asked to grant three wishes by a friend of hers as he died of complications from AIDS in 90s. His Extended Eulogy was an exhibition of his photographs that she curated. As you walked through the collection, you walked through a timeline of his creative mind.

Both of these curators told me that when they reviewed the work by their friends… they could hear their voices in it.

I narrowed the scope of my research to three framing questions. Each time I asked them:

How did you remember this person?

How did the world know this person?

What questions did this person spend their life trying to answer?

Just a week or two after Master Hudak’s death, I learned that my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Extended Eulogies research project started to morph… into a living profile.

I am on a mission to collect all of the memories for his profile that I can… but most importantly, I need to capture his memories in his own words.

What you need to know about my grandfather is I grew up allowed to believe in legends and heroes, because my grandfather was one of these heroes.

Orphaned twice by 19, he received a partial scholarship to play football for the University of Nebraska and put himself through college while supporting his young family by working nightshifts on the Lincoln, Nebraska Railroad. He was the designer and implementer for the first computer system in Kellogg’s supply chain.

My grandfather created everything he became.

I took a Monday off work to spend the day interviewing him with the StoryCorps app. For four hours, we talked about the future of work, family, and life’s questions big questions… adding dimensions to the man who lived in my memory as a series of family legends and humorous stories.

The difference now between this profile and a biography is that my grandfather has a hand in it.

He is not a writer or an artist, but I want to tell his story and remember him through his voice. His words.

This living profile and the Extended Eulogy is about breathing life into our memories. It is about giving the people we remember enough layers of complexity to remember and celebrate that they were human – that they struggled with questions, and saw themselves one way while the rest of the world may have seen them another way.

The richer the profile, the richer the memory that can live on with us, to interact with us on the Day of the Dead each year. I am grateful for this opportunity to build something full of life with my grandfather.

This is a talk I will give tomorrow at the TED Staff Retreat about my Wednesday Research work. This is a new experiment for me, and it exists largely as a conceptual art piece until I find the right ways to work with my research. 

Extended Eulogies: Remembering Marina

I am working on a long form project that I am calling “Extended Eulogies.” I am interested in the role of the “curator” behind a profile of the deceased, particularly when the deceased has left behind a portfolio of written work where they explores who they are, who they think they are, and the questions they tried to answer. This is much an exploration of memory as it is about process. The following is one of many pieces of my research to answer my own questions about how I will remember some of those who are closest to me in my own life.

I still remember the morning over the summer when I woke up to 16 missed calls from a close friend and another series of texts from someone I had become friends with over the course of that spring that started with “have you read the news?” followed by “Diana, can you call me? I’m scared.” And finally, “Fuck. I feel so lost right now.” Everything had come into my phone between 1am – 4am, the last one at 4:11am.

Remembering Marina Keegan…

On May 26th 2012, Marina Keegan, one of my high school and college classmates (we both ended up in the Saybrook college at Yale) died in a car accident that shook our communities. For days, my newsfeed on Facebook was filled with people posting on her wall, sharing memories and their disbelief that she was gone. Best know for some of her prolific written works like The Opposite of Loneliness and Even Artichokes have Doubts. And even a handful of spoken word pieces, that just as quickly as her writing does tear a hole in your heart or fill you with joy.

Among her many talents, Marina was a writer, a playwright, an activist, and a creator. Her voice is well documented, as were the questions she took time to explore with you in her written work. Marina is now the author of a bestseller titled The Opposite of Loneliness, which was like sitting in a time machine and relieving my high school and college experiences in a way that knocked the wind out of me.

Who served as a curatorial voice?

I got to know Yena when we started a salon series at Yale in the spring of my senior year. Nearly a year after the accident, Yena was a brilliant soon-to-be Philosophy Ph.D student living in New Haven and making sense of what had happened to her college roommate a year earlier. Yena is a brilliant thinker, talented writer, and dear friend to many of us.

In the months following Marina’s accident, Yena was tasked with an enormous project: she was handed Marina’s Hard Drive and told to organize the work and consider which works she would have selected to use to contribute to a lasting profile of Marina. She, alongside Marina’s mother and a handful of others, began to think through the dimensions of a collection of some of Marina’s short essays and stories. [I am comparing this collection of stories to an effective “profile” of the voice of an author.]

As Yena was remembering the experience with me, she said, “You begin to look at life and death through the voice of a person. With every artist, so much of them is embodied in their work, it feels like you are interacting with that person. It feels like a pseudo interaction that you’ve had with the person who is gone now.”

How do you process your memories? What does it mean to build a profile through Marina’s voice?

Yena first wrote this piece for the Yale Daily News to remember her friend very shortly after her death. “The YDN was me and Marina. It was very raw and [the grief] was there with me. The book was more collaborative.”

Yena started by re-reading all of their Facebook messages and emails. Some long, others shorter, asking quick questions. Some sent over summers apart, others between Saybrook and the Library.

“You are not an objective bystander. You bring a different element of you to every conversation that you have, already there is a filter or an angle. We are biased by our grief, the personal relationship with the person, and how we think about that person. When I looked back at her work, I wanted to look at it through these filters, but I also wanted to try to represent her accurately, objectively, in the ways that I loved her.”

This role, as an editor, was perhaps most pronounced when Yena was deciding what was most important to include in the book, and where some of the work needed to be trimmed or cleaned up. “[T]here is also an element: this is something I am sure she would not want other people to be reading.” The process was about taking in all of the work Marina had written over the course of her life time, beginning to organize it around common themes, and present a few pieces in a collection that captured the voice of the artist.

“It was a difficult experience — with her writing, you could hear her voice,” she added. “When you encounter that grief… it’s the expression of it that is so hard. Sometimes I felt like I needed to laugh really hard, I needed to get it out of my body.” Yena started to see this project as a “personal exercise.” It became a process that required her to manage and really feel the grief that seeped into her physical and emotional responses to the work, but it also helped her celebrate the great achievements of a friend that she admired and loved.

[Sidenote: Yena was not the only collaborator on the final version of The Opposite of Loneliness. When I first asked her about the project, she told me that the questions were a little startling because she forgot that she had helped put the work together. She remembers this book as something that was a collection of Marina’s life’s work, not a book by those who curated collection for the final product.]

What I learned from talking to Yena:

We spent a lot of time talking about what it means to “know someone.” We discussed the levels of friendship that exist and how well you get to know the rhythm of someone’s thoughts and the questions she wants to spend her life answering.

We wondered, does the product itself change depending on how well you knew someone before they died? I said yes. Because to really capture the pulse of someone’s thought patterns, you would need to see them at their most carefully edited, at their most raw and unrefined, and everything in between. Yena had the opportunity to see work by Marina in many different stages of completion.

Then Yena asked me, what is the difference between a biography and an extended eulogy?

My answer was that biographies are about extended narratives: you are meant to interact with the narrative provided by the writer and the context the writer decides to provide you with as you engage with the narrative. You are not interacting with the individual.

When the artist can leave something in her original voice, you interact with it. As Yena has told me earlier in our conversation, you build into the relationship with the artist a little more.

The extended eulogy, for me, is a project about building and protecting memories that are multi-dimensional and offer a few perspectives on a person simultaneously. You see the person, in how they would describe themselves, but you also see how others (the curators) see and remember her. You also see what their life looked like, to them, from 30,000 ft. You see what questions became important to explore and what stones they unearthed to find their answers. The Extended Eulogy offers the artist a chance to remember themselves and leave behind a breathing memory that engages with you and challenges you and promises to be the same thorn-in-your-side that the artist may have been while she was living.

The work of some artists requires little context for me. I react very powerfully to it, in the same way that some relationships with other people make sense and others don’t or don’t register in our memory at all. Some voices vibrate like strings on the cello through your memory and their questions haunt you. This is not true for every conversation and person that we come across – but for the ones who do leave a mark… we remember them. We remember the sound of their voices and the pulse of their thoughts and it stays with us.

Many of us continue to serve, in our own ways, in Marina’s memory. Though my own relationship with her was largely based on the interactions we had as activists working on some overlapping issues in our communities, I remember her for her writing.

“Do you want to leave soon?”

“No, I want time to be in love with everything… and I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” [Marina Keegan, Bygones]