Friday, November 06, 2015

Always Playing Defense

Today I had my every other week meeting with my boss.  We talked, as we always do, about the goings on in the department and any emergencies.  And then he asks the question he has always come to ask:  "Is there anything bothering you?"

Why yes, yes there was.

I expressed my concern about a new marketing initiative that has been rolled out by our sales group, a fairly encompassing one that seems to involve a heck of a lot of change for (from my vantage point) not a lot of benefit. My concern, I told him, was that in the entire presentation they did not mention anything about the function of my department - a function, I pointed out, that ultimately allows to do business in most global markets.

He thought about it for a moment and then agreed.  He pointed out that what we do is something that is never really appreciated the way it should be - "It is like playing defense"  he said.

I must have looked a bit quizzical, because he continued.  "My child plays soccer.  He is a defender.  As a defender, you get blamed for all the goals scored against  you. If your team scores a goal, everyone celebrates the offense.  But no-one celebrates the defense and they only seem to get remembered if something gets through.  Does it make sense?"

I concurred that it did, both from Nighean Dhonn's years in soccer and my following of hockey.  I was well aware of the fact that the defense seldom gets accolades, only blame.

"It is like that for what we do as well"  he said.  "Everything can happen upstream and everyone celebrates but all the bad decisions, bad designs, complaints from customers - it all becomes our department's fault.  We are the ones that get blamed."

We talked for a few more moments about other things and then we sailed off to our separate destinations.  But his thought stuck with me all day.

Playing defense.  As I continued to ponder the thought, let the words roll around in my head, I realized that this was precisely what I have been doing for most of my life.  Playing defense.  Trying to avoid things getting through to something else, avoid things going wrong, avoid getting blamed.

We all have to play some level of defense, I suppose.  We all have to make sure that things go well and bad things do not get through.  But playing a defender for years upon end is wearing.  It trains you to think a certain way:  to avoid letting things through rather than trying to push things through to score.  It becomes a way of living that is reactive rather than proactive, of trying to shore up walls rather than thinking of ways to attack the enemy and their walls.

If I think about the totality of my life I am forced to admit there are only a handful of times that I have not played defense.  Professionally, this has only happened four times: when I got a manager's job from my cousin out of college so I could move back to my hometown, when I took a job teaching, when I left a job teaching to get into my current industry, and when I took the leap to work at the Firm.  4 times over 25 years.   Not an impressive count.  My personal life probably rates higher, as I would count every time I have tried a new thing and succeeded (even partially) as a victory.

But why the difference?  Why is professional so different from personal?

Because in personal, all the risk and results are under my control.

It is like my recent gains - and my continued improvement over four years - in Highland Games.  All of this is 100% under my control.  There is nothing for me to defend in the case - only goals for me to attack.

Professional is different.  Professional - at least for what I have done for almost 20 years now - is a constant battle of defense.  I cannot control of most the factors that control my job.  Bad decisions upstream make my life difficult, but I have little ability to influence them.  I can see the disaster coming but I can do little to blunt the results.  All I can do is brace for impact.

I am deeply tired of playing defense.  I am not sure how to rectify this issue immediately but I have a pretty good idea of how to start:  throw open the gates, come down off the wall, and start advancing.

It may be a really good way to get cut down - or to cut your way through.

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