Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A problem of apparent irrationality

I’m on Christmas Vacation, and for the most part I’m having a good time. I’m happy. However, just four hours before school ended on Friday, I got an e-mail containing a request.

Unfortunately for me, it was not a request I could simply ignore: it was more of an attempt at a “friendly” dictate. But it doesn’t matter what adjective you put in front of the word dictate, it’s still an unsolicited directive that can’t be ignored. In my case, I've given this the directive “The Grinch that Stole Christmas Award.”

Why? Because as a rational and reasonable man, my mind has a difficult time following unreasonable orders/dictates/policies. This new policy was going to cost me three to six hours, four times a year, for as long as I worked in this District. (And it duplicates a process that was already in place!) Ouch. The thought of acquiescing to this request haunted me. Not constantly, but enough to get the Grinch award.

Perhaps you’ve had such bouts with unreasonableness that interferes with a good night’s sleep? But what’s a person to do?

Me? I visited an old friend and mentor: Gerald Weinberg. Now, in reality, I’ve never met "Jerry." In fact, until yesterday, I called him "Gerald." But I do own three of his books, which I’ve read multiple times. He’s a “friend” I sometimes visit when I wrestling with a difficult problem. He’s always there for me, and he makes good sense. He helps me. ;-)

I had already pulled the two of the books off my bookshelf to share with my visiting son-in-law, who is working on his Ph.D. I started re-reading The Secrets of Consulting only to find that I’d highlighted just the preface and forward. Rats. No skimming opportunity here, so I started at the beginning.

As I read the preface, I was rewarded with a re-framing of my Grinch problem. I read the following account of Jerry’s approach to dealing with a major challenge of the consulting business:

“Most of the time, though, I enjoyed the direct interaction with my clients, if I could stand the irrationality. If I wanted to stay in the business, it seemed to me I had two choices:

1. Remain rational, and go crazy.
2. Become irrational, and be called crazy.
For many years, I oscillated between these poles of misery, until I hit upon a third approach:
3. Become rational about irrationality.

This book relates some of my discoveries about the rationality of seemingly irrational behavior that surrounds requests for influence. These are the secrets of consulting.”

Since I was currently going somewhat crazy, I recognized that my problem was really a problem of apparent irrationality. Once I could name the problem, I was partially relieved, because the correct naming of the problem is often the first step in finding a suitable solution: Become rational about irrationality.

A songwriter once said, “I may not have the answer, but I believe I have a plan…” I don’t even have a plan yet, but at least I know what the problem is. (For help in developing a plan I've skipped to chapter 8: Gaining Control of Change.)

PS: As an added bonus to reading and contemplating Jerry’s book, I used Jerry’s book as an intro to my previous post on this blog. The next day, lo and behold, I had a comment from Gerald M. Weinberg. You may have seen it. Who is this guy?

He’s the author of more that 40 books, including one listed on my favorite books list (An Introduction to General Systems Thinking). At first, I thought it was a prank. But it wasn’t. I followed the link and it led to one of my favorite author’s websites. I was delighted, nay thrilled. The very thought still puts a big grin on my face. Yowza!

PPS: Pictures today from the Moorten Botanical Gardens and Cactarium in Palm Springs.


  1. As a teacher I deal with irrationality all the day long. I know you understand.

    There's one little girl who's been in my room the last couple of weeks, who will likely be considered 'special needs' when she gets to elementary school next year. She really drives us nuts - her language is good, she has normal social skills, but she does so many things that are outside of the rules, and appears to do so obliviously.

    Today, as I was talking it out with another teacher, I began to try to see things from her perspective. Maybe knocking over the games and then staring at them, or stacking jars on top of one another till they fall and break, maybe that's her way of discovering the world, of exploring cause and effect.

    It sure doesn't make dealing with her too much easier, but finding even a small way to understand her - instead of insisting she act like us all the time - has helped me to look on her a little more kindly.

  2. @Saphron: "...has helped me to look on her a little more kindly." This tells me that you're on to something. "Love suffers long and is kind." Kindness while suffering takes divine grace. (I'm glad that's available for the asking!)