I used to work for a crazy person.
He was a five and a half foot parolee who resembled, in a grotesque, hilarious kind of way, a perfect blend of Danny DeVito and Saddam Hussein. He stood below my shoulder, wore a thick, bushy mustache, and each morning sometime before noon would clod down the stairs to the office in ill-fitting gym shorts and a bedshirt that drooped over his swollen midsection like a dropcloth across an easel.
He had convinced each of us, his three employees, to commute across town to the home office in his basement. It was the recession, work was hard to come by.
Each day our routine was simple. We’d arrive around 9am and punch paper timecards in a mechanical clock. We would pour out yesterday’s cold pot of bad coffee and make another batch, and form a crooked semi-circle around the glowing orange dot as it crackled and hissed and filled the room with the acrid smell of weeks old pre-ground Yuban. We’d each fill a cup of sour coffee and slowly race to check the emails.
Email, by this time, was well established. It was firmly in place as the standard for general business correspondence, and most people could get it on their phones. But The Man Upstairs insisted on a permanent record, a hard copy for the file, and so each morning we sipped on burnt coffee and printed emails. Paper copies of the electric mail were then laid out, indexed by client, subject, and time-of-arrival, on a folding table that overlooked the office where they waited for our leader’s arrival.
He would arrive by 11 on most days, pounding dramatically down the steps to groan loudly about how late he had been up the night before, working diligently for our cause. “All I do is work,” he would lament, “I need a vacation.” Mornings, as a rule, were hard on the man.
But his spirits improved slowly as he quaffed Bailey’s and coffee and sat down to behold the analog mail (a-mails) before him. He worked his way through the list and scrawled hasty responses on each sheet of paper, and handed them off to each of us to be interpreted and transcribed. We were to type responses, print drafts for review, make necessary edits, receive secondary review approval, and send the missives into space.
We had games. One was to transcribe The Man Upstairs’ chicken scratch word for word, so that the draft reflected the real insanity that we bore witness to each day. “WRONG. Sharon ppty different section/zone. New prop revise now.” My preferred diversion was to sneak technically correct but lewd sounding words in and see if he would catch them. Intercourse. Erect. Turgid. You understand. Other times I just played Solitaire.
But so each of these games of course added another step to actually communicating, and by the time he made it through the list, new a-mails had appeared on his desk as replies came pouring in, ostensibly from laptops and iPhones as others were out to lunch.
Ours was not an efficient way to use email. So when The Man Upstairs would declare, “I’m so busy. Busy, busy, busy.” and strut around our damp basement office, it was hard to take him seriously. But then some time around two in the afternoon, the script would change. “I’m important,” he would say. He really said that, in a squawking, nasally voice, “I’m important.” And before long it was clear to us that of course he had not worked all night, and of course he was not busy (at least on billable things), but that he really was hard at work constructing a narrative in which he was relevant. Important. Irreplaceable.
I began to feel for him, to a point. And then, eventually, I began to notice that we’re all doing the same damn thing. That “busy” is, collectively, our canned response to “how’s it going?”. That “busy” insinuates productive, successful, essential. And that “busy” insulates us both from doing things we don’t want to do, as well as from telling the people who invite us to do those things the truth: that we’d really just rather not go do that thing.
Yeah, we’re all busy. There are stacks of emails and paperworks that aren’t about to do themselves. But it’s probably not really the default that it’s become. A closer look might show that you’re not all that busy, but have a pretty good idea of what you don’t want to do.
Next time you hear yourself saying, “ah, I’m busy,” maybe think about that. Do you really have things you need to do? Or do you just not want to do that thing that’s staring you down? Because if it’s the latter, it’s ok to just say “no,” and go spend your time on something worthwhile.