Phoning It In
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Maybe it's the time of year. Or maybe it's the time of man, I don't know. But there's something going around, and it's worth evaluating.
I first noticed it in myself, since I'm around myself more than I'm with other people, which may be part of the problem. A certain...inability to take things seriously. Not that I'm taking them lightly. I'm just not taking them.
I called my friend Tom. "I think I'm phoning it in," I told him. It's an expression. He'd heard it before.
"Yeah!" he said, brightening the way you do when you hear that somebody else has something that afflicts you. "Are you having trouble focusing on things?"
"I don't know," I said, "but I appear to be having trouble focusing on things."
"Why do you think that is?" said Tom, but I had lost interest already since we weren't talking exclusively about me, although we were, sort of.
Later that day I called Mark out on the coast. Mark is a killer. I mean, he doesn't actually kill people, but he would if he could. It's one of the corporation's most valuable assets. "What do you want to do about the Ehrlanger situation?" I didn't care about the Ehrlanger situation, but it was an issue on his watch, and I thought he might want to talk about it.
"I don't give a fig about the Ehrlanger situation," he said, although that was not the actual term that he utilized.
"You don't?" I said. "Well, if you don't, I don't, that's for sure." Then we talked about the stock price for a while, which is code for a whole bunch of stuff that has to do with freedom and release from servitude. Then we hung up.
I asked myself...so what? So what if this week it seemed that a bunch of guys were phoning it in from Planet Mambo? What's the big deal?
I sat there for a while and thought about Sandy Weill and Jack Grubman, suspected of manipulating the rating of AT&T, the first because he wanted to rule Citigroup alone and the second because he wanted to get his tot into some snotty nursery school. How much of what we do is like that? Stuff that looks like business but is really just a bunch of guys scratching an itch? Once you start to think that way, it's hard not to phone in the activities that feel inauthentic. And when you begin gauging the authenticity of the work you do, it's a short step to picking up that psychic receiver and phoning in the whole deal.
I put on my jacket and went outside for a walk. You know what I saw everywhere? Thousands of people quite literally phoning it in, walking down the street yakking into their little handheld receivers, nowhere near a place where people do any actual business.
The whole society, phoning it in from digital space. Who exactly, I inquired of myself, was not phoning it in? Anybody? I went back to my office and thought about that for a while, and as I was thinking, about six people came into my office with a bunch of stuff. I couldn't really tell you what it was, but it was very important and had to be adjudicated immediately. And all six had something in common. Can you guess what it was?
Then Landry called for maybe the fourth time that day. Landry is a good operator. She gives a big fig about everything, even stuff that isn't worth a fig. She gave me this long and involved story about a huge slight that was inflicted on her operation by some other entity someplace, and I was looking out the window and thinking, whoa, look at that BMW Z8.
"You know what, Landry?" I said at last, because I couldn't think what else to say. "Why don't you just handle it the way you want to? Your instincts are good. Go with 'em."
"Yeah?" said Landry. "Thanks! I will!" And she went away feeling good about herself, so I managed the situation all right, except that was by accident, because I was really just, you know, phoning it in.
So then I sat there thinking, what is it with Landry and the six other warriors who breached my ruminations and made me deal with stuff? Are they smarter? No. Faster? Maybe, but that's not it. How come they're the only ones who are not phoning it in? Then it came to me.
Let's put it this way. Jack Grubman remembers where he was when J.F.K. was shot. So do Tom and Mark and I. These other guys rushing in with problems that need solving don't. Because they're too young. And we're not. We're young enough to smell the open road. But we're too old to care about stuff that doesn't seem worth caring about. At least not this week.
So the question is, Can we reclaim our lack of perspective and get back in harness? Or has the time come for us to hang up our phones and hit whatever portion of the highway remains to be seen? When I figure it out, I'll let you know. Until then, I'll have my people call your people.
By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.