The Importance Of Irrelevance
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The days are getting shorter. I looked out the window at 5:30 today and realized that the sun had long since departed. I had to call Office Services and remind them to replace the fluorescents I'd allowed to burn out during the days when there was too much light all day long. Maybe I'll requisition a desk lamp and turn on that more humane source of illumination when dusk begins its shadow dance around the edges of my office. That would be nice. But when you come to think about it, dark...light...

It really doesn't matter. Does it? What do you think?

Becky came to see me. Becky is unhappy in her current position. She has every right to be. She's smart and ambitious and could do a lot more for the corporation if anybody would see it that way. "It's my resume," she says, pushing an exquisitely processed sheet of paper across the desk at me. Becky watches me read. Her face is wrinkly around the edges of her mouth, and her eyes are huge and a little watery. "I'm sorry," she says. "I know my situation is, like, completely irrelevant in the vast scheme of things." She looks intently at me to see if I understand, which of course I do.

We're all feeling a little irrelevant, now that the scheme of things has suddenly gotten so vast. Across town, for instance, one of our people has come down with anthrax. Not the kind that kills you, but the stuff that gets onto your skin, which is far less serious. She's going to be all right, and we're all soldiering on, even those who work in the same office. Still, it's very creepy. I've been fighting the urge to scratch my cheek and monitoring a slight tickle in the back of my throat since I heard about it. Certainly nothing could be less important than Becky's resume in light of these dire events. But when you think about it, in a world now obviously replete with crushing irrelevancies everywhere you look, is Becky's irrelevance more irrelevant than any other? Let's look at it.

Is Becky's future occupation more irrelevant, for instance, than next year's capital budget? Next year's capital budget feels very important now, or at least it did last month, but it isn't going to change the course of history in any way. The assumption is that it makes sense to build things, and that is certainly important, unless somebody is going to come along out of nowhere and knock it all down again, and of course the FBI has told us that could happen at any time. So spending an entire morning determining the level of investment in our infrastructure feels a little odd. We might as well do it, though. It is, after all, what we do.

Is Becky's desire to get a better job more irrelevant than the nonsense that takes place on Wall Street every day? One day it's up, based on the innate optimism of the jolly guys. The next day it takes a pounding, thanks to the gloomy, reflective ones who find solace betting against their own economy. What they do is important, of course, very rational and grave and essential, but when you watch CNBC it does sometimes look like a bunch of gerbils running around in a very messy cage, squeaking at each other. The whole exercise feels a little 20th century, doesn't it? But I suppose they might as well do it. It is, after all, what they do.

Is Becky's resume less important than what Jack Welch is doing? I saw him on television last week. He was in a bookstore talking with a bunch of fans. Jack, as any reader of this magazine knows, has a book out that recounts the events of his life as an American success story and provides insights about management, too. It was written at the turn of the millennium and is focused on the issues that seemed important then, many of which, of course, are eternal. Much of the planned promotional hoopla was derailed after Sept. 11, but now Jack Welch is back. He's out there pumping and thumping, because ... well, if you had a book, wouldn't you want it to be a success? I would. You have a book. You go out and sell it. It's what you do.

And how about football and tennis, and possibly even hockey? Or basketball, now that Air Jordan is back? He's back, right? Or baseball! Now that the World Series is on, isn't baseball somewhat less irrelevant than Becky's next step on the corporate ladder? Fifty-five thousand people who went to Yankee Stadium to see the Pinstripes whack Seattle seem to think so. I watched from home. In the back of my mind, I was still thinking quite a bit about whether the supply of smallpox vaccine would be ready in time to protect my sleeping moppet down the hall. But for a while there I lost myself. The big game was on. We watch. It's what we do.

Advertising? Is that irrelevant? Or the production of consumer goods? Packaged foods and 18 kinds of Gatorade and blue jeans that cost $125 and sneakers that light up when you run and all the good things that the world seems to hate us for producing? Are those things less important than getting Becky behind a real leather blotter? I think not! They're every bit as unimportant and more so!

Well, perhaps the quality of the table to which we are assigned at lunch is still relevant. It feels that way. Two days ago I went to lunch, and they tried to give me half of the usual portion of chicken breast in my salad. Was that important, when you consider that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is now being openly discussed by some crazy people? How shallow am I? What happened to the sense of perspective we're supposed to all have now?

Ah, but I did care. I cared a lot. I gave them holy hell, and they brought me another piece of chicken that I didn't even want. My victory over the forces of small portions was complete. It was a stupid victory. But I fought for it and won. Because it's what I do.

My concerns are small and narrow. My occupation is ridiculous. My activities are, for the most part, mundane. That's my game. It has brought me this far, and I guess I'll stick with it.

The weather has been beautiful lately. The air is mellow for this time in October, to the point where the leaves have barely begun to turn. Some trees, of course, have erupted into a riot of red and gold and every conceivable shade of yellow. Behind the warmth of the sun there is a suspicion of the north country, a crispness that invigorates but does not chill. When the cold descends, I know it will come all at once, and the oaks and maples will simply go from high summer greenery to naked brown winter in a couple of days. Then there will be leaves upon leaves in the street, big crunchy piles of them that smell sweet and invite anyone with a child's heart to dive right in.

No, the leaves don't matter. They're destined for the compost heap almost immediately. In the meantime they look kind of beautiful, though.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go get my car washed.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at