Masters in Machiavelli

My graduate school teachers say group projects are where we learn to work with others in a collaborative, innovative environment. In actuality, group projects are where Machiavelli learned to conquer weaker-willed foes. The Prince is gone, the CEO lives – and he’s got all sorts of ticks up his sleeve. Here are the ones I’ve witnessed:

Hard ball: To play hardball you have to hold all the cards. If you’re holding all the cards, why are playing a game? Name your price and get on with it.

Charm: Sure, it’s important to know your audience in order to charm them into complacency. But more important: your silence. Silent enthusiastic agreement is a bridge builder. Say too much and you can set someone off. Silent? You might be thought wiser than you are. May that be the worst thing to happen to you.

Phantom: People don’t like you? Not a problem. Have someone they like talk to them. Even better, explain that a number of people have been suggesting – not you of course, you’d never think to question them – and you want to know how we, as a group, can best incorporate those suggestions. Best to try this one on a day when the sole beloved member of your group is absent.

Planting the seed: The people don’t hate you, yet. Play on their good graces, and make them think your idea was dreamed up by them. Phrase your idea as a question, and when they repeat it, jump on it as though you’d never thought of it. To seal the deal: praise their insight.

Prompt: Skip the planting and go straight to harvesting. Start the conversation by saying that you want to follow up on the group’s earlier idea. Who is going to deny having an idea once you’ve professed how its brilliance won you over – and would they be able to weight in on how you think it could maybe be expanded?

No alternatives: If you can all agree there’s a problem, you’re halfway there. Tell them there are a finite number of solutions, and propose truly horrendous ideas with no redeeming value. Remember, zero redeeming value, because people will fall on a weak idea like it’s a saving grace. Then, make the last option the only palatable one.

Booster club: If there’s a group project and you need a certain number of votes to go your way, cheer the influencers in inconsequential things. “Your hair looks amazing!” “Where did you get that coat? It’s divine.” “You led the last meeting with such a sense of command and insight, could you do so again?” When it’s go time, you’ve already made it clear that the two, or more, of  you are on the same team. You’re halfway there before you start. All that remains is to present your idea as building on something they’ve implicitly agreed to.

Scored earth: Tear down everyone else’s plans by any means necessary. It’s messy and potentially bridge burning. Do so only if the alternative is French occupation of invaded Russia.

Everyone but Me

Everyone is graduating. Except those people who already graduated. Oh, and me: still slogging through school.

My mind knows that there are other people still in school, I just find it hard to believe. There must be toddlers just starting on their academic career, high schoolers eager for college and even more for their senior year, and people I pass in my school’s hallways who have years to go before they earn their degree.

But I’m in my senior seminar. In the fall, every other person in that room will head out to work in the morning and home at night. They will not stop at school on their back. Instead, they’ll leave the office, go straight home, put on pjs, and fall asleep. Or maybe they’ll cook themselves a hot dinner. Or – possibly only the craziest among us – will leave their offices, drop their worries, and go out on the town. They’ll see a show! Get dinner with friends! Run through a sprinkler!

Meanwhile, come fall, I’ll go to work and will leave only to head back to school. I’ll have another semester of cold dinners – the kind that I cook on Sunday and hope aren’t rotten by Thursday. I’ll do all my errands on the way too, from, or at, work. Weekends, and any free nights, will be dedicated to homework and projects, and on those few precious weeks when I don’t have something due, grocery shopping.

One day, with god’s help, I’ll have those things again. Till then, run through a sprinkler for me.*

 

*I’m not actually a sprinkler-runner, but I’m happy to encourage fancy-free behavior if that’s your thing.

 

Keep Ya Head Up: Choices

My first performance evaluation came as a surprise. I’d been gainfully employed for years before I had one, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be the most positive version of a conversation I’ve had many times since.

“You come off as somewhat…” my boss paused before completing his thought. The rest of my performance review had exceeded my expectations, but he had said that there were some additional notes he wanted to share as well. “…somewhat aggressive.”

I blinked. He gave examples. I nodded.

“Ok,” I said, digesting this news. “How do we solve it?”

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good. I know that I can give you an assignment and trust that you’ll get it done. You won’t drop it just because other people aren’t interested in working on it.”

I waited.

“But I want to make sure you’re aware. It can be helpful, but it isn’t always necessary. So you should decide when to be, and when not to be, quite so forceful.”

The Battle for the WPA is Won

Technically, my browbeating USPS workers started with the Great Depression. To battle the Great Depression, the government flooded the economy by any means necessary. That included paying artists to make everything from cookbooks to vacation posters. What a legacy.

When I found out that USPS was releasing a set of WPA stamps, I had to have them. I saw the sign before the release, and demanded, politely, the release date from my postal worker. I went to the post officer a week later to make sure they hadn’t been released early. They hadn’t.

Between one thing and another, it took me two months to get back. When I did, my cashier claimed that he didn’t have any WPA stamps. I calmly suggested he check, and watched while he hunted down his supervisor. He returned to inform me that his office didn’t have any. In a small and sad I voice, I asked if he could check every cashier’s window, just in case. He did.* Then he had to tell me that there was not a single WPA stamp in his post office. I thanked him, accepting that I’d lost the battle. But I did not believe I had lost the war.

I held my head high and went to another post office. The same sad, sad scene repeated itself. The cashier suggested I just accept that there were no more WPA stamps, but I could buy the nice new flower bouquets or slap-happy cinco del mayo ones. Thanks, but no thanks. She thought I walked away in defeat. But I had one more trick up my sleeve.

“Excuse me?” I inquired back at her window a moment later.

She raised her eyebrows at me.

“There’s a set in the display case. Of WPA stamps. I’ll take them,” I said sincerely, as though she’d suggested it herself.

She raised her eyebrows again, and told me I’d need to get an employee to open the case for me. The employee I dragooned into helping me asked for a ruler, since the small opening in the display case was as far from the stamps as could be. I gave him a newspaper. He gave me a look, and with some considerable effort, got out the stamps. Pretty pleased, he stood with me as I made my purchase, telling me about the WPA murals on the walls surrounding us. We agreed they were good, and I told him it was probably because the artist was from Pittsburgh. I pointed him to the plaque which explained the art’s history, which he appreciated. Sadly though, I couldn’t tell him if the artists’s family was still in the Steel City.

Thus, with perseverance and persuasion, did the WPA thrive. Also, that’s how I got my stamps.

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*USPS workers fall over themselves for pleasant customers. Their days are hell, so if you don’t yell at them – and give something resembling a smile – they’ll spend the entire day helping you.

Brownie Fail, or: Cake

Objectively speaking, I cannot make brownies. It doesn’t matter which recipe I use or steps I take, they all come out somewhat awful. Until now, I thought I was alone – but I am not. A friend has fallen into the same problem. Her solution though, isn’t to stay away from brownies. It’s to remake them in her own image.

Here is the original and for those who can’t make brownies:

double the water

double the baking soda

and, from the ashes of failed brownies, you have a cake that was waiting to be born.

…That’s how we make an appeal to what is right and decent, and without anger. I did it for the framers of the Constitution, who intended that we would treat each other in a civil way. We call each other gentlemen to avoid being cantankerous. And no one person, Democrat or Republican, should ever call law enforcement on a colleague.

– Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Hall of Congress