In yet another very thoughtful post, the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, writes about the late Steve Jobs. I woke up a little after 2 a.m. and found myself thinking about it. Yes, the time stamp on this post is accurate!
In a post called “Life is Short,” David writes about Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford. Ferriero observes that as he’s getting older, he’s reminded that his time is limited. So is all of ours, of course. The photo at left shows me speaking in December 2002 at the memorial service for my twin sister, who died at 51. (As I wrote in “She died. Who helped?” I will always be grateful to my then pastor, Heino Nurk, for the exemplary way he helped Eva and my family.)
I was reminded again of lives cut short when my boss, a senior executive in the office where I work as a federal historian, died at 61 this spring. His first name also was Steve. He was a good man and I was very fond of him. As was the case with my sister, he knew the odds were against him.
I’m glad I took the time in January to hug my boss during the last month when he still was able to come in to work. I also took the time to write an email to our office head, with a copy to my boss, which said this.
“What a gift it is to an office and organization to have people such as Steve with whom subordinates can speak freely and candidly. Candor is critically important for me in my position as historian. I didn’t meet Steve until 2003 but I soon came to value him for being himself and letting me be myself. What a gift! He really is a gem, someone who shines brightly for me at [name of my employing agency redacted]. We don’t meet many people along our life journeys about whom we can say that. But I’m proud to say that Steve is one of them.”
Ferriero points to Steve Jobs’s exhortation not to let others’ opinions drown out one’s inner voice, heart and intuition. David adds that “I’m trying hard to help people discover and heed their own inner voice, heart and intuition.” He is lucky that he heads a cultural heritage institution which values knowledge and where acting on intuition is possible. Not all organizations value knowledge. Nor is candid, recorded discussion and debate always seen as safe or wise. And yes until no, that mantra of David’s I so admire? Not seen as possible in some environments.
In “Getting Past the Spin,” former White House press secretary Mike McCurry wrote in The Washington Monthly in 1999 that many public affairs officers and senior officials are “content to avoid any notice” in Washington, lest oversight committees take interest. In his view, some even limited their public affairs notices and tried hard to stay below the radar. An interesting issue but one for which I never was able to draw any discussion on #thatdarnlist. I eventually unsubscribed from the Archives & Archivists listserv. A Twitter friend sensed why and sent this funny and supportive tweet to me.
As I’ve pointed out in records related forums, some organizations actually fear capture of institutional memory and strive to keep as few records of it as possible. This particularly is the case for ones that believe they have small or largely non-existent safe zones. I didn’t get much traction on Recmgmt-L when I raised such issues. A poster did say once that the questions I raised made records specialists uncomfortable because they were difficult to admit to and confront.
I came to see the records management forum as a bonding and morale boosting site for the community, which meant I was undermining its purpose. I unsubscribed after someone yelled at me for mentioning my sister too often. I explained that I didn’t want to put on the mask and conform to group norms in ways that succeeding in the forum seemed to require. I implied that I have to do that in the office, don’t ask me to do it outside it, as well. But that this felt necessary wasn’t their fault, it was I who was the misfit. I said, it’s your group, your profession, not mine, so what you need is not for me to define. If my needs aren’t met, I should walk away.
I’m reluctant to come out and say this, knowing that David reads my blog, but NARA also struggles in some key areas related to the life cycle of records. It’s interesting that the agency that is headed by someone as people oriented and psychologically astute as Ferriero issues records related guidance that often ignores the most important human elements that can affect records. Indeed, I’ve seen NARA do things on the records side of the house that undermine and work against the goals it states it is working towards.
My time in Fedland has taught me that people figure out what are rewarded behaviors and act accordingly. The rewards may be psychic or monetary and can rely on positive and negative incentives, both. Perhaps time will prove me wrong, but I think NARA’s best chances of achieving results it can point to as successes in performance and accountability reporting lie in the relatively easy, sexy areas that have a lot of public support. I’m thinking of areas such as digitizing its holdings and sharing historical information. Given how fraught and perilous surviving in “Washington” can be, I’m not convinced the approach it is taking to its priorities is wrong, actually. I want a sustained and sustainable NARA, I want it to succeed and survive.
Judging by my interactions with NARA officials below Ferriero’s level during the last two years, I think some of the tougher issues over which the National Archives has jurisdiction are unlikely to see any meaningful change in approach, much less be resolved. And no, it’s not because there aren’t any Carl Malamuds or Michael Beschlosses taking an interest in them. I don’t think lack of interest by the prominenti in some of these problem areas actually is the reason for lack of attention to them. There seem to be other inhibitors, most of which I can’t spell out here. Some are internal to NARA, others external. I’ll hasten to add that I’m not thinking of issues related to presidential libraries.
Which leads back to the question of inner voices, hearts and intuition. Jobs worked in an entrepreneurial environment that valued creativity. Not every one does. Think of all the people who go to work day after day knowing very well what is in their hearts but that no one with whom they work wants to hear it. Or that there are other constraints, some quite crippling, that inhibit crafting the solutions that many can see are needed but for various reasons those with power choose not to implement. That can result in a tremendous feeling of helplessness.
There are many elements that can affect listening to inner voices and one’s heart and intuition. When there are limitations, it helps to have the ability to appreciate good things when they happen. All the more important, if there are key parts of your life where noise doesn’t affect your ability to hear your inner voice but that require you to stifle it as far as others are concerned. Sometimes you just have to learn to live with an internally heard but largely outwardly silenced voice. If you find safe zones for speaking, writing, and acting, value them! Safe zones are a cherished commodity. Those who give them to you are giving you an enormous gift, one that can be quite rare. If you don’t find or have them to the extent you need, try to understand why, don’t blame yourself or others, and find other ways to cope. (Long walks with music work well for me.)
Someone who read my account of my visit to NARA last Wednesday and my laughing story about the way David Ferriero greeted me said he could feel the joy in my writing about it. (Some of the Foundation’s photos should be going up on its public Facebook site soon! I’ll put up a post with links when they do.) [Margot Schuman’s photo of David and me, taken for the Foundation, added later, as above] The person was referring to an email I had sent, which was similar in content to what I’ve written at my blog. Clearly I was in touch with my inner voice when I wrote it! AOTUS can’t cite it in a performance and accountability report but making me laugh the way David has done definitely is a worthy accomplishment, especially in Washington!