Project Managers, Unplugged

Being a project manager is more than a full-time job.  It creeps into the rest of your life.  People who don’t like to plan assume that you really do want to organize their entire wedding.  Others assume you’ll always want to take the lead in organizing the office Christmas party or ordering office supplies.  Or that it should be easy-peasy for you to have a weekly meal and shopping plan.  Gosh, these things sound like so much fun to do.

I know plenty of people who knew, from the time they were five years old, that they wanted to be doctors, actors, astronauts, or writers.  But I do not know anyone who wanted to be a project manager when they grew up.  I certainly didn’t.

But here I am.  In spite of my adolescent fantasies of being a writer, Broadway star, or a theater company manager, I took a few different turns and wound up in this profession.  Admittedly, I seem to be hard-wired for it.  I’ve organized  M*A*S*H parties for 2,000 people, a high-brow party at the Heard Museum in Phoenix for PEOPLE Magazine, and outdoor pseudo-sporting and teambuilding events for countless corporate clients.  Eventually, I moved on to being a project manager for a variety of printer and software products.  I think I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that managing the party stuff was way more fun.  But then you knew that.

My fellow project managers, Cindy and Maureen, also took crooked paths to get to this profession.  And none of us are complaining.  But even project managers sometimes need to turn it all off.  And it’s hard to do that at home, where people, chores, dogs, and the rest of normal life are crying out for initiating/planning/executing/controlling/closing.

But sometimes, you’ve just got to get outta Dodge.

That’s why Cindy, Maureen, and I left town on Memorial Day weekend.  Destinations:  Stanley and Ketchum, Idaho.

Stanley is a very small mountain town at the base of the infamous Sawtooth Mountains.  There isn’t much to Stanley except where we are going:  The Meadow Creek Inn.  It’s a wonderful little 6-room motel with full-on day spa and a great deal early in the season.  And being the good project managers that we are, we’re all about maximizing quality and minimizing cost.

But before we could get to Stanley, things had to be planned.  Cindy took the lead on reservations and spa services.  She sent out the link to us so we could pick what pampering we wanted.  What was the different between a Vitamin C Facial and an Oxygenation Facial?  Hell if I know.  And what about the Hawaiian Lomilomi massage?   Sounds like a jungle disease to me.  Pass.

Driver selection was critical.  Decision criteria:  Who had the willingness to drive combined with sufficient trunk size?  Maureen won that round.  Three project managers, two coolers, three suitcases, coats, and other crap.  One car.  We can do this.

New iphone May 2015 035

Food and beverage?  More critical decisions.  We knew that we would just want to eat in our room for our one night in Stanley.  Cooking?  You’ve got to be kidding.  It’s got to be good food, good wine, plenty of it, and easy to get.  Answer:  Whole Foods.  Maureen led our little band of misfits into the store.  She took control.

Maureen Whole Foods R

Cindy had not had enough caffeine to handle the wide assortment of food options, but eventually settled on a brilliant combination of Cowgirl Creamery cheese, baguette, car food for lunch, scones for breakfast, and some very nice wine.

Cindy Whole Foods R

Amazingly, especially if you know me, I was the only member of our wayward group to purchase a superfood salad (yes, a salad).  I also had the project management foresight to grab extra paper napkins for the road. Always thinking…always looking into the future to see what our needs might be.  Just the kind of gal I am.

Supersalad R

And may I also go on record as saying that I was the only one of us who actually ate any of this healthy salad.  What the hell was I thinking.  I passed up the espresso brownies for this?

We hit the road to Ketchum, stopping only to see if our favorite thrift store would be open the next day, when we would have time to stop.  After all, we had a hard deadline:  We had to be in Stanley by 2:00 for Maureen’s first spa treatment.  She was having her body polished and then a detoxifying facial.  Wouldn’t want to miss that!  (I am terrified of exfoliation.  What if that dead skin is all that is holding me together?)

Past Ketchum, on the way to Stanley, was an obligatory stop at the Galena lookout, for an outstanding view of the Sawtooth Mountains and down to the valley where Stanley is located:

Galena view R

We really need to get a selfie stick:

Galena selfie R

On to the Meadow Creek Inn, where we donned white terrycloth bathrobes and immersed ourselves in an hour or more of absolute pampering.  I have to ask:  Why do we do this?  Why do we spend money to let relative strangers put twenty-eight different things on our faces?  Steam, warm towels, cold, mud, you name it.  Because work worries left our brains as soon as Enya started singing.  Slathering us like Christmas geese.  We end our facials with really bad hair and we don’t care.

“We don’t care.”    How often do we say that?

Drop everything

My theory is that we project managers are a dysfunctional combination of control freak and masochist.  We know our phones never ring with good news, yet we continue to answer them.  We know the client will mostly treat us like crap and yet we just sit back and take it.  We probably will never have enough people to do the job as well as we’d like it to be done.  There must be something terribly, terribly wrong with us.  Douglas Adams said it well:

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.”

But not today.  Today, we are desperate to stop thinking and just let go.

The curse of being a project manager isn’t just the work; rather, it’s how to turn it off when we’re not working.  People who aren’t planners have no idea what it’s like.  They float through life, happily flitting from thing to thing, motivated either by alcohol or intuition.  Or both.  They don’t care if there are things on the calendar or not.  They don’t plan because it might mean they’ll have to turn down something better later on.  I do not understand these people, and they do not understand me.

The only way we can get close to flitting is to leave our normal environment completely behind.  And give ourselves over to pampering, food, wine, and good company.  Our cell phones wouldn’t even work well up in the mountains, so we were really disconnected.

We hit the hot tub, with our free glasses of wine in hand.  The view made us stop and drink it all in.  I mean really:  It doesn’t get much better than this.

Hot Tub view R

This is true head-to-toe R&R.   Just what the project manager ordered.

We succeeded:  We turned off our worried little brains for 36 hours, mostly, and lapsed into relaxed rambling.  After a couple of glasses of wine, we discussed getting tattooes but couldn’t find a place in Ketchum to get them, much less decide what they might be.  Project managers need to plan tattooes, apparently.

And, another fascinating tidbit:  We found out that Maureen is a kale virgin – no kidding.  She took one look at my superfood salad and still is.  Don’t you kind of wish you still were?

More good advice:  Maureen told us about how, back in the 80s, she had a male relative who always fell asleep during movies at night and when he would wake up, he would exclaim:  “Wa?  What happened?”  Back then, Gene Hackman starred in just about every movie that was made.  So Maureen would always respond:  “Gene Hackman died.”  I think I will use this in my own life when Gary falls asleep during the takeover of the planet or when the unshaven guy robs the bank.  Instead of struggling to remember the entire plot while he was dozing, I’ll just say:  “Gene Hackman died.”  That’s my line from here-on out.

So these are kinds of things that 50-something project managers talk about when they let their hair down.  We don’t talk about “guys” anymore.  We do our best not to talk about work (although we did for about 10 minutes in the hot tub after too much caffeine on Sunday morning).  We don’t even talk about our dreams anymore because we have forgotten what they are.  Mostly, we just nosh, babble, and laugh.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On the way home, passing through Ketchum, we indulged in a little retail therapy and caffeine.  The drive home was far quieter than the drive up.  We felt the real world creeping back into our heads and souls.  None of us would admit it, but lists were probably being made in our heads.

Cindy Retail Therapy R

Back to reality on Monday morning. My late-20-something officemate, Erin, took a few minutes out of her very busy day to apply her knowledge of feng shui to our office space.

New iphone May 2015 027

Given the hellish project that we are on, maybe that will help.  Maybe the energy will get moving so quickly that this project will simply manage itself.   As the self-proclaimed Asian MacGyver, Erin moves warm and fuzzy things into our Relationship corners and makes sure our trash cans aren’t in our Health corner.  It’s all a little over my head.

But the warm and fuzzy feeling from the weekend evaporates after the first ten emails.  (And may I just take a moment to complain about having three different email accounts and calendars to check?)  I wonder what momentary weakness led me to accept this project.

Oh yeah…money and decent health insurance.  And it sounded like fun, at the time.

But other things that matter to me aren’t getting done now, and the project manager in me is pretty cranky about it.  Blogs are not being finished, my garden is a mess, my alcohol and caffeine consumption have quadrupled, and I forget to take my vitamins almost every day.  And don’t even ask how poorly my running is going.  Healthy eating?  Really?  Gary is wondering if I’ll ever cook again, and I don’t know what to tell him.  I struggle to drink one glass of water a day at work…no time to pee, after all.  Gotta plan for that.

What a silly job.  Lots of responsibility combined with no authority.  And no one, outside of our company, understands our jobs and frustrations.  Not even our spouses and closest friends.  In the grand scheme of things, this project isn’t really even important.

Dilbert Useless R

We are not curing cancer.  We are not landing on Mars.  We are not performing brain surgery.

So, now it’s Friday and it’s been a helluva week.  I almost fell asleep driving home two days from work.  Seriously.  Our trip to Stanley and Ketchum is just a dim memory.  Anyone who tells me that I’m drinking too much coffee or alcohol is going to suffer the consequences. I’m trying not to take “the job” home with me.  Some days, I’m more successful than others.  But I always take the exhaustion home.

Erin has taken up power-swearing since we started this project a month ago.  Of course, she learned it from me.  In a moment of ultimate frustration the other day, she laughed and cried so hard that it made her feet sweat.  I wonder when I decided to go back to work on this project, why I thought it would be different from before.  It isn’t.  It’s worse.

I think I’ll take Erin’s advice and change my Facebook status to:  “It’s complicated.”  If I run into you on the street and you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll just say “Fine.”

Admittedly, I don’t know what the point of all of this is.  I started out talking about our little trip to the mountains and wound up complaining about The Job That Ate My Brain.

I guess we all have tribes that we belong to and that help us survive.  We project managers need to stick together.  Twenty years from now, the three of us may wind up in rocking chairs on the porch of the Old Project Managers Home.  “Running With the Devil,” “Highway to Hell,” and “Burning Ring of Fire” will play non-stop at the Home.  No one will ask us to do anything or take charge of anything.  We will rock, rock out, and occasionally talk about the good old days when we almost lost our minds on a weekly basis.  And then we’ll laugh and realize how silly it all was.  And toss a coin for who has to get out of the rocking chair to grab the cold bottle of Chardonnay.

Until then, my advice for you is to treat us with kid gloves.  We’re on the edge most hours of most days.  Just be nice, pretend you understand, and be patient.  We’ll be back to normal someday.  We just can’t plan exactly when that will be.  Sorry.

“I’m a project manager, not a magician. Magicians have way cooler hats.” – Merlin Mann

Thanks for reading.  I know how busy you are.




2 thoughts on “Project Managers, Unplugged

  1. I love your writing. You can segue into this career any time you want. You’re ready. You know, before I was promoted to copywriting (is that a promotion?) I was the “Traffic Manager” at ad agencies, basically responsible for ensuring that all jobs in house were done on budget and the correct materials were delivered on time to whatever media channel where it was running. At one agency, they called me “Radar.” I do indulge my flaky artist side, but I still compulsively organize. I feel your pain, sister.


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