Our formative experiences in childhood sometimes pay dividends in adult life. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger relates how a ridiculous martial arts tournament taught him about career survival in a dysfunctional office.
I promised at the end of my last column that I’d leave off the excessively depressing existential dread themes this week and get back to telling snarky office life stories. This one, though, is a double-feature: a goofy coming-of-age romp and a snarky office story.
First things first: I started studying martial arts as a kid in the 80s. I watched a lot of schlocky action movies, I was younger and scrawnier than all of my classmates, and I wasn’t interested in traditional sports. Learning how to fight in an air-conditioned dojo seemed like it would be a lot more fun (and a lot less gruelling) than the other after-school activities available in my town.
The school’s owner – whom I’ll call “the Big Guy” – was a larger-than-life character. He made everything up as he went along, teaching whatever technique or practice amused him at a given moment. There was little consistency in his classes. I’m sure that in his mind, the Big Guy was a wise sage, at one with The Moment, inspiring us wide-eyed youth. To his junior instructors (the adults and older kids who ran the training floor) the Big Guy was a random destructive force, since him showing up always disrupted whatever we were supposed to be doing at the time. This kept classes … interesting.
One Saturday morning, the Big Guy had us stretch, warm up, and then line up along one wall. We thought we were going to be taught some new sparring technique. Instead, he leaned some old fence pickets against the opposite wall, handed the girl at the front of the line a half-dozen assorted shuriken  and told her to ‘hit the target.’
Safety tip: do not throw your shrunken the way you might throw a stone that you want to skip over water.
Note that I didn’t say that the Big Guy taught the girl anything about what shuriken were, or what they were traditionally used for, or how to handle them safely, or how to aim them properly … In fact, there weren’t (as I recall) any actual targets on the boards. The very confused girl smiled, aims, and overhand lobbed a 6-inch diameter shuriken across the training hall … where it hit a board … bounced off … and fell to the floor.
We discovered later that the Big Guy had discovered a stash of used demonstrator, returned, and otherwise unsellable shuriken back in the equipment room and decided to host an impromptu class. We all got a turn hurling them. Since our kids’ class ranged from 8- to 16-year-olds, the hit-to-miss ratio didn’t resemble what we’d seen in late-night ninja movies. Some shuriken stuck deep in the wood; others ricocheted back at us. More than a few took impromptu rolling trips across the carpet. It was … fun.
A few weeks later, I came in late for an evening class, walked onto the training floor, and discovered that the Big Guy was running another shuriken session. This time, though, he was writing in a notebook after everyone threw. I asked what was going on, and our 14-year-old class leader said that we were having a ‘tournament.’
Nobody seemed to know what the rules of the tournament were. Kids threw different combinations of shuriken. Some threw three times while others threw only twice. There still weren’t any discernible targets. We didn’t know if imbedding a shuriken in the wood ‘counted’ more than hitting and bouncing off … or missing entirely. I stepped up, threw my bundle of three, and then the event abruptly stopped for the evening.
Normally, we only ended class early when one of the black belts knocked someone senseless. Those girls were vicious.
I missed the next few classes. When I came back, the ‘tournament’ seemed to be over but we were still throwing shuriken. Then that activity stopped and never came back. There was never an explanation. A few years later we dabbled in disarming knife wielders, but that was effectively the end of ‘weapons training’ in the kids’ class.
Six months after the ‘tournament’ ended, I received a 4th place trophy for my ‘accomplishment.’ I was told that the other kids had a big awards presentation ceremony (that I’d missed), so mine was handed over like a gym towel. I never knew who ‘won’ the tournament, what the grading criteria had been, or even how many competitors there were. I put my trophy in my gym bag. That night, I put it on my bookshelf. It’s followed me through nine relocations since then.
I know this weird tournament may not seem like a business story at first glance. Hear me out. In a lot of respects, my ‘shuriken throwing tournament’ experience was a pitch-perfect training ground for white-collar office life. Consider what it would be like if your boss ran an operation the way the Big Guy ran his impromptu tournament:
- One day, your boss randomly changes your work assignments and priorities without warning or explanation.
- Your boss never explains how to perform a new task; you’re ordered to perform the new task first in the hopes that you learn how to do it as you go along.
- Your tasks change without warning from non-critical activities to critical, graded, or inspected activities without logic or explanation.
- Your work has no intelligible grading criteria; there’s no way to tell whether or not you’re meeting the boss’s hidden performance standard.
- One day, your tasks are critical and highly-supervised; the next day, they’re not important at all and no one performs them anymore.
- Sometime later, your boss announces performance-based awards for the abandoned task that don’t seem to have any correlation with effort, impact, or accomplishment.
Performance-based punishments, too.
I’m dead serious when I say that I’ve had jobs exactly like this. So have my friends and co-workers. In mass media, the ‘dysfunctional office’ trope is so popular that it’s instantly recognizable to white-collar workers world-wide. We got twelve seasons of The Office between the UK and US versions. Mike Judge’s Office Space is still one of the most-quoted comedies in American business. Netflix’s new animated series Aggretsuko is everyone’s new must-discuss TV show. The ideas that these stories explore for comedic effect – the ineffable boss, the pointless work, the constant state of confusion and dread – resonate with people because most of us have experienced them.
So … yeah. I’d glad that I took part in that shuriken ‘tournament.’ The experience taught me how to put on a poker face, follow an authority figure’s bizarre instructions, and perform under stress without letting on that I was completely lost. I got to make good use of those skills later on in a paid capacity. Instead of hurling blunt-tipped metal discs, we were writing reports or making slides or engaging in other equally non-violent and non-impactful activities, but the premise and conditions were the same. We didn’t know how to do the work, we realized that our work didn’t matter, and no one involved in the work understood what ‘victory’ looked like.
In one telling example, I spent nine months working on a massive database system installation as a last-minute replacement for an actual trained DBA. I knew next to nothing about databases, but I knew how to mimic menial data entry tasks after watching other people perform them. We spent weeks manually typing equipment entries into Excel tables so that they could be uploaded to a SQL server … only to have the entire data load dumped and deleted when the software publisher changed their application logic. The work was pointless, utterly confusing, directionless, supposedly ‘critical,’ and ultimately futile. I likened every uploaded Excel worksheet to a blindly-hurled shuriken and hoped for the best … and collected my pay packet at the end of every two-week reporting period. I hated the job, but I soldiered through it effectively.
Our entire team was confounded throughout that project. We kept searching for bidden value and never found anything credible to justify our bill-rate.
Meaningless work like this can manifest everywhere. We all have to deal with it. That being said, we don’t have to suffer needlessly in its execution. The take-away from my ‘pointless work’ experience is that I (as a leader) must constantly communicate with my people. My silly shuriken-throwing trophy reminds me that it’s my obligation to always explain why new tasks are necessary. It reminds me to train my people how to perform their tasks, to monitor and give them constructive feedback on their tasks, and to show them how their output affects the company. My silly plastic trophy reminds me that it’s my job to ensure that my people labour isn’t wasted … or perceived as wasted.
Always remember that it doesn’t matter what your job is or what industry niche you work in: morale crumbles when work is pointless and morale surges when work matters. People need their labour to serve a purpose. All of us crave validity and meaning. So, as a leader in any capacity, provide that meaning. Just skip the silly trophies.
 These were Japanese-style hira-shuriken, specifically: flat, multi-bladed discs that were designed to be thrown at an enemy’s exposed (unarmoured) body parts in order to be a distraction of a nuisance. They weren’t lethal weapons, weren’t effective in any practical way for self-defence, and weren’t legal for street carry in our town. They were, however, permanently associated with Hollywood cinematic ninjas which meant that us kids were awe-struck by them.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.