Saturday, January 24, 2004

I Wasn't That Good, and I'm Not That Bad

I just had my performance review, an annual ritual in any organization large enough to have a Human Resources--formerly known as Personnel--department. The review turned out pretty much as expected [by the way, is “better than expected” a good or bad thing to hear during your review?]. The remarks could have been and probably were copied from last year’s form: you’re doing a good job, people enjoy working with you, we’re going to ask more from you this year, etc.

I have given and gotten many reviews, and my opinion of their worth has waxed and mostly waned over the years, but my opinion is really irrelevant, n’est-ce pas? Performance reviews are a fact of business life; they are necessary to ensure compliance with labor standards and practices, and covering his bottom (line) if an employer gets hauled into court over a wrongful discharge lawsuit. At my first two companies I accepted everything my supervisors said without question. When I began to prepare reviews for others and became cognizant of the limitations of the process, the scales fell from my eyes.

My worst review occurred at a previous job. My company was going through a system conversion, which was the pet project of an executive several levels above me. In addition to working nights and weekends to manage the conversion while performing my regular duties, I made contingency plans to keep the department running in case the transition didn’t come off. This executive viewed my actions as a lack of faith, even betrayal, and it’s a wonder that I wasn’t fired.

Years later, events proved my caution justified, but by then the damage had been done, both to my career and the company. [The individual who championed the project departed within two years, and we were left to pick up the pieces.] The experience taught me not only how evaluations are imperfect but how they could be dead wrong. One of the “best” jobs I ever did was during that troubled period, yet that form in my personnel file came to the opposite conclusion.

Despite all that, I find the process helpful. I accomplish more when I set goals—quantitative ones are better, just as they teach you in Organizational Psychology--and it’s fair to be measured by progress toward these goals. The performance review process is most useful in stable environments when the objective may be, say, to book 20% more orders than the previous year or reduce costs by 10%; they don’t mean much in times of drastic change when companies are merging or new products are being rolled out. (After working some place for a while, I know who I want on my team for the big endeavors, and I’m not going to get that from no stinking piece of paper.)

Today I am much better at distancing myself from both blandishments and brickbats. When John Travolta was lamenting how his star had fallen in the late 1980’s, after it had soared during the seventies in “Welcome Back, Kotter”, “Saturday Night Fever”, and “Grease”, he said “I wasn’t that good, and I’m not that bad”. After his career was resurrected in 1993’s Pulp Fiction, he’s “that good” again, but Mr. Travolta is undoubtedly better equipped to handle his success.

To thine ownself be true, little grasshopper. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Financial District art: I wonder who orders this stuff and how much it costs.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Around the Neighborhood

While the rest of the country was freezing, in the Bay Area it was a good weekend to go outside. I rummaged in the closet until I found two old gloves, then off to the park to play pitch and catch with my son, as my father did with me forty years ago. My son’s not very good, but neither was I, despite memory’s embellishments. As the day wore on, his throws became straighter and crisper, and the ball began sticking to his glove. Hope springs eternal in a father’s breast: tryouts for the Little League are coming up.

We took a walk around the neighborhood. Some of the women in Asian households were sweeping the sidewalk and emptying their garages. The lunar Year of the Monkey starts this week, and by tradition one has to start the year with a clean house. A couple of homes are up for sale, so we paid a visit, looking for remodeling ideas. I looked at what these neighbors had done, every room re-carpeted and re-painted, considered briefly the multi-year task of upgrading my 24-year-old domicile, then switched on the TV to watch who was going to the Super Bowl. The local hero is Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, who attended Redwood City’s Junipero Serra High, where Lynn Swann [Steelers wide receiver] and Barry Bonds matriculated.

With neither the 49ers nor the Raiders in the playoffs, there’s less of a rooting interest this year, so actually I’ve been a little more productive on weekends (my wife says she doesn’t notice). I’ve gotten an early start on the tax return and boxed up some clothes for goodwill. Haven’t done anything significant yet, but the signs are encouraging. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

In Foster City the ducks don't confine themselves to the lagoons.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Goodbye to the Green-Eyed Monster

I realized last month that I had received a great gift. After reading the annual trove of Christmas letters that trumpeted the wonderful successes that people (and their children, especially their children) are making of their lives, I felt not a whiff of envy!

I was very competitive in my youth. Life was a contest, and that belief made it difficult to rejoice unqualifiedly at the good fortune and accomplishments of others, even close friends and relatives, because that meant others were “winning”. It would be nice to say that it was strength of character that subdued the green-eyed monster, but the truth is that I have lived long enough to have seen—and to have experienced—the pain to which every human being is subject. I cannot begrudge anyone his happiness.

The chairman of a public company had a handicapped son whom I worked with and who became my friend. The chairman, who prospered during the leveraged buyout craze of the 1980’s, bore the burden of his son’s physical condition and occasional wild streaks. Finally, what many consider to be the ultimate tragedy to be visited upon any human being—the death of a child--befell this fine gentleman when his son died in a car accident.

As junior staff members of a national accounting firm, Solomon and I would often talk about our dreams while trudging through warehouses counting inventories or re-adding the numbers on a computer report [yes, children, that’s how auditing was done in the ancient world]. Solomon realized his dreams. He became a high-producing commercial real estate broker and began investing in California property over 20 years ago. By the time he turned 50, he was retired. Solomon began working out and lost weight, had numerous lady friends, and traveled the world. While on vacation five years ago he fell during a freak accident and died.

I have lost friends and acquaintances to cancer. All were respected professionals in their fields and, when they died, ranged in age from 35 to 55 years old. Those whom they left behind we would also deem to be “successful”, yet the survivors would trade our accolades in an instant if only their loss could be undone.

We are safer, healthier, smarter, and wealthier than our forebears—many of us dramatically so—yet we still sojourn through the vale of tears. I cannot begrudge others their happiness; indeed, I rejoice and cheer them on. . © 2004 Stephen Yuen

[Update (1/15/04): a relative hit the jackpot in Las Vegas last month. I shall feel no envy, I shall feel no envy.....]

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Reading Glasses and Butter Compartments

I’ve worn glasses since the fifth grade. The nearsightedness became steadily worse through my college years, until an ophthalmologist prescribed “hard” contact lenses to arrest the elongation of the eyeball that is the most common cause of myopia. All has been well for the past twenty years but now the loss of flexibility in the eye is causing me to lose the ability to engage in close work with the contacts on. I am guessing at the letters in the newspaper or on the computer screen. So I just bought some reading glasses to offset, partially, the corrective power of the contact lenses.

Our refrigerator does a fine job of keeping our food cold, but at that temperature the butter is rock hard. We put the butter in its own compartment, where it is not as cold as the rest of the refrigerator, and the butter becomes easier to spread.

We have gadgets that do their jobs too well, so we need to invent more machines to offset the effects of the first. On my way to work each morning, I am transported in turn by car, train, bus, escalator and elevator. Because I don't break a sweat I need to use other machines so that my muscles will get a modicum of exercise.

Never satisfied, we endlessly calibrate and perfect our machines. The human condition: reading glasses and butter compartments.

The Caltrain station at 4th and King, SF, in the early evening . © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Monday, January 05, 2004

A Good Start

Today the New Year really started. Everyone was back in the office, and the difference in energy was palpable. Files were dumped, labeled, and stored, customers were called, meetings were scheduled, and the masses headed to the gym at noon. We did our best to ignore the candies, cookies, and other temptations delivered by well-meaning but misguided vendors. Our resolve is being tested already, but my colleagues and I are made of stern stuff.

The tattered portfolio is looking a little better. My tech holdings that haven't been delisted are nearly back to the prices that I paid. If the bubble (valuations are still high) deflates again, and I ride the wave back down, I know I have no one else to blame. There's still a lot of fear to go along with the greed, so I think the bull will continue to run.

After the storms of last week, the sun smiled on San Francisco.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Happy New Year

The New Year is both a time for looking back and looking forward, for taking stock and setting personal goals. I will do that soon enough—increasing my net worth and reducing various health-related measures (weight, blood pressure, triglyceride levels, etc.) being my principal concerns—but just for today I’d like to list some of the things that I don’t have to worry about.
  • Clean water is inexpensive and plentiful. Water-borne disease is one of the biggest killers in human history but is not a problem in San Francisco in the year 2004; neither is thirst or drought.
  • My family and friends are closer—literally--than ever. I travel on a commuter train between San Francisco and San Jose, but using my mobile phone I can instantly talk to my mother and father, who live over 2,000 miles away in Hawaii. If I want to visit, I can fly to their side within six hours.
  • The setting of the sun doesn’t mark the end of the day. Abraham Lincoln famously strained to study by the firelight, but now there is no human activity that can’t be performed after dark; some, like Britney Spears concerts, occur only at night.
  • There are countless ways to dispel boredom. A partial list of contemporary methods to escape ennui while, say, riding the bus home from work: newspapers, paperback books, magazines, portable gaming devices, MP3 players, radios, and CD players, laptop computers, personal digital assistants, and cell-phones.
  • Starvation. On the contrary, over-consumption of food is arguably the number one health problem in 21st century America.
  • Emergency services are only six minutes away. Several households in my neighborhood can attest to the reliability of our fire, police, and paramedic response teams.
  • My bank accounts are insured by the Federal Government, so I don't have to worry about taking out all my money if my bank has had some losses.
My cup is more than half-full. By the historical standards of the human race it is running over. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

[Update (1/21/04): Gregg Easterbrook's book about how life has never been better has gotten a lot of notice.]