True Story Thursday vol. 5: Hooray paperwork!

They say the world looks down on the bureaucrats
They say we're anal, compulsive and weird
But when push comes to shove you gotta do what you love
Even if it's not a good idea

~ Futurama

A lady walks up to a man and greets him tentatively, with a question mark at the end of his name. He is wearing a suit and tie; he's been waiting for her to arrive. While trying very hard to keep his expression calm and courteous, he stands up much too hastily and loses control of his coat. Still, the two manage to shake hands. He stammers an apology that sounds a little too loud in the quiet room. She gives him a polite smile, and replies with something diplomatic.

Is this a couple on a blind date? No, no!

This scene took place in the lobby of the employment agency I visited this morning. I, like stammering guy, was there to fill out reams of paperwork, interview a recruiter, and take a few tests which verified our ability to type, correct spelling and use Microsoft Office programs. I wish nervous guy well. Though I can't help wondering the reason for his nervousness. Does he need a job with great urgency? Never done this sort of thing before? Socially anxious? I suppose I'll never know.

But the guy inadvertently gave me some confidence. The recruiter who interviewed me was the same one who spoke to him (and to his relief, let him know where to hang up his coat!), so I felt like my own less visible nervousness was no big deal. Which made me even less nervous! And though he was in the computer skills testing room when I got there, he was still there when I'd finished. Which made me mentally add weight to the "extremely recent college grad who hasn't worked with a recruiting agency before" possibility. And yes, also made me feel better.

Much props to Mom for getting me in touch with this agency. They are the first one this year that has given me the opportunity to come in and fill out paperwork and take tests. And I am good at filling out paperwork and taking tests. Which I think is due to practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Also I like doing it. For that, I'm not so sure. Could be I'm just a weirdo who likes paperwork.

See, the jobs I've done that I liked best--or the most enjoyable parts of the jobs I didn't like so much--involved lots and lots of filing. Some examples! Taking numbers off invoices and turning them into paid bills. Having a computer tally up people's hours from their punch in / punch out logs. Typing up contracts from handwritten notes. Proofreading legal documents. Taking miscellaneous heaps of paper and creating an organized filing system out of them. Giving a filing system a complete overhaul because one or two or ten or two hundred pieces of paper out of an entire filing cabinet need to be removed or replaced with other, slightly different pieces of paper. Being able to get paid to do these things makes me happy.

An orderly system can be a beautiful thing. When people are standing around an office arguing about what to do next, being able to dig in a drawer, point to a piece of paper and say "This is how we handled this problem last time, and it didn't work, so let's not do it again!" or "We have exactly enough money and/or time to try so-and-so's idea, and it might turn out awesome, so maybe we should do it!" You can also get wonderful stories out of pieces of paper. If you're on the phone with a vendor, say, and you have all their invoices neatly arranged in a binder in front of you, can you tell them you're sure they raised the price on widgets. Or that you ought to get a discount on wingdings because you buy so many.

But every system is ordered only up to a point--and that too is a beautiful thing. There's no such thing as complete control, even over documents. Especially when you have to try and exert it yourself. No matter how much work you put into it, you will eventually run across a folder where the client simply never filled out their ABC Form. Maybe the professional in charge of that client had taken the form out to review it four years ago, spilled coffee all over it, and threw it away, and now both the professional and the client are no longer with the company and there's no way to get it back. Even when you're the person generating the paperwork. The one time you forget to hand-write the date entered, date paid and check number on an invoice, that's the check the vendor loses in the mail. Which it turns out the check-signer handwrote, rather than generating through the computer system. So now there's NO record of it in the office and the bank is closed...ah, you get the idea.

For me, people trying to use a filing system is a microcosm of the dynamic tension between order and chaos, freedom and safety.

Try to make a system that covers every single angle, write little notes on everything where the pre-set forms don't give you enough information, and you never get any work done. Besides, you always end up needing types of information you didn't think to record because you didn't know you'd need it. You start seeing all your work processes in terms of the information you already have. You won't think to contact a new client in a new way, work out a different type of deal with a vendor, or redistribute duties among your employees. You sit behind a desk dotting every t and crossing every i but never actually making any products or helping any customers. More order means more safety, but too much order becomes a trap.

Too little order has its own set of problems. You can never find anything when you need it; you don't know how much you owe or how much you've got coming. You don't know who works well for you and who is messing with you, which procedures are a waste of time and which are working. Sure, you never have to stop to fill out forms and put them in order. And you have all that nice empty cabinet space. And pretty soon you will have a nice, big empty space where your office used to be, and your employees will go work for other people who know what's going on.

Now, in my mind I toss around ideas, attempt to retain sequences, weigh emotional states against one another. Poke my personality to see what can be moved, what sticks, what I want to leave in the same place and what needs changing. I wonder where too little surveillance ends and too few escape routes begins. I try various things with varying results. I want to see how other people do it; get ideas, compare notes. But this is just not doable. How people hold themselves together on a daily basis is, on the one hand, incredibly personal and private. And on the other hand, there so much going on inside any given person at any moment that talking it through, writing it down, any possible means of communication, leaves out a whole sweeping universe of subjective context and reduces it to a few scraps of symbol and expression. Words, gestures, tones.

Much like all the many actions, personalities, decisions that go into running a business are distilled into a system of files. And a business is bigger and slower and clunkier than a human personality. It may not hold still, but you can catch glimpses of its inner workings. You can see which parts of itself it distills into a few scraps of symbols printed on paper. You can get ideas.

So every filing system I get to work with is a practicum. (Well, ok. If I stretch it that far, in a sense everything everybody does is a practicum: an attempt to put to practical use things one had only known about in theory.) An applied, full-bodied approach developed by an organism not identical to a human being, but one created by human beings so that it shares many of their characteristics. And all the information being wrangled is exterior to myself--generated by other people, belonging to them. I'm still aware (at times painfully aware!) that in the end all the symbols on those pieces of paper represent real people whose real lives will be or have been affected by what got recorded and how. But I can look at an organization's filing system, and see the balance it strikes between order and chaos. Then I can look at how the people treat each other, how good a job they do working together. And get ideas of what kind of culture generates what kind of document system.

If a company has a culture I really like and want to emulate, I can try to adopt some of their stragies for information control. If a company has a culture that I dislike, I can look at their strategies for information control and try to avoid mimicking them.

So that is a big part of the reason I like paperwork and filing so much. It helps me find ways to resemble things that make me happy and avoid things that frighten me!