Revolt of the Amateurs

  • Posted: January 24, 2017
  • Category: Blog
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The events of the year past will feed ecstatic ecstasies of cultural introspection caricatured through the distorting fun house mirrors of prevailing political orthodoxies. The dark humid mushroom farms of the blogosphere have been newly fertilized with steaming loads of that which we feed on. Those of us who labor in the silent echo chamber of the blogosphere hunger for clicks. We will do anything to get them. So rather than endure the yawns and silence that would greet posts on the ins and outs of the Late Roman Republic or the exciting discovery around Tabby’s Star, I instead scramble for the clicks and comments that are more likely to accompany posts on Donald Trump and the Deplorables. My carefully closeted heart sings!!!!

Just as the climactic confrontation between Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Grant’s Army of the Potomac became known to history as the Overland Campaign, I think the election of Donald Trump will become known as the Revolt of the Amateurs. Media hysteria and progressive angina attacks aside, what is President Trump about other than his amateur status in the professional leagues played by our masters?

All his competitors, the safer choices, boasted impressive resumes of responsible experience in the public sector. They all had appeared for years as sober talking heads, clearly well experienced in the arcana of the public’s business, either in office or out of office. They all had kissed the ring of one or another billionaire to fund their candidacy. They all knew what was possible, what could be said and more importantly what could not be said. All the newly elected President Trump had was his Twitter account and the innocence (?) to speak common sense. A common sense that the experts either were blind to or knew couldn’t be spoken aloud.

What now outrages the Adorables, speaking through the ubiquitous amplifiers of the responsible press, is that the people selected for senior positions in President Trump’s administration are amateurs as well. In the coded language of the Adorables, these people are “unqualified”. They are by definition – amateurs. The CEO of the most vilified oil company in the world as Secretary of State? A neurosurgeon is heading up Housing and Urban Welfare, oops, I meant Development? An advocate of charter schools to lead the teachers union otherwise known as the Department of Education? A critic of the Green Cathedral and an expert in constitutional law to head up the EPA? A combat marine officer who has walked among the dead bodies of his soldiers and reads Marcus Aurelius to head the procurement scandal known as the Department of Defense? The ex-governor of an energy producing State, Texas, to head Energy? The Safe Rooms in of the nation’s universities are packed running out of room. Microagressions, even overt bullying, is breaking out in Safe Rooms all across the nation as their stocks of Play-Doh and coloring books run out.

As if it could be possible to be worse in the eyes of the Adorables, many of the people selected for these senior governmental positions are not only unqualified but wealthy as well. Rather than having devoted themselves to careers in “public service”, revolving doors and lucrative speaking gigs, these nouveau riche posturers have made careers and fortunes actually doing things, making things work, building things. No wonder the Safe Rooms are full of traumatized students and tenured Adorables seeking safe spaces and refuge where they can once again feel safe, welcome and included.

Who knows where this will lead? Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes presciently described last year’s election, but that politically incorrect fable leaves us in uncharted territory as to the future, what happens next. In an old BBC comedy, Yes Minister, we can view one future scenario, virtually guaranteed to happen. Another British import, Robert Harris, gives us a different darker scenario of the future in his novelized trilogy (Imperium, Conspirata & Dictator) depicting the last years of the Roman Republic. Yes, I am an Anglophile. What can I say? I am a Deplorable living the life of an Adorable. I would come out of the closet if I dared.

Rather than add my own ill-considered ramblings to the waterfall of speculation about that future, let me simply register my own simple appreciation for the virtue of the amateur surrounded by professionals. Our lives are governed more and more by those of us certified and qualified, in other words, professionals. The prescription of a simple antibiotic for a troublesome cough requires a mind numbing, time and patience consuming, navigation of professionally mandated obstacles before obtaining the antidote for our sickness. Our children are taught, their minds and characters molded in accordance with the latest research undertaken by professionals in Education. Those who manage our money, loan us money, store our money may be incompetent or crooked, but they are licensed professionals.

In a world constrained by anonymity, class action lawsuits and solicitous politicians, how else are we to navigate the complexities of 21st Century life? Even a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln observed that a man acting as his own lawyer had a fool for a client. The same might be said of a man acting as his own doctor or investment advisor. Complexity and anonymity demand credentials from those offering services to us.

My own lifetime of service in a profession made the difficulties of judging the competence of professionals a personal problem, promising serious problems if misjudged. I found it difficult to judge the quality, even the presence, of professional competence. Certificates attesting degrees from universities or accreditation from professional societies conceal both incompetence and brilliance, covering both under an anonymous blanket of concealing mediocrity. In a complex and technology driven world, we need competence, even occasional brilliance, from our CPA’s, Doctors, teachers, engineers, financial planners, etc. But in our search for those whose expertise we need, where else are we to turn if not to the bland certificates hanging on their walls? Yelp?

In lives ever more governed by the faceless experts in government service, I applaud the civil service reforms of past generations that have given us government employees more competent, more professional, more expert than the patronage seekers of the 19th Century. But increasingly that government, as well as the other institutions and organizations, that employ or govern these professionals fails us.

Indeed, it could be truthfully asserted that the more tightly wound the certifications and steep the professional protocols become, the more incompetent those institutions become. The more jargon laden and certificate driven the initiative the more certain it is to melt into frustrated incoherence, an incoherence impossible to understand by those amateurs not initiated in the secret rites of the profession.

As is becoming more common in my screeds against fashionable progress, I retreat from the factoid driven incoherence of the blogosphere and the puffery of insider knowledge flaunted by the media’s talking heads into personal experience. As I have said, perhaps too often, I labored in the trenches of the professions for over forty years. Though I suspect that most of the world naively discounts the profession of engineering, considering engineering more about dirty hands than the ancient and sacred arts, the unquestioning obedience expected by the other professions. For most, the profession of engineering exists in a twilit netherworld, useful but flawed, instrumental but impaired, necessary but wearisome.

In a previous life, I had worked as an engineer for 25 years, for many companies, on many projects in many capacities. I had a good and useful career up to that point, taking pride in my accomplishments, imagining myself to have acquired a well-regarded technical expertise.

And Then. . . . I had an epiphany!! On one assignment, instead of serving as the engineer, I briefly became the owner. Instead of lovely painstaking hours puzzling out the complexities required to building something, I was faced with the painful task of figuring out how to pay for it and how to operate it. In a blinding moment of insight, I discovered that engineers are a pain in the ass to work with.

Suddenly, I remembered the oft-repeated remark overheard on construction sites and in the bullpens of designers and draftsmen; “Its time to shoot the engineers and build it.” I remembered a friend’s once mysterious comment about me in past times. A landman by profession, he had been frustrated with me at the time and told me, in tones only half joking; “Like every other engineer, you are arrogant as hell.” I had simply blown those words and thoughts off, sure in my own assessment of what needed to be done and the certainty of my own humble nature.

An epiphany is a blinding light, the experience of Saul on the Road to Damascus. Once seen, it changes your life, and so it was for me. With newly opened eyes I saw willful engineers insisting on form over function, unwilling to substitute experience and judgment for any deviation in the clumsy protocols of their profession, unwilling to even consider changing circumstances or the customer’s own experience and knowledgeable expressed preference. I found that I could quickly navigate the offices of any unfamiliar client. Engineering was always physically located as far away from the company’s executives as it was possible to be.

Perhaps there was also an element of self-preservation to my newly found perception. Unlike other professions, engineering is left naked before the gods of Commerce, without the castle walls provided other professions by law and custom. Anyone who can use Barlow’s Equation to calculate pipe wall thickness or troubleshoot a sick distillation column is allowed to perform the tasks of engineering, without need for degrees or certificates. No one requires an engineer’s authorization or prescription to buy line pipe, whether one ton or one million tons.

After my Damascus Road experience, I saw engineers, including myself, differently. Our mindset, the professional’s attitude, is as instantly obvious as a bearded chin. While my experience is with engineers, I have been around and worked with enough other professionals, doctors, accountants, teachers, lawyers, etc., to believe they have a great deal in common with engineers.

To start with, my landman friend spoke a hard but fair truth about professionals. We are arrogant. Just as he said, we are as arrogant as all hell. We are always right. We have always been right. We are paid to have the answers, the right answers. We know we are right. We wouldn’t be professionals if we hadn’t aced all of those classes back in school. We might have been objects of scorn in the high school cafeteria, but we snickered, sometimes silently, sometimes not, in the classroom.

Being right makes us arrogant. Why would I, a professional, engage with your rambling incoherent explanation of your needs? You came to me because you know that I am right. I have a certificate on my wall. I know what needs to be done and I want to get onto doing it. That frozen condescending smile on my face tells you that I might be hearing you, but I am not listening to you. Can you use Barlow’s Equation? Ha.

The client of the engineer has options. Next time, tired of being patronized, the client might buy an App for his smart phone that calculates Barlow’s Equation allowing him to give me the finger as he drives by my office on his way to the pipe mill. Unlike the Doctor or CPA’s client, the engineer’s client can do that. The citizen whose life is governed by the professional employed by the government has even less recourse. Talk to your child’s school administration about the way history and math are taught in their school. Try to get a permit from the EPA, or your county building department.

A lifetime spent dealing with complex bodies of knowledge has taught me, sometimes through bitter experience, great respect for the professional who has put in the time and effort to the master a body of complex knowledge. Much to my chagrin, more than once I have had a fool for a client. But a lifetime’s experience with professionals has also taught me to value the perspective of the amateur. I have learned a great deal about engineering and building things from amateurs, once I learned to listen to them.

Perhaps our greatest failing as professionals, other than our arrogant pride, is our failure to understand that our professional efforts are a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. This is something that almost always eludes the professional, but that amateurs understand very well, particularly amateurs with experience doing things. Holding the top job in any organization is about vision, while professionals, those qualified individuals, excel in myopia.

The very discipline required to become a professional, the technical excellence required to climb the career ladder in a professional organization; this discipline and excellence at the protocols of the profession virtually guarantees a breathtaking blindness to what the problem actually is. In the latter years of my career, it was my very strong belief that making an engineer the CEO of an engineering company was putting an inmate in charge of the asylum. I feel the same way about hospitals, schools, government departments, etc. Most especially political office!

The recent elections might be understood as the amateurs finally standing up and saying, “Enough is enough”! The last ten years, actually for our entire lifetimes, we have seen the professionals taking over control of our government and our lives.

If we work in the private sector, we have seen productive workers losing their jobs at the same time the company is adding professional staff to comply with insurance, legal and governmental requirements. We have gone to parent teacher meetings and expressed concern about what our children are learning, or not, while the actual workings of our school has become more and more opaque, our property taxes have gone up and up and school fees have proliferated like Tribbles.

Think of dysfunction in our country, any dysfunction. I think you will find the dysfunction to be staffed by and under the control of professional staff. A professional staff convinced that either there is no problem, or that the problem can only be solved by additional funds, more professional staff and allowing the professionals more control.

2 Responses to “Revolt of the Amateurs”

  1. jeff esbenshade says:

    People in public sector don’t get it. Trump put a hiring freeze on all federal jobs.

    First news conf today reporter ask “there are 41,000 job open at VA why freeze?”

    New Press Sect short& sweet, if the VA not getting the job done. why would you

    hire more people.

    I am on Ken C Metro Board When you remodel or replace any asset they new must be

    ADA approved. BUT you cannot ask how many people does something effect or you cannot ask their handicap.

    I was teaching US History Monday asked if anyone saw Fri events in Wash DC.
    I said that we do this every 4 year transfer power with out military.
    The 80 democrats were no shows, disrespects THE OFFICE of THE Pres.
    not MR. Trump. Young man said he had to go to safe room hates Trump.
    I am talking about the OFFICE of the PRES. not MR Trump.He thinks I am favor Trump
    in this case the OFFICE what is disrespected.

    To many rules and regulations kill business liberals don’t get that.

    The next 4 years will see things in public sector never seen before in my life time anyway.

  2. Greg Carlson says:

    Thank you for these thoughts. I wonder if professionals tend to be best at the “what” when amateurs can many times stumble upon the more primary need of “why”!

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