Sharpen Your Pencil

sharp pencils 2

There are many management specialists who insist that organization is the key to success.  I don’t dispute this, but I don’t think that organization in and of itself makes you more successful.  I think that it is the psychological effect of having a clean office that makes you want to be better at your job and the fact that you are now working in this uber-clean office forces you to feel like you should be doing better work.  Organization is not always best however, in some cases organization can be downright scary.  I give you the example of Manic Mark and ask that you consider whether Manic Mark is someone you’d like to work for or someone you’d find yourself running from.

Manic Mark was the first person to arrive at the office each day.  He arrived in a suit that looked like it had been slept in, with a newspaper that was at least a day old, and a bag of unsharpened pencils under his arm.  He would walk in the main entrance, wait for the last elevator, and walk down the main corridor to get to his office which was located towards the back of the office precisely so that he wouldn’t have to walk through the office and scare everyone before the work day began.  Mark’s entrance was all about psyching out his workers.  Mark believed that the best work force wasn’t just a frightened workforce, but a deathly frightened workforce.

Mark’s office was huge and had two windows with magnificent views.  You wouldn’t know this unless you visited Mark’s office when he wasn’t there because he never opened up the windows and positioned his desk so that anyone who had to talk to him had to do so from the hall not from within his office.  We thought that he had OCD or something when he first started then after a while we realized that his problems ran far deeper than a simple disorder.  Mark’s first order of business was to arrange his pencil sharpeners on his desk.  He had an electric pencil sharpener, a manual pencil sharpener that gave you a small tip and a manual pencil sharpener that gave you a long tip.

Mark made a big spectacle of dumping his pencils on his desk.  He would wait for everyone to be at their desks or in a conference room where the door was open and would then proceed to dump the pencils onto his desk while standing on his chair.  This was all done for effect.  Mark would then take the new pencils and line then up in descending order of length with his old pencils.  Old pencils in Mark’s office were ones that hadn’t been picked up by someone else or had been returned to him in one way or another.  Mark would attach rubber bands to these pencils usually around the tip end of the pencil so that it had more weight on that end.

Once Mark had his pencils in a row and he knew everyone was paying attention to what he was doing he would begin sharpening the pencils.  Mark’s sharpening of the pencils I imagine would be slightly akin to watching an executioner sharpen the blade of the axe he is going to use to sever your head from your body.  Mark was methodical about how he sharpened his pencils and there was always a reason behind which pencil sharpener he used.  Mark usually started with the electric pencil sharpener and he would sharpen the new pencils first using that method.  Mark would then move on to the older pencils which he would sharpen by hand.

Most of the pencils that Mark sharpened after sharpening the new pencils were ones that had survived the initial onslaught but ones that he was uncertain about in terms of durability.  Mark had a certain affection towards his pencils that was both weird and disturbing.  If you saw him handling a pencil that was less than five inches in length chances are that he was sharpening it with one of his knives, of which he had three that he brought to work.  These were wood carving knives and they were very sharp.  Mark liked to start the process of designing his pencils that he had gotten back much like a bomber pilot might mark up his bombs before delivering them upon his destination.

Nothing compared to the tiny three inch pencils that Mark reserved for emergency use only.  He would spend half his day sharpening these pencils and fixing design flaws on the pencils throughout the work day.  No pencil was ever finished being designed with Mark, he was always adding little details or little horrors that would freak out even the most hardened office veteran.  Mark layered the rubber bands that he attached to these three inch pencils and often had some sort of grip worked out on a couple of them for close quarters fighting.  You see Mark wasn’t sharpening these pencils so he could write with them he was sharpening them so that he could throw them and inflict the maximum amount of pain possible.

Mark was a manager and he was the point man on nearly every major project that our office had to deal with.  This meant that everything had to be done exactly to his specifications.  If something didn’t meet those expectations you would know exactly how poorly you did based on the total number of pencils thrown at you.  Calculating how many pencils have been aimed your way was a tricky business because Mark was usually angry with several people at one time.  When we were in close quarters it thus became difficult to determine at times exactly who he was trying to hit with his projectiles or whether it even mattered.  Sometimes he would take a fist full of nine or ten pencils and do a “scatter splash” where he would try and hit as many people as possible with his pencils.  Those were the days where an employee’s value could really be measured.  Did they pick up the pencils or did they leave the room quickly?  Did they follow up with Mark after the initial onslaught or had they learned their lesson?

The lesson of the pencil throwing was that you should be paying attention to everything that Mark says, thinks, and does.  You should also avoid bothering him if at all possible and prepare for flying projectiles if you find yourself having the misfortune of encountering him at some point during the day.  Mark never struck anyone as a particularly mean man, but this made the problem all the more menacing.  Who would you rather deal with: a man who was really mean and acted that way obtrusively or a man who hid behind a veil of silence and was prone to fits of anger that were almost impossible to predict?  Mark’s manic office madness came to an end one day after one of his three inch pencils was thrown so hard at one woman that they had to take her to the hospital to remove it from her head.  Mark’s bloody reign had come to an end, but his record of brutality would live on for ages.  What was the lesson of Mark’s madness?  It’s tough to hate your job when there’s a man you hate more.  That was why corporate never fired him despite the legal ramifications of his behavior.  He had a 100% employee retention rate.  Not a single person quit on Mark because they were terrified of what might happen, but the point was nonetheless the same: you didn’t screw around in Mark’s office unless you wanted to pay the price…in blood.


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