Structure

Are you someone who likes a lot of structure in your life?

People often put me in charge of things because they say I am so organized. Disorganized people seem to think this comes naturally to organized people – that it’s easy for us to be so organized, it just happens. It doesn’t just happen, any more than the grace of a ballerina or the skill of a surgeon. It may be that the difference is that we are wired differently – my friend Tony says obsessively, thank you – that we have to organize things, the way that a sheepdog has to herd things. You can tell us not to, you can tell us to go with the flow, and we’ll try it for a while, but we won’t be happy and we’ll find a way to secretly organize “going with the flow.”

But, just because we must organize, does not mean that it is not work, excuse the double-negative. Organization may unfold itself before us like a golden path but we still have to walk down that path. It doesn’t really take us much longer to arrange a closet, or a project plan, than it would anyone else, but we’ll stick to it and get it done (or plan it into multiple stages and get it done) longer than a disorganized person would. The difference is that a disorganized person will tell themselves that they’ll stick to it, then they’ll get distracted and shove everything in higgledy-piggledy and damn the consequences. They tell themselves that they are being efficient, not focusing on the details, so they can spend time where it really matters. Right. Let’s see how that works out later, when you need to depend on that structure.

The frustrating thing is that, because disorganized people don’t appreciate the amount of effort that goes into structuring things, they assume you can do it instantaneously. They get impatient with your process and, when you finish, they show little or no appreciation for the work that you’ve done. Sometimes, if you present interim updates, they will often say that’s good enough, and take the project away from you.

Structure is important. It’s like learning the scales on a piano – it carries you through as you learn the stages. I have been known to say (once too many for male colleagues, I suspect) that a great project plan is like a great bra: it holds you up and makes you look and feel great, without cutting off your air supply or constricting movement; yet only a few knowledgeable people will look at you and know that it’s a bra that is making the difference.

The structure is there for when you have bad days, or feel overwhelmed or distracted, or are learning something new – it gives you a home base to come back to, a map to your journey, the next step to take when there doesn’t seem to be any way forward. And on good days – or when you master the skill – the structure provides a foundation that you can build anything atop or use as a rocket launcher or a house or a dancefloor. It’s like scales: you want to be a great jazz pianist; you love atonal music; so you buy a piano and sit down and without any lessons, start playing. Would that be enough to help you produce the music you love? Unless your brain works differently than most, no, you need to learn and practice scales, learn to read music so you can play the works that you already love, learn how it works, so you can then create your own. The structure lets you be creative.

When I was in college I studied acting. There were a lot of talented people in my program, many of whom are not working as actors now – in fact, the only ones that I see working now are the people who had already been working before they got to school. There were several talented people who worked really really hard, and didn’t talk about how hard they were working. Then there were the talented, charming people, who didn’t work hard. They didn’t learn their lines, they didn’t rehearse their scenes, or spend time thinking about their costumes or their motivation or picking the right props. They showed up and charmed their way through assignments. That only gets you so far and those are not the people who are working.

I know a young man who is great on ice. He came to the US from the Philippines, a place with no snow or ice, as a toddler. His adopted parents and sister were skaters, so he learned to skate and love the ice. When I see him in a free skate, just skating lazily around the rink, he looks so natural on the ice, it’s like he’s walking. It takes no effort for him to navigate around things that other kids – even hockey playing kids and recreational skaters – look awkward. He really has a talent for skating. He recently quit because he had reached a level where, to progress, to justify the money his parents would have to put into equipment and coaching, and the time they’d have to invest in driving him to / from the rinks, he would have to work a lot harder than he wanted to in order to compete at that level. He looked at the other competitors at his level and, while he would have loved to be able to do the jumps they could do and skate as proficiently as they could, he wanted it to be easier than it was, and he didn’t want to do the work. He didn’t want to build the structure he needed to raise his skating to the next level.

Structure is important. If you’re lucky enough to have someone on your team that builds it naturally, appreciate them, and stay out of their way.

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