Friday, January 27, 2012

It's All About Your Mindset

Despite the poor economy, several engineers at my company have recently found other jobs. Each time someone leaves, the morale seems to dip a little. You can't go a few minutes without overhearing hushed conversations about how much greener the grass is outside the company, that our company/management/policies drive employees away, that such-and-such's new job is going to be so much better, etc. This is on top of the constant complaining that you hear from the chronically disgruntled who are bound and determined to be dissatisfied with every aspect of their job and who seem to believe that it's their duty to make others unhappy as well. From what I've heard from other professionals (and from the impression I get from Dilbert), this problem is far from being unique to my company.

When employee disgruntlement reaches critical mass...

Here's my confession; up until about three years ago I was part of those types of conversations. I kept a stiff upper lip for the first six months or so of my job, but I eventually allowed myself to be influenced by the attitudes of a number of coworkers, both newer employees as well as veterans. They were angry with the bureaucracy (there's a lot of that in the nuclear industry), with various company policies, with the management, with the pay, etc. One coworker who had been with the company for 25+ years took it upon himself to personally tell each new guy to "do yourself a favor and quit". Others were less overt, but they still grumbled continuously. A large chunk of each Friday was dedicated to unmitigated complaining. The effect of all this was that half of the engineers who started around the same time as me quit within less than two years. I had tried to join them; at my one year mark I had several resumes out and was doing job interviews with other companies. Now I'm very glad that none of those resumes or interviews went anywhere.

Except for an increase in responsibilities, very little has changed about my job. However, I've since gone from despising my job to enjoying it. The only real change was in my own behavior; I made a conscious decision to be grateful for the position I had (this is even easier to do in our current economy) and to take on a "can-do" attitude. Although this will swell his head a bit and I'll never hear the end of it, I have to admit that I was helped along this path by my friend and coworker, Bryce, who was also the one who introduced me to Warhammer 40K. Bryce showed me that your job is what you make of it. I saw that he could derive fulfillment by working as hard as he could and trying to make a difference regardless of roadblocks, uncooperative coworkers, or red tape. With his example of a positive attitude and his accomplishments, I saw that professional satisfaction and happiness are determined primarily by oneself.

Abraham Lincoln said that "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be". This is as true about work as anything else. I decided to be happy with my job and feel like I've succeeded at it. In just a few years my professional life has changed entirely. I stopped looking for reasons to be miserable and now feel a strong loyalty toward the company and a sense of gratitude for my job and my responsibilities. I don't dread Monday mornings anymore; I look forward to another week to get things done. Of course, I rarely accomplish everything I need to, but that just ensures that there's rarely a dull moment. I can still get frustrated with coworkers or with the bureaucracy, but I've found it a lot more productive to suck it up and tell myself 'I'll get through this' than to gripe about the situation.

The following is what I learned while on the path to enjoying my job:

1. Venting doesn't work
I have never vented my frustrations and felt better afterward. Nor have I seen others do so. It is completely and utterly non-productive as it simply reinforces negative feelings and attitudes while encouraging a (mostly false) sense of helplessness. Venting to others usually has the effect of either annoying them or encourages them to vent as well, resulting in a morale-destroying cycle. What I've witnessed over and over again has been angry employees bouncing their frustrations off each other and blaming everyone and everything else for their dissatisfaction. Participants in these discussions inevitably end up in a fouler mood and with even less appreciation for having a secure job in a shaky economy.

2. New employees are watching the older employees
A word of advice to more experienced/veteran employees: your attitude strongly affects your younger coworkers. The new guys have recently chosen to throw in their lot with the company. This is a serious decision that is hard to back out of. Your attitude will affect how they feel about the company and how they view their professional future. Whether you like it or not, new employees will look to you as a mentor and an example. If you are constantly complaining about the job, the management, etc., your attitude will be exaggerated in the newer employees who don't have enough experience to tell them otherwise. I cannot stress this point enough: DO NOT POISON THE NEW EMPLOYEES' MORALE! If you can't muster a good attitude, for the new guys' sakes keep your disgruntlement to yourself and let them decide for themselves whether or not the job is a good one.

3. Follow the golden rule and treat others as you would want to be treated
Unless you like to have people deal impatiently with you, to treat every interaction with you as an inconvenience, to yell at you, or to refuse to return your phone calls or emails, don't treat others this way. The simple act of returning a coworker's phone call as quickly as possible can go a long way toward making the workplace a lot less stressful. For every half-dozen or so fellow employees who let me down there is at least one individual whose work ethic, competence, and professionalism makes my job infinitely easier. Those people inevitably end up at the top of my list of people to commend to their managers or to help out if they ask for it. Much of a person's attitude towards his or her job is determined by the environment created by fellow employees. Do your best to make it a good environment and others just might reciprocate.

4. Do your job to the best of your ability
Throughout industry, a lot of young engineers are dismayed to find that very little of what they do involves cutting edge design work. In fact, engineers often do a surprising amount of writing. Although I do some limited designing, most of my job would be better described as process design and procedure writing. Even if your job isn't quite what you thought it would be, remember that you're being paid to do it. At a minimum, it's only honest to do what you're being paid to do as well as you can. Even better is to take pride in your work and strive for continual improvement. I wouldn't have thought that I'd be writing as much as I do, but I've come to enjoy the challenge of producing the best procedures and processes possible, to be proud of my successes, and to learn from my failures.

I've come to despise phrases like "good enough for government work". It's not the government's work, or the company's work, it's your work, whether you like it or not. It reflects on you: on your professionalism, on your competence, and on your dedication. Too often I've seen employees attempt to divorce themselves from their work and thus try to avoid taking responsibility for the quality of their product. On this subject, the late Admiral H.G. Rickover said:
Responsibility is a unique concept. It can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion or ignorance or passing the blame can pass the burden to someone else.
When doing a job - any job - one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever. He must look after his work just as conscientiously, as though it were his own business and his own money. [...] Too many spend their entire working lives looking for the next job. When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.
I have yet to meet a satisfied employee whose work product was poor. Of course, I'm not saying that unhappy employees are necessarily unproductive since I've often seen good work come from otherwise dissatisfied employees. I will say, however, that those who hate their jobs and therefore try to justify doing poor work will never be happy, and that those who value the quality of their work have a better chance of eventually coming to tolerate (or even to enjoy) their job.

[from The Far Side by Gary Larson]

5. Job satisfaction takes personal effort
If you're waiting for your boss or the management to make you happy, then I can guarantee that you'll find disappointment in the future. If you think that a change in policy or an increase in pay will finally make your job worth the effort, then you're hopelessly self-deluded. I have yet to see a disgruntled employee become satisfied through the efforts of others. On the contrary, I have often seen managers go out of their way to improve employees' happiness only to be met with cynicism and ingratitude. You must decide to have a positive attitude. You have to work at it. You have to learn to stop whining and to start counting your blessings. It was only when I learned this lesson that things turned around for me. And from what I've seen in the lives of others around me, I think I can safely say that this principle extends beyond the workplace and into everyday life. The happiest people I know are not the ones with the least difficulties or challenges, they're the ones who have consciously decided to be happy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Movie Review: Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)

As much as I love MST3K, it's not as fun to watch it alone. My wife just doesn't understand why anyone would deliberately watch a bad film and my mother (my usual b-movie partner) lives in another state and can't visit as much as we'd like. Fortunately for me I've been able to get Bryce (a.k.a., "B" in previous posts) into the show, although he has cursed my name on several occasions for recommending certain movies.

Despite evidence of my poor taste in movies, Bryce has agreed to watch several episodes of the show with me. I own every volume of MST3K ever released, so I don't lack in movies to subject him to. We play Warhammer 40,000 every couple weeks, so we chose an off-week to watch the truly wretched Hobgoblins and Space Mutiny back to back. The following week we were scheduled to play 40K with Jon and Carl, so I came over a few hours before the game so that Bryce and I could watch Gamera vs. Guiron from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 vs. Gamera collection (i.e., Volume XXI). All I can say is: Bryce, I'm very, very sorry I made you see that... but not sorry enough that I won't do it again.

For those who aren't familiar with Gamera, imagine a giant bipedal flying turtle with tusks. The Daiei Motion Picture Company's early Gamera movies were effectively cheap knock-offs of Toho's Godzilla films from the same era. Like Godzilla, Gamera's first appearance featured him as a city-stomping, nearly indestructible prehistoric monster of the sort that us kaiju fans love. In subsequent movies, which were geared more towards younger viewers, he became a friend of children (kaiju fans generally do not like it when their city-stomping monster is turned into a friend of children). By the time of Gamera vs. Guiron, Gamera is using his ridiculous flying ability, wherein he pulls his legs into his shell and the resulting cavities emit jets of flame, to rescue children who get themselves into interplanetary mischief.

Joel and the 'Bots riffed five Gamera movies during their third season, all of which appear in Volume XXI. I chose to inflict Gamera vs. Guiron on Bryce since I'm pretty sure that it was the first MST3K I actually sat down to watch and was the episode that got me hooked on the show.

Gamera would never pass California's emissions standards

Now on to the plot, such as it is. Two boys, Akio and a gaijin named Tom whose presence in Japan is never commented on, explore an empty spaceship that has inexplicably landed on earth. No, we never find out why the spaceship was here. Anyway, the boys are whisked away when they accidentally activate the ship. As the ship flies off into space on some sort of preset course, the boys are threatened by a meteor shower. Luckily for them, Gamera arrives and bats away the meteors. This scene had Bryce simultaneously laughing and groaning. The effects are horrible, the flying Gamera model looks incredibly cheap, and the jets of flame appear to be scorching the model's rubbery shell at several points.

The ship ends up outpacing Gamera, Friend of Children (*ugh*) and takes the boys to "Terra"; Earth's long lost twin. Terra and Earth share an orbit but are always on opposite sides of the sun (the "Counter-Earth" is a well-worn sci-fi notion). Once there we behold a vast model... er, a vast city that is occupied by only two women. Apparently Terra is a planet on the brink: it is slowly freezing over and is constantly under attack by giant monsters. The women fight back by unleashing the dreaded (*snicker*) GUIRON; an odd-looking monster whose distinguishing feature is the giant Ginsu knife protruding from its head. Although the monster's head appears to have been designed for a creature that stands upright, it spends most of its time on all fours. This gives one the impression that poor Guiron is constantly looking for a dropped contact lens.

Despite the unusual physiology, Guiron just isn't a particularly interesting monster. It's certainly not as cleverly designed as many of Godzilla's nemeses such as King Ghidorah or Gigan. Even the notoriously cheap Megalon costume put in a better showing than this abomination. On a humorous note, it would appear that the costume people put a lot of the budget into making Guiron's and Gamera's eyes moveable, with the result being countless loving closeups of thrilling eye-moving action!

He slices, he dices!

Although the Terran women play nice at first, it turns out that their real plans for the boys is to "eat their brains raw(!)" ("What, no sides?" responds Joel) and to travel to earth in the spaceship, leaving Terra behind. Unfortunately for the brain-eating duo, Gamera arrives to rescue the boys. Our favorite tusked turtle ends up fighting Guiron over a period of several disappointingly short scenes. For every minute of kaiju action we get two or three of watching idiot children trying to evade evil alien women. But on the plus side we get to enjoy some of the worst translation and dubbing I've ever encountered in a Japanese film. It's thanks to the ineptness of American distributors that I insist on watching subtitled Japanese edits of daikaiju films whenever possible. Yes, this means that I'm a snob with regards to movies that feature stuntmen dressed in rubber monster suits destroying models of Tokyo. And yes, I do understand how weird this seems to most people.

Anyway, Guiron is one of those giant monsters that the villains guide with some sort of mind-control device. Anyone who has ever seen a monster movie knows that the mind-control device will be damaged or deactivated at some point and the monster will "ironically" destroy its master(s) in the resulting rampage. (Oops, that should have been preceded by a spoiler warning.) In the end, one Terran woman kills the other (with very little motivation, it seems), Guiron chops the spaceship in half with the second alien inside (thus killing the entire native population of Terra, yay!), and Gamera kills Guiron with a little help from a missile launched by the boys (the first and only useful thing those kids do during the whole movie). Gamera is able to weld the spaceship together with its fiery breath(!) and the giant turtle returns the boys safely home.

Oh, and there was also a whole subplot about how the boys' mothers won't believe the claims of Akio's little sister that their sons were carried off in a spaceship, but that part of the story was dull and didn't have giant monsters in it, so I kind of forgot about it until just now.

"Gamera is really neat, Gamera is filled with meat..."

Not being a connoisseur of Japanese-made giant monster films, Bryce called Gamera vs. Guiron one of the five worst movies he'd ever seen. Apparently the shabby costumes, boring subplots, poor dubbing, and absurd storyline didn't add up to fine cinema in his opinion. Obviously the movie isn't good by any objective standard, but I'd have to say that it doesn't even make my list of the top 20 worst movies I've suffered through. Admittedly, having been a kaiju fan since childhood biases me a bit. Maybe next time I'll torment Bryce with Monster A-Go Go or The Creeping Terror to give him some perspective. That would make him revise his list, although he probably wouldn't let me pick the movies anymore.

C- [the mere presence of giant monsters will save almost any movie from a lower score]


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