Engaged Detachment

“You perceived it [the wall], so it was there. But now you have accepted the unacceptable, and the wall no longer blocks your path.”

— the Ancient One, in “Doctor Strange” (2007)

Workplace Enlightenment

A few years ago, I had a bad boss, a boss so bad that people with decades of experience said that this was the worst boss they ever had, someone who consistently and continuously drove the best talent out of the organization. My point in bringing this up is not to complain but rather to explain how I achieved a certain type of workplace enlightenment that I call “Engaged Detachment”.

When you go into work, you want to do a good job. If you are an individual contributor, then doing a good job is in your best interests. If you are a manager, then sometimes doing a good job means doing things that are not in your best interests, or even your manager’s, but is in the best interests of the organization as an enterprise. I touched upon this in an earlier post. This is a tough spot to be in. It’s tough because most managers (and people) do things for selfish reasons (I suppose that’s what “rational behavior” is, after all). Such managers will never do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves. If you suggest that a typical manager do anything that limits their power or influence, even if it benefits the organization as a whole, odds are that you will be shot down. It’s a shame because in the long run, doing things in the interests of the enterprise will ultimately benefit everyone.

In such a situation, you have two main strategies:

  1. Salute your boss, request direction, and carry out your instructions.
  2. Fight with your boss, reject direction, and ignore your instructions.

While it may be fun to pick the second strategy, this is the surest way to burn through all of your political capital and then be fired. Even if you do things for the benefit of the organization and others see that, a bad boss can subtly ruin your reputation and take you down. There is no way to make the second strategy work. An organization cannot function if everyone (or even a few people) worked this way. The fundamental problem is that an organization with bad managers and bad leaders will be a bad organization. There isn’t anything you can do about this — unless you’re a stellar leader coming in as the next CEO (or if you start your own company 🙂 ).

The first strategy is hard to swallow because it can destroy your soul. It can lead to frustration, unhappiness, and stress. It can spill over into the rest of your life and impact your family, your friends, and your children. It can ruin your life. It can tempt you to complain to your co-workers, or talk behind your manager’s back, or complain to your staff. This is not productive. This creates a vicious cycle of negativity. At some point this will probably lead to the second strategy. So what should you do?

Engaged Detachment

Being stuck in this predicament, and being, I think, a thoughtful person :-), I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I should do. After a few weeks, the phrase “engaged detachment” popped into my mind. At first, I dismissed this as a nonsense phrase like “dry water” or “popular engineer”, but the more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense. In order to properly function in an organization that doesn’t make sense, you have to be engaged in your work, but you must also be detached from it; if you get too wrapped up in your work, you’ll go nuts. You have to somehow detach yourself from your job in order maintain your self. I touched upon this briefly in “You aren’t what you do (for a paycheck)“. If you can do this, you will have reached some kind of workplace enlightenment.

The first rule of Fight Club is…

I recently watched “Fight Club” for the first time. Not sure how I missed it in ’99, but I watched it now because Chris Brogan posted that it was his favorite movie — and because he had a picture of his DVD shelf that included “Iron Man”, “Gotham Knight” (I’m sure “Doctor Strange” was somewhere to the left). Anyways, in the middle of “Fight Club”, Brad Pitt’s character proclaims “You are not your job!”. That’s a good mantra.

Moment of Enlightenment

For me, realizing “engaged detachment” was really just a moment in time. I could see how I could do my job without destroying my self, and I began to practice this but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do forever. This momentary enlightenment — a flash of insight into the world — offers you something of enormous value. It lets you make sense of where you are so you can take another step on your life’s road. For me, that step was engineering an exit plan so I could start a company that would fix a big, deep problem that every organization faces but which no one knew how to fix, the problem that led me to “engaged detachment” in the first place.

My company has a solution to this problem that I’m getting ready to take out to the world. I’ll keep you posted.


If anyone has any thoughts on any of this, please share!


About Rino Jose

Trying to find good ways to develop software.

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