“The truth of the story lies in the details.” ~ Paul Auster
We are often told by those considered wiser than us to never sweat the small stuff. Another version of this adage goes – and I am paraphrasing – do not miss the forest for the trees. Also, one that is more related to emotional intelligence or the lack thereof than getting stuck in the weeds rings do not cut off your nose to spite your face. Phrases like these lose their luster when charlatans, colleagues who steal credit for other people’s work, and those who have been promoted above their competence utter them as gospel – usually out of context. Even in those situations, idioms referencing the dangers of fixating on minute details in one way of another have some validity. Yet, as with anything in life this is not the entire story. Not sweating the details can be just as injurious as sweating them – setting us up to miss several key points in our quest to remain loyal to the big picture. While I continue well into my thirties to attempting to strike a useful balance between appreciating the forest in one instance and the trees therein in another, I find pleasure and value in lingering on the details far longer than who I would consider the average person. This makes me happy.
Reading Between the Lines
Why does reading between the lines makes me happy? It cuts to the chase. Isolating meaningful details not overtly stated, helps me strip away useless fluff. I can more readily make a meaningful acknowledgement, satisfy a need, actively listen to and heed a compliant, or take a strategic action step, among other forms of to-dos. Admittedly, fluff has it purpose. It reminds me of cayenne pepper – a dash of which can add tremendous flavor to any dish. Even the staunchest of spiciness enthusiasts know cayenne pepper should be used sparingly. Too much can be ruinous to a meal and tortuous to one’s senses. Fluff should be handled with the same care.
Fluff – A Deadly Weapon
My aversion to fluff became most acute during the second career move I made to work in certain department of a state health agency. I had never ever been among a group of people – most not all – who uttered as many meaningless word salads in my life as those who worked within the department I vaguely mentioned. I found it incredible the department’s public health outcomes of focus were not as abysmal as they were. In this (un)professional setting, there were no lines between which to read or meaning to suss out – only a vast opening of blinding, deafening, and stark white space. Interacting with a group of individuals with absolutely nothing valuable to say was emotionally toxic and mentally taxing. During meetings resentment abounded. Harsh facial expressions were plentiful. Terse remarks or vitriolic stares were commonplace. Situations and incompetents as such expedite job burnout and expensive turnover.
I think all but a very few of the fluff perpetrators have either been fired, demoted and quarantined to an obscure role within another department or resigned before being terminated. Fluff kills careers – it may not do so right away yet it always does. There is not enough hyperbole in any Saturday Night Live skits to date that can adequately categorize my former colleagues’ ineptitude and dearth of interpersonal skills. To strategize my way out of that precarious situation, I relied on minute details to get things done and stock my resume with data-supported outcomes.
These were the same details that went unnoticed by the fluff perpetrators, their lack of understanding around which was a protective factor in most cases. By protective, I mean trying to understand and interpret the details terrified them. This fear kept them from derailing projects on which I and a few other colleagues executed. I relied on the emotional support and professional guidance of a great mentor and trustworthy colleague during our transition out of that environment. Of the three, I was the second to depart. The names of these heroines, I will not mention here. They know who they are.
Balancing Act – Appreciating the Details while Elevating the Big Picture
I am fully aware I must proceed with caution in admiring the minutiae over the larger context. To clarify, I have nothing against the latter – I more readily find solace in the former. The professional class of the United States thrives on creating and celebrating larger than life ideas while leaving it to others to figure out and execute the details. This is no easy feat – wrestling great ideas into the straightjackets of reality and finite financial resources. Stripping away too much fluff can be self-defeating too. Many a champion – C-suite or community-based – needs some fluff to sell new ideas, sweeping changes, and the elimination of popular yet ineffective services to what can easily become hostile audiences. The logic of numbers, science, and efficiency has not the power of persuasion as do fluff. With the most extreme level of caution, fluff is never to be construed as storytelling. Fluff is exemplified in language such as “our profit margin will because the largest in the region.” The announcer of such fluff may have cobbled together shaky figures just to get the boss to approve something or to stave of immediate corrective actions.
Storytelling is based on reality. It has depth, meaning, and relevance. The punchline of stories heavily relies on commanding a deep understanding of the details around the issue, project, or change featured in the plot. Storytelling is the narrative version of information stored by Excel spreadsheets, mined from databases, and authenticated by p-values. Storytelling and the understanding of the details on which is is based is for the long haul. Fluff may only get you from one alarmist situation to the next with little to no lead time.