Secretarial: The Temp - You're OK, I'm bored silly
Wednesday 26 May 1999
For this is one of the awful truths of the foreign holiday: that it almost inevitably involves a trip through an airport and, most of us being unable to go to an airport without keeping several hours in hand for mishaps and traffic jams, a trip through an airport always means a trip to the airport bookshop. And what do you find in airport bookshops? Self-help books.
I love airport bookshops because they always have the world's best selection of biographies of mass murderers. I can spend hours in them, and come out with a whole new item of hand baggage. So I understand how people go a bit barmy in these places. Plus there's the anonymity factor; the fact that they are only passing through liberates people to waltz off with books they would never buy in places where someone might know them. That's why there are always so many copies of the Illustrated Kama Sutra, The Joy of Sex, and Venus and Mars in the Bedroom on prominent display in Heathrow Terminal 3.
But it's not the I'm OK, You're OK variety of self-help that worries me. Books like this, though they give people a lot of information about you if you leave them lying on your bedside table, don't do much harm in the workplace. People who have spent two weeks immersed in the Celestine Prophecy, Hey, I like You Too!, Stand Tall, Feel Big or whatever, generally live, albeit briefly, in a mindframe where they are so intent on not being paranoid/ getting on with people/ understanding the underlying psychology of what's going on/ trying to see auras, that they forget to cause much trouble. Plus, they're plugged in, half the time, to home-made cassette tapes of inspirational songs like "The Only Way is Up", "Things Can Only Get Better", "Theme from Flashdance", "Kids From Fame", "Search for the Hero" and so forth, that their endorphin levels are at an all-time high, making them rather nicer.
No, it's the other sort of self-help book that I'm beginning to think should be banned altogether. You only ever see these books at two places - airports and railway stations - and they are aimed directly at the semi- literate middle manager with the high aspirations and the mediocre talents. Books called things like The Champion Within, Excellence as Standard, I! Winner!, Success Can be Yours!, The Instant Millionaire, Grab the Prizes!, Power through Confrontation!, Release the Leader Inside! or Big Man!. Books that purport to hold the secret of how the author/ authors fought their way (and that's another thing: have you ever noticed how much business imagery is aggressive, if not martial? Campaign, drive, assault on the marketplace, attack...) from middle management to riches.
You can always tell them, the ones who have successfully avoided contact with their families by self-importantly wielding these books as they turned lobster-red around the pool. They're the ones who march around punching out phrases like "Where's the opportunity within the problem?", "Who's the Team Leader around here?", "The buck stops here", "If you're not the solution, you're part of the problem", "I'm not afraid of success", "Well, life isn't fair! and "Don't tell me what I already know". They're the ones who start arguments, insist on having their say in meetings, spend their lives feverishly scribbling in conferences so they can make their mark by asking the most smart-arsed questions.
They're also the people who get the least done. This is why I'm pushing for the blanket-ban on business publications. Because while their devotees are putting their rules into practice, they are usually paying no attention to what needs to be done around the place. And getting up the noses of the hapless secretaries who have to deal with them. I swear, if I have to take my headphones off one more time to hear someone say "There's no such word as enough/ perfect/ wrong/ other people/ no", I'll clock them with my copy of Ten Things They Never Told You at Harvard Business School.
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