. . . in the Hard Crust of Technical Documentation
by Desmond Rutherford
In my work, I seek fun every day. It’s not as easy as flicking a light switch or dialing up my furnace to warm my home. It takes focus, mind games, heart games, and empathy. I must dig deep, turn over odiferous diatomaceous earth to reveal shining nuggets of fun to brighten up my gray cube walls, inspire my coworkers, and whistle through the day as a motivated Funman. But too often it’s pickaxe hard to break through the barriers of the daily chores.
I do instructional design consulting work for a utility company. A typical day can include several hours of reading technical documents and complex procedures, and while eyeball deep in this reading I don’t feel very fun and sometimes forget what fun can be. I travel in my mind through large natural gas transmission lines, under several hundred pounds of pressure, trying to develop training for workers who cut into these lines in order to tie in new paths for gas transmission and distribution. This is the work that ultimately results in my ability to turn a dial and heat my home, something I took for granted until I started to do this work. I’ve developed a deep respect for the people that make this happen. It involves isolating, at times, miles of pipeline, purging the gas from the line, and cutting out an old section to create new paths. Because it can be gravely dangerous to isolate a gas line (e.g., the control valves leak, or the landscape is too severe to work safely), work must be performed “hot.” Working hot means using a welding torch to cut into a pipeline while it is still filled with pure natural gas. The right mixture of gas and air is incredibly explosive. I try to be empathetic.
It’s empathy that changes the game for me. I imagine what it must be like to do this work. Truly, I can’t – these linemen are a tough breed and work under conditions I haven’t the courage for. However, I do appreciate their commitment in the midst of a complex, difficult, dangerous, and volatile environment that can turn catastrophic. Real fast. While I may not be the guy to perform these feats, I can create training to keep them safe and potentially save their lives. It’s more than just a motivation – it’s literally a matter of life and death. The better I understand the conditions, the more I can make that difference.
It helps that I also get to interview people who have been doing this work, in some cases for more than 30 years. They tell hair-raising, blood-curdling stories of things gone awry, of people on fire. Breaking down each moment, each movement, and isolating the second when something goes wrong is what I do to improve how people do this work and ensure that they get into their cars again at the end of a shift. I’ve discovered there’s nothing more fun than being focused on a task you have deep empathy for, a task that has real purpose.
Not every job I do is about saving a life, but keeping my mind and heart centered on who benefits from what I do is central to having fun at work. We all do (or hope to do) work that, in some measure, helps our own species. This is true whether we prepare food, sew a garment, create art, write code, tune an engine, or prepare a serum to keep a disease at bay. We work to serve the purpose of helping each other. Having empathy helps us to see how we do that and hold each other up. It fuels our drive, and our ability to appreciate the bigger picture. With a clearer aerial view, it’s easier to understand how even seemingly innocuous activities are the scaffolding for a bigger structure. I chose to inject empathy into the daily grind to soften the hard crust I must drill through to cultivate purpose – and to harvest fun.