Life’s Dumbest Instruction Manuals

Chair album

Last Word: Life’s Dumbest Instruction Manuals

by Marzena Czarnecka

I’ve just started writing a book. Its working title is How to sit at your desk: an office etiquette guide for lawyers. I need, by the way, an illustrator or photographer to provide the visuals—crossed legs, crossed ankles, straight legs, leaning back position, leaning forward and so on. Anyone interested? I think it will improve the saleability of the book if a lawyer takes the pictures.

It’ll be a runaway bestseller. I’ll have a chapter on choosing chairs and whatnot during meetings as well as informal gatherings in your office. A little box about the right and wrong way to open and close a door. And lots of little blurbs about what where you put your desk tells your colleagues about you.

It will be the first of a series. Following titles may include such offerings as How to talk so clients will listen—which will include a chapter on the various ways of saying hello and goodbye, and a special pull out section on discussing the weather—as well as How to talk so your partners will listen—which will feature nifty point form lists of things to say and not say when your partner has blown a deal, lost a case or royally ticked off a powerful member of the executive committee. And an extensive section on delivering compliments and praise in a way that furthers your own personal agenda and career. How to talk so associates will listen: a guide for partners, department heads, managing partners and spouses should be popular too.

If the general series is successful, I will keep on churning out more and more focused titles. Surviving the partnership meeting: getting a tan while still influencing the agenda will be the first, followed by Getting the most out of associates: navigating the thin line between training and exploitation. As the inner life of law firms grows more complicated, I expect How to share a secretary, How to live with your modular furniture, and How to book a conference room may find a market too.

Really, I don’t know how you’ll all manage to survive until I find the time to write all these books. I know, I know—there is a handful of lawyer-focused self-help stuff out there, some more substantial offerings targeted at professionals as a whole (don’t you hate it when they say “professionals” but mean “accountants”?) and so many general business books you could spend a lifetime reading (if you weren’t so busy surfing the ‘Net. But I digress). But you need something that’s just about you, right? Because you’re different. You’re special. You’re my niche market. And, apparently, you desperately need someone to tell you what to do.

Didn’t you know? Oh, yes. I know you think you’re pretty clever. An LLB, and a BA with honours before that, an MA from a prestigious British university. But what do you really know about… the proper way to ask an assistant to work overtime? Navigating the minefield of an informal intra-firm lunch? Returning (or not) the telephone call of a headhunter?

You may have heard a moan coming from the echelons of the chattering classes that we are now living in the age of the amateur. It’s a terrible and dark time, in which the authority of professionals and experts is being eroded apace by anyone with a computer and the time and desire to type. The upshot of all this is that our culture is going to hell in a handbasket. (I paraphrase and oversimplify. See Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture for an exposition and Don Tapscott’s Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything for a rebuttal of sorts.)

It’s not true. Because this age of the amateur and mass collaboration, represented best by Wikipedia and the proliferation of bloggers and blog readers (really, does nobody do work at work anymore?) is accompanied by an unprecedented fetishism of professional experts that’s just as disturbing.

Whether you are a professional or an entrepreneur, a parent or a retiree, a cook or a gardener, you are the target market of an-ever growing class of experts intent on preying on your insecurities—often creating them—and telling you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it… and occasionally (although less frequently) even why to do it. They write books. They write articles. They hold seminars and workshops.

And you—we—go! (At least some of us have to go and buy this stuff, right? If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be out there. That’s how the market works. Doesn’t it?)

We used to say life does not come with an instruction manual. That’s no longer the case. Life now comes with hundreds upon hundreds about thousands of instruction manuals. You can get them online or in the more traditional paper form, you can get them from people with respectable credentials and from people who can barely type, let alone think.

The Cult of the Amateur rails against the amateurs eroding the high standards of the professionals. I’d rather rail against the assault of so-called experts on our individual and collective intelligence and competency. You don’t really need me to write a book for you about how to sit at your desk or the finer points of law firm etiquette, do you? You can book a conference room on your own, or have a respectful, intelligent and productive conversation with your colleagues and co-workers without reading a textbook on it… right? (OK, I know he can’t do it—but you can.)

So when my book comes out, even though it might destroy my dream of a winter home in a Caribbean tax haven, I really hope you don’t buy it. Because most of the stuff experts tell you fits into two categories: 1) if you don’t already know it, you’ll never learn it, and 2) verbose filler.

Interspersed with nifty charts and point form lists, of course.

Marzena Czarnecka enjoys neither polemics vilifying the low-brow content of the Internet nor panegyrics celebrating creative mass collaboration. She’s not really writing a “how to” book. But she’s a little exhausted from reading them. 

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