May 19, 2023

You are a janitor

By the wondrous Romeo Stevens:

You are a janitor showing up for your first day on the job. Unbeknownst to you, you’ve signed up for a real doozy. The company campus you’ve been hired to clean had startup founders who simply never thought about the fact that things needed to be cleaned. The accumulation of dirt was slow enough that they simply adapted. Though their behavior is hugely impacted by the piles of garbage and the excessive sick days of the employees, from the inside, it feels normal. How else could it be?

At some point the CEO, either through chatting with other CEOs or seeing some research online or some other fortuitous chance, figured out that maybe this idea of a janitor, someone whose full time job it is to clean things up, might actually pay for itself. The CEO runs a pretty tight ship though, and is also very short term results oriented as a result of being reinforced by market pressures. So, you, the janitor, are initially hired on a ‘gig economy’ basis. You inquire where the cleaning supplies might be located and are directed to a closet that, while technically containing cleaning supplies is, if anything, even more filthy than the rest of the campus. You find one (semi-)clean sponge. There’s not even any soap. You’re informed that you’ll only be paid to clean 15 minutes a day to see if it works out. The condition of the campus begins to make sense to you, these people don’t even begin to understand basic concepts around cleaning up.

Now, if you were optimizing for the long haul, you’d know that your first order of business would be to clean up the cleaning supplies closet. Having the necessary specialized tools available and in good working order would be an enormous force multiplier. But you also know you’re an experimental hire. If you don’t show any results after a couple weeks, you’re out. So you decide to split your time. If you literally only use the sponge you won’t get enough done to avoid being fired. If you spend your time doing things in the true optimal order you also will get fired for failing to show legible results. You spend a bit of time upgrading your cleaning tools and the rest of your time cleaning up areas that are legible to the person who will be responsible for your employment decision, the CEO. The CEO will see the obvious benefits, keep you on, and you’ll have the time to really get this place in shape. Happy with your plan, you set out to execute it.

You run into immediate problems. Cleaning the areas most directly relevant to the CEO also interrupt his workflow. On the one hand, he definitely likes seeing the results. He feels like he’s getting his money’s worth. On the other hand, seeing you wipe away the grime right in front of him makes him pretty uncomfortably aware of some of his own gross habits. Over the next few days an even worse problem begins to make itself known to you. As soon as you clear a small area, that area becomes a target for everyone’s trash. Empty a bin and everyone is suddenly competing to throw things into it rather than their own already overflowing trash bins. But you learn as you go. You start doing things like putting some of the bigger bins nearest to the doors that lead to the dumpsters and clearing them first. You’re also getting to know the habits of various employees and where they tend to generate the most trash and strategically placing bins near those places. You’re making progress, but there’s always a background tension lurking in the chance that you’ll be fired.

Maybe you could come in on a Sunday, you suggest to the CEO. You could get so much done in just a few hours. The CEO informs you that the company operates 24/7/365. You know this is a lie, but you keep your mouth shut. One of the employees pulls you aside and tells you that, actually, some people clean up a bit during the night when most are asleep, otherwise this place would have gone under years ago. You know that some dedicated down time would transform the place, but you also know that such suggestions will get blown off as completely impossible.

Okay so, this is a metaphor. It’s kinda jarring to be abruptly tossed out of it, right? Like storytelling is this sort of trance like thing where we’re hallucinating this meaning structure together. But being jarred out of it is exactly the mental motion that happens when something unexpected happens and the employees suddenly see the trash that was there all along. Like the employees are forced to take winding paths through the heaps of empty wrappers of past food and office supplies, your mental process follows trails that seem normal from habit, but are rather roundabout to avoid the various fears, frustrations, shames, and other cast off wrappers of past experiences. Cleaning involves wading right into these piles of trash. If your proxy measure for progress is how clean things seem then things are getting worse. You thought there was something called ‘being clean’ that you could consume, just like any other experience. Yet when you take a bite, it only shows you that your apartment is full of pizza boxes. But that’s the point. If the pizza boxes are invisible you literally can’t clean up. You just trip sometimes, randomly from your perspective, and curse the universe for your bad luck.