Orbiting The Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide To Surviving With Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie
Occasionally there is a humorous book like this one that reveals that one’s general and normal pattern of behavior is actually an effective strategy that can be realized and consciously done. That is not to say that I agree with everything in the book–the author’s deliberately eccentric new age approach is not for everyone and certainly not something I approve of, but if you look at the author’s hijinks as a sign of a deliberate strategy that he was using in order to preserve his own sanity and his ability to be creative in a corporate environment at Hallmark, then one can glean what insight one can from the author’s own behavior and then choose to go about it in a different way. For me, there is enough wisdom in this book that it is worthwhile to appreciate this particular book even if one does not find the author to be someone who would be easy to deal with when he was in full oddball mode. And the central metaphor of the book, where institutions themselves are all giant hairballs that grow larger and larger with rules that stifle innovation and seek to swallow people up inside of their political games, is one that is well worth keeping in mind as it applies to many institutions.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into 24 short chapters, many of them filled lovingly with quirky art and drawings from a variety of people. Most of the book consists of a somewhat odd and episodic memoir of the author of his own time working within Hallmark where he found himself in a variety of positions, occasionally succumbed to the ambition of seeking to rise in the corporate hierarchy, and eventually how he came to reconcile the tension between the need for people at a company like Hallmark to be creative (coming up with clever cards is nothing if not a creative endeavor) while avoiding the extremes of either abandoning Hallmark or being swallowed up by what the author terms as the giant hairball made up of corporate regulations and traditions and approaches, something that all organizations have in some fashion. The author’s solution, a particularly elegant one, was to orbit the hairball so that one is able to keep a distance from the political games and preserve one’s sanity and integrity while still able to contribute to the well-being of the organization through one’s creativity and originality.
This is admittedly a difficult balance, and the author was certainly benefited in this because he worked for a company where creativity was valued and which had places where oddballs and misfits could go while remaining productive members of the organization itself. Not all institutions are able to create places where people can contribute while being different and unusual within an institutional environment, and not everyone is able to find such places where they are able to be themselves while also being productive and useful parts of an organization. And that delicate task is something that the author does not sugarcoat, nor does he whitewash his own oddness in creating a place where he pretends to be some sort of Indian guru dispensing encouragement to those with creative ideas who simply need a bit of encouragement in the face of environments that tend to stifle creativity. If I would not go about the problem the same way as the author does, his approach is worthwhile in that he recognized that all of the ideas others had were good enough to encourage, which I have generally found when people talk to me about something that they have puzzled over and studied.