a message to garcia

My friend Marcus asked if anyone had read A Message to Garcia. I have, and since twitter is just not built for this sort of discourse, here are my thoughts on it, briefly:

Politically speaking, this essay was beloved by the top-rung promoters-of-the-status-quo because of its sharp “sit down and shut up” message. “Do what you’re told, don’t think about it, and don’t ask questions.” I’d make a Nazi metaphor here, but then the argument would be over already. This sort of mentality is pervasive in western capitalist culture, starting in our school system and on up through the corporate ladder. There are more specific barbs in it, though, in my opinion, regarding more than mere work ethic.. There were strong political undertones:

I know one man of really brilliant parts who has not the ability to manage a business of his own, and yet who is absolutely worthless to any one else, because he carries with him constantly the insane suspicion that his employer is oppressing, or intending to oppress him.

It could be mere coincidence — a reflection of Hubbard’s frustrating day with employees who wouldn’t do what they’re told — but this sort of rhetorical description matches perfectly the sort of slights you’d often see against late 19th centuy anarchists, socialists et al (which at the time, prior to the world wars, were quite numerous, strong and growing, despite being mostly forgotten today.)

Lastly, there’s the little bit where he actually uses the phrase “It is the survival of the fittest”, further reinforcing the same sort of bullshit Hobbesian social darwinist ideas that were (are) popular at the time in western capitalist culture, despite the fact that they are utter bullshit. This memo, deliberate or not, reeks of the sort of pro-capitalist propaganda that set the stage for the early 20th century imperialism and the military/industrial complex. But anyways. So, yeah. Cute.

As far as how it may be applied to the business world, though, I will say that I can sympathize a bit, but I don’t agree. Having spent a decent amount of time in businesses, in a lot of different positions, there’s no doubt in my mind that the adage is true: the hardest part is managing people. I have worked with people where I admired their ability to doggedly pursue an order to the letter and extent you asked, without question. It can be a relief and a comfort to know that if you ask someone to do something, it’ll get done. Those same people, however, can get you into trouble quickly. “Why did you do ___________?” “You told me to do ___________.” “Yes, but .. that’s obviously not what i meant LITERALLY, did you even think … *sigh* nevermind.”

My mind wanders to the time that I was at a restaurant once (the Cooker in green hills — this is a true story): the waitress came around our large table asking us for drinks, one by one. She got to me, and I asked for “a diet coke, and a vodka martini, straight up with a twist.” She asked me if diet pepsi was okay, and I nodded my assent. So, she goes off, 10 minutes later comes back with a tray of drinks, and she sets one down in front of me. I’m looking at this cocktail glass full of a watery brown liquid. Confused, I sniffed at it, and took a sip. Sure as shit, the waitress had misheard “a diet coke and vodka martini, straight up, with a twist”. And the bartender made me one. Well, with Diet Pepsi. (and yes, in case you’re wondering, it was repulsive.) But what boggled my mind is that neither the waitress nor the bartender stopped to think about the implausibility of someone actually ordering a “diet pepsi martini” and bothered to doublecheck. A little bit of critical thinking can go a long way.

Conversely, I’ve worked with people that are dogmatic in their questioning of things they’re asked to do. They can be frustrating. They ask questions about everything, and they want everything explained to them. They raise irritating objections when you’re trying to lay down “the law” in a meeting. Objections that are doubly irritating when you realize — oh no! — they have a good point. And you’ve now got to rethink your decision. The irritation with this, though, is pure ego, and needs to be discarded. These sorts of people can be tough to work with. You tire of working with them because of the constant explication, and you’re wary of meetings because you know there’s inevitably going to be an objection. And yet, consistently, these are the people I’ve worked with that have added the most value to our team because they are constantly actually thinking things through.

But, these are merely two hypothetical extremes to be avoided, and everyone learns to temper their inclinations. The best position is, as usual, somewhere in the middle. “Thinkers” (I consider myself one of these) need to learn that they can’t spend forever navel-gazing and making sure they doing the right thing. After all, you reach a certain point where any decision is better than no decision. You also sometimes have to give your teammates a little credit in having thought through the things you’re objecting to. Everyone has a job to do and sometimes you just have to trust and let someone do theirs. In turn, the “doers” need to learn to employ a little bit of critical thinking and speak up when they’re asked to do something that appears to be inanely stupid. (or, hypothetically, if it involves rounding up and exterminating Jews. Ha. SORRY. I couldn’t help it.) This is not a bad thing, and your team will thank you for it.

I find the sentiment as expressed in that essay to be utterly repulsive, though. I suppose it’s advantageous and desirable in the business world for strong, type-A personalities who don’t want their decisions questioned, I’m sure. And if they surround themselves with such automatons they’ll have no trouble quickly running their business straight into the ground, unimpeded. It’s also politically expedient for a status quo that doesn’t want anyone to bother thinking about why things are the way they are. The compulsion to sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told is something straight out of Orwell, and the sentiment that it should be held up as some sort of Platonic ideal is scary, and dangerous.

So, uhm, yeah. In summary, I’ve read it and I think it sucks.

  • Andrew Duthie

    It’s interesting seeing different takes on this little tract from different viewpoints.

    From the busy entrepreneur came the idea that this tract is for him, and people like him, to get them to work harder. The same person agreed that requiring employees to read “A Message to Garcia” was not a good idea at all.

    From another, who is in charge of wrestling fairly stereotypical 22-year-old attitudes into useful mechanics, requires it. If nothing else, it’s something he can refer back to when their questions suggest their instructor with 20 years’ experience doesn’t know how to remove a camshaft properly (for example).

    But overall, yeah, I don’t like it either.

    For those who do love it, though, I recommend the somewhat longer tract, The Go-Getter, written by Peter Kyne in 1921. Naturally it, too, is available on Google Books. Essentially, it is the story of how a different message got to a different Garcia. And a guy who thought it amusing to offer impossible challenges to prospective hires.

  • http://chris.quietlife.net Chris

    I also think it’s instructive to consider the plight of the guy that delivered the message. According to wikipedia, he “died obscurely in the Presidio” in SF. So, you know. Maybe he’d have a different opinion on how things worked out for him. :)

  • bob

    People love the essay because it allows them to view themselves as a hybrid of Hubbard and Rowan, and to view everyone else as a worthless lout. As an essay, it’s undiluted pandering, and offers nothing more.

  • Mediafire

    LOL

  • Jmusmc85

    LOL. Yes. I had to write a small essay on this and I was like ” WTF is this shit” My professor is a former Army captain so it all makes sense now. But this type of leadership doesn’t flow very well with most. Most students were all for this, but we all know that they truthfully would not like a leader like Hubbard. Very funny post.