Mark Twain’s: Playing Courier

As mentioned previously, I picked up a copy of The Unabridged Mark Twain containing 22 stories. I’ve made my way through them, rating each to note stories I hope to one day read my son. This was to be a light reading exercise. To my surprise one short story had a meaningful impact.

As an aside, this story reminds me of Stephen Leacock (a favorite with my Canadian family). Leacock began writing about the time Twain died, it seems at least probable he read this:

It seemed to me the sleeping-car tickets must be the most important thing [. . .] I applied for the tickets, and they asked me which route I wanted to go by, and that embarrassed me and made me lose my head, there were so many people standing around, and I not knowing anything about the routes and not supposing there were going to be two; so I judged it best to go back and map out the road and come again.

Playing Courier is an amusing story about a man scurrying around to accomplish a thousand tasks, always diverting mid stream.

I took a cab this time, but on my way upstairs at the hotel I remembered that I was out of cigars, so I thought it would be well to get some while the matter was in my mind. It was only round the corner and I didn’t need the cab. I asked the cab-man to wait where he was. Thinking of the telegram and trying to word it in my head, I forgot the cigars and the cab and walked on indefinitely. I was going to have the hotel people send the telegram, but as I could not be far from the post-office by this time, I thought I would do it myself. But it was further than I had supposed. I found the place at last and wrote the telegram and handed it in. The clerk was a severe-looking fidgety man, and he began to fire French questions at me in such a liquid form that I could not detect the joints between his words and this made me lose my head again. But an Englishman stepped up and said the clerk wanted to know where he was to send the telegram. I could not tell him, because it was not my telegram, and I explained that I was merely sending it for a member of my party. But nothing would pacify the clerk but the address; so I said that if he was so particular I would go back and get it.

I thought the story funny, and then it kept playing in my mind as I thought about my own day. A project manager handling 20-30 projects concurrently and in differing stages. What caused this man to fail is doing everything himself. I struggle with wanting to do everything myself as well. But I am not valued for feats of labor, but seeing that tasks are completed – on time, on target, under budget.

However, I thought I would go and collect those lacking two persons first, for it would be best to do everything systematically and in order, and one detail at a time. Then I remembered the cab was eating up my substances down at the hotel yonder; so I called another cab and told the man to go down and fetch it to the post office and wait till I came.

I had a long hot walk to collect those people, and when I got there they couldn’t come with me because they had heavy satchels and must have a cab. I went away to find one, but before I ran across any I noticed that I had reached the neighborhood of the Grand Quay – at least I thought I had – so I judged I could save time by stepping around and arranging about the trunks.

Time tracking for those who work for me is fairly easy, “I worked on two projects, 4 hours each.” Time tracking for me is nearly impossible. While working on configuration of one project, the sales guy asks me for some numbers. As I look through my email folders I have more unread messages than I can handle. I scan them and flag the important ones for later. One email is from the developers in Romania needing answers to some questions so they can continue their work. I begin responding in our bug tracker, where I have other tasks due to provide specifications for a product being deployed for the needs of 2 independent projects. I need to update my status reports on those projects to indicate these new questions. The phone rings…

I stepped around about a mile, and although I did not find the Grand Quay, I found a cigar shop, and remembered about the cigars. I said I was going to Bayreuth, and wanted enough for the journey. The man asked me which route I was going to take. I said I did not know. [. . .] Next I found the bank and asked for some money, but I had left my letter of credit somewhere and was not able to draw. I remembered now that I must have left it lying on the table where I wrote my telegram; so I got a cab and drove to the post-office and went upstairs. They said that a letter of credit had indeed been left on the table, but that it was now in the hands of the police.

Then there is technology – intended to simplify life, but instead putting in place email, instant message, cell phones, land lines and software – one for account management, one for sales, one for development tracking, one for client and document collaboration. Now ask me if I can complete any of my tasks in one of those systems without another interrupting?

(skipping forward to the police interrogation) “Why didn’t you bring them?”

“Because we couldn’t carry the satchels. And so I thought…”

“Thought! You should not try to think. One cannot think without the proper machinery.”

With the obviously absurd Mark Twain tale circling my mind, I realized the equally absurd goose chase that is my work life. It was time to simplify processes, time to go low-fi with notes, time to shorten the duration of projects and reduce overlap, and most of all, time to delegate.

(last paragraph) Well, I had worked like a slave while in office, and done the very best I knew how; yet all that these people dwelt upon or seemed to care to remember was the defects of my administration, not its creditable features.

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3 Responses to Mark Twain’s: Playing Courier

  1. Time Tracker says:

    A great personal and professional time tracking device is With a Google gadget, Mac desktop widget, integration, clock in/out via SMS, and an app developed specifically for the iPhone 3G, there’s something for everyone at TSheets.

  2. Grace says:

    Justin will have to read this…he can relate:) That’s great that you are going to read books to Micah when he’s older! i think any knowledge I have of anything is from my parents reading so much to me:)

  3. bchallies says:

    Makes my brain spin just reading this…Have you been able to delegate? Are you free to manage your part of the company as you want?

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