Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shoot first. Ask later.

Taking in Venice, 2011

I once accepted a job where I would be replacing a guy—we’ll call him Mike—who’d had the job for many years. Mike was a nice guy, but also one of the most pessimistic people I’ve ever known. He’d had much sadness in his life and long ago tired of the job. I, on the other hand, was young and eager and hired to breathe new life into the position. Mike was to be moved within the department to another job where he’d essentially ride out the last few years to retirement without getting in my way.
I should mention that neither Mike nor I had much respect for our department head. He was dishonest and slippery. I accepted the job only because I’d been hired by his boss and, as such, given pretty much free reign to do as I saw fit.
The week before I was to start this new job, the department head left the company abruptly. His was a colorful story, but relevant to my story only in that Mike was temporarily appointed to fill the guy’s place.
So when I started work the following week, the guy I was to have replaced was now the department manager. I knew right then that my opportunities had narrowed significantly. Mike was never less than complimentary about my work. But any ideas I had about breathing new life into the job were quashed quickly. Mike was the expert in what couldn’t be done and what wouldn’t work.
Under Mike’s management, I could finish all the work that was expected of me in an hour or so each morning. For the first few months, I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around the building learning about other aspects of the business and trying to figure out how I could be a more effective resource for the people with whom I was assigned to work. Eventually I learned how to introduce a lot of new and successful ideas in the job. I just had to make sure it looked like they came from other people. The people I helped were very supportive of me. They knew where the ideas and programs came from.  We just couldn’t let Mike know.
If you’ve ever had a job like this, you know how mind numbing it can be. A few months later I left the company.
I think it was my friend Sybil who, when faced with a bureaucratic obstacle, introduced me to the idea of begging for forgiveness after taking a bold or risky move instead of asking for permission up front. Sybil’s a woman of high ethical standards. I know she intended no dishonesty, and was merely imparting to me a practical tip on how to get something done when stopping to ask for permission would have slowed the process down or derailed it completely.
In an interview the other day with The Telegraph newspaper, the British photographer Martin Parr was asked if he ever seeks people’s permission before photographing them. Parr, known for his unflinching and colorful photographs of modern life, wasted not a second in answering, “You would never get anything done if you did that.”
I’ve written before about the question of whether one should ask permission to take someone’s picture when out in public. I know there are times when this is the right thing to do. But more and more I’m coming to believe also that too many good opportunities are lost when you do this.
Shoot first. Ask later.

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