What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name David Letterman? If you're not a late-night Letterman devotee, your first thought might be his famous routine at the Academy Awards where he had the crowd chanting "Uma and Oprah." If this is your prime memory of him, chances are pretty good that you remember he bombed.
I recently heard an interview with Jon Stewart as a lead-up to his night as host of the Oscars. He watched the show as part of his preparation and said that Letterman got a huge laugh when he added Keanu to the bit.
But of course, no one remembers that Keanu laugh, and that got me thinking about how fragile our main resource -- our memories -- is at work
Don't believe me? The proof is right there on your business card. Look at the phone number. When Ma Bell was setting up the phone system, it chose seven numbers for a very specific reason. Research showed that was the maximum number of digits we could remember at one time. If you think that this underestimates our brain power, think back to the last time that you tried to remember someone's phone number. If you are like me, today even seven numbers is more than an already full brain can handle.
With all our hard drives (in our head, that is) overworked and overwhelmed, work often presents us with some interesting challenges. Take, for example, the people you feud with there. Admit it, if you are like most of us, you probably have at least one or two.
Ask yourself what started the bad blood. I did this exercise a few years ago and, remarkably, I couldn't remember why I went all Hatfield and McCoy on people at work. I dare you to explore your broken relationships to see how many are off-track. and you don't even remember why.
The "Uma, Oprah and Keanu" phenomenon points out that what we remember might not always be the full recollection of what really happened. And our feuds remind us that we often forget what went wrong with key relationships at work.
Today's memory-starved work force and workplace is particularly problematic when it comes to layoffs. It seems that most companies are very focused on ditching salary wherever they can, and often the experienced workers are let go in favor of newer and cheaper hires.
I get e-mails on this subject from workers almost every day. So as we lose workers with background and history, we're left with a loss of institutional memory. The people who knew how the company dealt with the last flood, well, they were let go. The people who dealt with the last competitor to introduce a new product, retired. The people who actually built the computer systems we rely on, replaced with offshore workers.
When you combine our overwhelmed brains with our loss of institutional memory, is it any wonder why our organizations feel so precarious? The only ray of sunshine here may be that most of us are too forgetful to get too worked up about this.
"If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all." --Michelangelo
"Your Dream Career for Dummies" Carol McCelland (Wiley, 2005):