Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday pet peeve: the wrong kinds of ignorance

(This post could potentially get me into trouble at work - a rarity on this blog! I therefore wrote it without using any of the keywords that might cause the people involved to find it on Google. My apologies if this makes it unclear).

I have no problem with good old-fashioned, honest ignorance - as long as it comes served with healthy portions of a) awareness of said ignorance and b) willingness to own up to and address the knowledge deficit.

But then there are the other kinds of ignorance:

"I already know how to do this. I don't need to pay attention to these instructions".

"I don't know how to do this, but I'd better not tell anyone - they might be mad at me. I'll just guess".

and, of course, "I don't know, and I don't care".

I've encountered examples of all four recently. Not from my immediate colleagues, but from people who work for various collaborators at different sites across the country. Here's how the story unfolded...

What I needed, Part I:

A PDF from each person, generated by Website 1 in a way that attaches metadata (necessary for recognition by and and upload to Website 2).

What I got, Part I:

1) One email saying "I'm sorry, I have no idea how to do this".

2) One PDF that had been printed out and then scanned back in, rather than just saved (i.e. no metadata).

3) One scanned print-out of various pages from Website 1 (i.e. not only was there no metadata, but half the information was missing).

4) A couple of actual correct PDFs, with metadata.

How I responded, Part I:

1) "No problem, call me and I'll walk you through it".

2) "Grrrrrrr".

3) "Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Are you fucking kidding me??!!"

4) Grateful weeping.

What I needed, Part II:

A Word document from each person, with the required sections in the correct order, and following various formatting guidelines I'd provided by email.

What I got, Part II:

A Word document from each person, with some or all of the required sections in more or less the right order. Each one followed a subset of the formatting guidelines, with a unique combination in each document.

How I responded, Part II:

"Am I on TV? Where did you guys hide the camera?"

What I needed, Part III:

Corrections to the above.

What I got, Part III:

A few apologies, and a couple of doses of attitude along the lines of "I don't have time for endless revisions".

How I responded, Part III:

"Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I'll just do it myself".

What I needed, Part IV:

A signature from each person's boss.

What I got, Part IV:

All the required signatures. BUT three people neglected to put my name on the courier envelope*. Hundreds of people work in my building. Our mailroom guys are not allowed to open unaddressed mail.

How I responded, Part IV:

By spending an hour in the mail room, sorting through all the piles and piles of unaddressed mail, and swearing and complaining to the mailroom guys, who fortunately were hilarious and awesome.



If I ask you to do something, and you don't know how, just tell me. I will help you. I didn't know how to to this stuff when I started, either (no-one does - it's not exactly the most intuitive system in the world). So I asked people who did know, and they helped me. And I kept the instructions. And now I know how to do it, and how to help you.

If you frustrate me enough with your incompetence and learned helplessness that I end up doing it myself, well, at least the damn thing gets done. But you don't learn a thing, and I'll no doubt see you for Round Two next year.

A plague of clowns upon the wilfully ignorant! And not the good kind, the annoying and/or creepy kind!


*Yes, this is technially incompetence rather than ignorance. But I really need to vent about it anyway.


  1. Amazing, isn't it, how many PhDs out there seem incapable of reading directions?

    I find it easier to take care of the grant and manuscript formatting myself... unfortunately, I also find it much easier to just rewrite entire manuscripts/pages. Which gets things done, but (as you point out) is not good for the learning process of trainees.

    And I understand work-venting. I would LOVE to vent more (I think I have some really great stories!) but I also want to keep a position at my institute.

  2. It is truly amazing that it is so hard to say "I don't know how to do this" or simply follow instructiong "since they probably aren't important"......

    I'm trying not to work vent at the moment, sensitive stuff; let's just say there are some major issues.

    I hope your week will be better!

  3. Yikes! I do like your term, "knowledge deficit."

    Looking at your exercise log: don't worry about going faster, picking up speed is actually pretty darn difficult. Try to run a larger portion of your run or go further or longer, this will lead to improvement sooner!

  4. Awesome. I just forwarded to a subset of my team, as they went through the exact same thing. They are giggling as I type this :).

  5. Bean-Mom, these people weren't trainees, but that situation has come up before. I usually try to go over the piece of writing with the trainee, but if there's a deadline, I often end up doing it myself.

    Venting is good!

    Chall, I think it's an ego thing. Speaking of which, I actually had one of the PIs at my institute apologise to me the other day for not accepting all the changes I'd made to a document - hey, I'm OK with that! Some changes were fixes to obvious typos/punctuation errors, but others were more a matter of opinion. I couldn't do my job if I let my ego get in the way, and got upset about that kind of thing.

    I do hope your major issues resolve...

    SG, thanks for the advice! It's hard to do more than my current run time on weekdays, but I might try to do a longer one at the weekend. I'm a wee bit sick at the moment (I'm calling it the Swine Sniffle), but I'll try to get out there again soon!

  6. Mermaid, our comments crossed. I'm glad your group is enjoying this! Which reminds me... please can you remind me (via email) which person put together the how-to guide with all the screenshots?! I may be using it a lot in the future...


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