Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Peter Principle

In Mumbai this time round, I was rummaging through my dad's old books and came across two interesting ones - the "Peter Principe" and the "Peter Prescription" - both which I have been floating on the periphery of my to-read list for years now.

This time I picked up the former and am half way through it. Incidentally, I learnt from wiki, that it’s a fairly well known (which I was only vaguely aware of) and that that iconic pop culture like Dilbert and Office space has been inspired to some extent ( which I surmised).

It's a wonderfully tongue in cheek, satirical representation of office hierarchy – a book on hierarchiology. The underlying philosophy is straightforward – people in organizations rise up their level of incompetence. If you look at the corporate world through that lens, suddenly many bewildering things start to fall in place. Viz. policies which seem to favour mediocrity and stifle initiative or a top management which is singularly talentless and uninspiring, or the strange phenomena of working to please the boss, rather than the client, and many such others.

On a more personal note, what intrigued me was the timing. This was my father’s book and there is his signature and date scrawled in the first page – 1974, he must have picked this up as a bachelor in the UK where he spent half a dozen years before marriage. He would have been a couple of years older than I am right now, and it would be fair to assume ( since he has both the books) that some of the dilemmas I face more than thirty years down the line are ones which he did as well. That inspite of being from different generations, radically different career paths, different countries, different socio-economic generations that he, as I am, after 8-12 years of working, also apparently grappled with the same kind of questions I do.

I always wondered about that, whether this mid-life professional crisis where you start seriously retrospecting on decisions and recalibrating the importance of a career vis-a-vis other aspects of life – is a phenomena restricted to our generation. A generation which has had so many opportunities, that it is spoilt for choice – unlike our parents generations (seventies and eighties – could it even be called a career?) who had to get a job hold on for dear life till retirement. So was introspection even an option? Apparently yes.

It’s weirdly comforting this sense of continuity – the fact that my father was going through some of the professional angst which I face now, and yet went on to carve out a name for him. It gives me hope, that in spite of all reservations, in-spite of self doubts and insecurities, I might do so too.

P.S. Also quarter way through another book “And then we came to the end” by Joshua Ferris – corporate chaos circa 2007ish – much recommended basis what I have read so far. Also “e” by Matt Beaumont. Interesting side bar is both of these books are based in advertising agencies. There is something about agencies which bring out the cynicism in people I think. Or maybe people in advertising come to a realistic assessment of their/job’s worth( or lack of it)sooner than their corporate counterparts?

P.P.S Had written this post sometime back, never posted it. Seem to be having a rather dry spell just at the moment – so upsydaisy to drafts-old –ignored posts


What's In A Name!? said...

:) Going through such old stuff is always nostalgic - i came across a letter addressed to my grandfather dated 1961, signed by S Radhakrishnan, the then VP of india - it was in reply to some letter granpa wrote abt the book the train to pakistan! :)

Makes me feel that i guess the strong urge to let the opinion known runs in the family!

At the same time, it's imp to draw your attention to another paper i came across.

it was a certificate awarded to dad - when he was abt 14 years (sometime in 1961 too) - he had come first in "frog race".

narendra shenoy said...

Peter's Principle is so well written! And totally true. The shenoy corollary to Peter Principle states that When someone rises to his level of incompetence in an organization, he starts wearing a tie

Anonymous said...

Ty, hope everything is well.

Meira said...

have heard about them...must pick them one soon.

Nandini Vishwanath said...

Hmm :) I love going through old books. I found so many of my notes, some old letters, some things I'd written to my parents when I was upset with them. Brings back tons of memories.

Not heard of the Peter books! Would love to, though, from the looks of it.

And *huug*

D said...

My Editor used to swear by that book. Lend it to me to read it but I never could get beyond a few pages. Which doesn't mean I don't agree with the premise of the book - that everyone does rise up to their level of incompetency. However, I wonder what part luck has to play in taking us higher up...

AmitL said...

Hi,Cyn-this is extremely intriguing-even I always thought that the previous generation did not have as many choices as we did,and,would continue in the same job till retirement.
People in the corporate world rising up their level of incompetence-that's from Murphy's Law,too,I think..and,it seems so true,sometimes.

Must read these two books someday.

Anonymous said...

i think the label of this post should be : hope .. :)

Cynic in Wonderland said...

Whats in a name - yes, this kind of nostalgia is nice - just transportsyou to a different era and time and wot not no? Also, have you participated in frograces too?

Naren - I am muchly impressed with shenoy principle. The only exception could be people in the pharma industry - i think MR's are born wearing ties!

Anon - Could be better. You?

Meira - do. worth a read.

Nandini - Hugs to you too :). Oh the letters and all ( mine) i find by the dozenfulls. apparently i was postal challenged - would write and forget to post ( God bless emails).

D- I assume like all satires, its a broad generalization. You need to be lucky to seen in competence ( to rise) and unlucky if your incompetence is noted ( and further promotions not realized). personally i suspect, that after a particular level, even competent people get affected by the incompetence virus after a certain level - if others get by NOT having brains, why expend the effort?

Anon :)

Amit - yes, apparently mid-life and prof crisis are not restricted to our generation. comforting isnt it?

Rada said...

As father of an an adolescent daughter, sometimes I find myself asking: Shit! Is this the kind of stuff my parents had to go through, raising me?

History repeats itself; certain crises and dilemmas are eternal! :)