The good and the bad of sameness

Groundhog Day is one of my very favorite movies of all time. I love the central themes at the heart of it—that if you are stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of living the same experience over and over again, you can either rail against your fate, or you can learn, and grow. And that learning and growing often happens through connecting to other people and helping them.

I often think about the plot of Groundhog Day (and other movies and tv shows with similar, stuck-in-a-time-loop tropes) in relation to work, because as you get older, you tend to encounter the same work experiences again and again. Not too long ago, I was working with a team on a piece about a very complex subject. All social change topics are complicated; you really can’t write about education, healthcare, climate change, criminal justice, etc. without knowing a decent amount about the subject matter—the scientific literature and analyses, the technical terms and jargon that need translating, and the layers of law, policy, finance, and advocacy involved.

It is my job, when writing stuff about topics like these, to shape a clear and coherent storyline out of the subject matter. In other words, I am not usually commissioned to write a piece that regurgitates all of the background and technical details about the topic; au contraire, I am usually asked to come up with a storyline that will help a lot more people understand the topic, and maybe start to understand why they should care about the topic, if they don’t already. In short, I write stories to persuade. I write stories to make the subject matter come alive and feel real.

This one piece I was working on, the person who I will call the “content expert” kept on posing questions and challenges about what the main story angle was for the piece. The person kept on asking, “Shouldn’t we be focusing on [this incredibly technical-sounding angle]? Why do we need these descriptive or background details? They feel superfluous.”

This interaction felt incredibly familiar to me. This is very much a repeating experience in communications: that somehow, there will always be a person who works on the program content side who will insist that she or he or they know better about what the storyline should be then you do. Some of them are not even particularly nice about it (understatement) and will treat you like the PR hack who insists writing puff-prose built entirely of words of hot air.

This interaction, and many others like it, made me think about all the times that the Groundhog Day effect (some would call it déjà vu) turned out to be a positive thing, versus all the times when the effect triggered the reaction of, I simply cannot with this nonsense anymore.    

The positive things:

It means that I’m employable. I mean, if everyone knew how to communicate and how to write, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living from communicating and writing, which I most certainly have done and continue to do. So even though I run into the same communication challenges and attitudes and behaviors again and again, that feels like a part of a seemingly infinite and renewable demand for my services and my particular set of skills. You know, I come from a family of doctors—my parents, sibling, uncles, etc., all doctors—and when I’ve asked any one of my relatives whether they felt a particular calling to medicine, they’ve all said, yes, they did, and also, they’ve said something along the lines of, “The world will always need doctors.” I think the same holds true of communicators and writers: the world will always need them.

It reminds me of how knowledge needs to be passed on. I encounter a lot of people who have no idea how to do certain things related to communications and yet are expected to do those things as part of their jobs. (A common example of this is that senior leaders are often asked to be “thought leaders,” when they haven’t really thought about which topics they want to be thought-leading on, let alone what they want to say on those topics.) Things like, how does writing change across different formats, like op-eds, blog posts, web copy, speeches, etc? What are messages, exactly, and when do we need them and why? What should one do in a crisis situation, like when your organization’s reputation is under attack? I once worked with a person in a very senior role who thought that messages about the work she was leading should include every possible statistic and detail about the subject matter. And when I took the time to talk to her about how messages should express values and emotions and get audiences to understand why they should care about things, with details added as appropriate for particular audiences, she was very grateful for that advice.

So this is a useful reminder that sometimes, the same experiences happen again and again because that’s just how knowledge works: someone needs to pass it on. And when I get to be the person passing it on, I get a large charge out of people telling me, sincerely, that I’ve helped them to understand something about communications. I also remember all the times that wiser people took the time to pass knowledge on to me, and how much I benefited from their generosity.

The negative things:

Who am I kidding? I am sure you know all the negative things about encountering the same experiences at work, again and again. I mean, what job is lacking in mind-numbing repetition? (I think about the veteran teachers, who have taught at the same grade level for years. I think about the airline staff at the airport gates, having to deal with all of those angry frustrated passengers.) In communications, it’s the colleagues who ask you to do slides for them, even though it’s not your job to do slides for them; it’s the edits that come back that make no sense; it’s the wearying sameness of having to explain the same things, over and over again, about how communication actually works, like wow, it really does help if you have an idea about audiences for this piece and how it fits into your overall change strategy.  

Groundhog Day (the movie) has many scenes about the despair of re-living the same experiences again and again, although the movie mines such great comedy from these moments (like when Bill Murray’s character says “Lake Titicaca,” while watching a Jeopardy! episode he’s seen a kabillion times before). We, in the ordinary working world, can’t always find the humor in re-living experiences, I’m sure. But we can—occasionally—remember the positive reasons why they keep happening to us.