Template is for temp + late

At a dinner, an architect friend of mine shared with us that the worst type of project is something that comes with a preconceived plan where he has to cram everything—including his creativity perhaps—into a fixed space.

In my technical writer/translator field that counts as the second worst type of work (the truly worst type says “it’s all yours” yet carries a boatload of unspoken agendas, but that’s another story). I am given a fixed template and a fixed terminology base and I have to tailor my work according to someone else’s plan. In addition to not being fun, they do not pay well, carrying the assumption that half of my work has already been done by the template and database (which is bullsxxx…calm down, Isao).

I cannot deny that my ego plays a role here. I do want to own, or at least put my footprint on, everything I seriously work on. One of my favorite scenes in 30 Rock is when Alec Baldwin (Jack Donaghy) makes his first appearance by renovating his predecessor’s office.

It’s a great office. But sometimes you have to change things that are perfectly good just to make them your own.

(Couldn’t find the exact scene on YouTube, sorry)

But there is a larger issue than my tiny ego when I am frustrated at walking a given path: I cannot do my best work in that condition. That is truly ironic, because templates and standards and plans exist to optimize our work, theoretically.

Some people argue that a great work is always achieved under restrictions. But we have to carefully distinguish real restriction from fake restriction. A real restriction is created out of reality. If I am a sushi chef in Taipei, I must use local fish if I want to provide fresh menu within reasonable budget. That is a real restriction created out of reality. If I need to buy imported expensive Japanese fish because that is “authentic,” that is a fake restriction created out of fantasy and what-if.

In fact, a template is created originally to solve a real problem with real restrictions. Someone thought of storing the result so he can reuse it later when a similar situation arises. Things go down the wrong road when we assume that a similar situation is ahead and thus can use a template, without facing that situation ourselves.

If a template has already been chosen before we face the task at hand, a fake (bad) restriction is at hand. If a template is chosen after we start to work on the project, that can become a real (good) restriction.

Again, the solution comes back to the same place: observation. Before reaching out for the toolbox we need to have the time and patience to really understand what is at stake now, and how we can effectively solve the case. THEN we may take out a tool or two because we know what we need to do. We may even create a new tool (template) along the way.

Now, here is the difficult part: How do we let our sponsors understand it?

(What, you thought I have the answer?)