The Weight of a City

Posted on June 7, 2019

Lee Lawrie's bronze Atlas statue in Rockefeller Center

Today’s Buzz is by Kendra Davis (LinkedInTwitter). She was not aware that old prom photos were fair game for these posts and regrets that she was not prepared for this. Tune in for her next Morning Buzz, “Where Are They Now: Prom Edition.” Please send submissions via Twitter.

What I’m Watching: Good Omens on Amazon Prime. The book was written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, who are literally my literary heroes.

What I’m Reading: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. I love all things Barbara Kingsolver – she’s very straightforward about the variety of ways a family is made and the challenges that come with that. Also, this book is all about how to move forward when it feels like the life you’ve always known is collapsing with dashes of botanical history and intrigue!

What I’m Listening To: Dolly Parton sing “I Will Always Love You.”

Image from NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION, Jason Lively, Dana Hill, Beverly D'Angelo, Chevy Chase, 1985
Obviously my coworker on her vacation.

A coworker of mine recently went on a great vacation. She is much better at intentionally using her time off than some of us (I mean me) and went on a tour of THREE European countries. Showoff. She didn’t take her work laptop with her, which we both felt was the right decision. Unfortunately, she responded to emails and forwarded voicemails and took care of lots of work stuff while she was also touring ruins and having romantic dinners with her partner. When she got back, I asked her why she felt like she needed to do that, whether those things would have kept until she returned? She had lots of reasons that made sense and an equal number that didn’t, but most of them centered around her being the only one who could possibly answer the questions coming her way. It made me think about how we position ourselves in our organizations and the myth that we alone are responsible for their success/downfall, as if we alone carry the weight of the city on our shoulders.

The work we do in local government is very real and present in people’s lives. These projects and processes have tangible results, and that’s the reason a lot of people (like you and me!) get involved in local government. The flip side is when something is delayed or incorrect or needs attention, there are real people who are impacted. Plus, because we’re all so good at our jobs, our communities know exactly who to call when they have a question or concern! So we try to be conscious of this by setting reasonable timelines, managing expectations, and communicating effectively.

But how well do we manage our expectations of ourselves in local government?

The idea that this City or this project will collapse without us is narcissistic and wildly inaccurate. I’m not immune to it – most of my recent winter holiday was spent furiously formatting and reformatting a PowerPoint and having Skype meetings with my boss while she was on vacation in Mexico so…I clearly do not have the answers for this self-imposed frenzy of importance. Responding to crisis or chaos feels good – it replaces the anxiety of doing a good job with the anxiety of getting things done, which tbh is something that feels easier to me.

We work hard, long hours because we are dedicated to our field and our purpose. That should be commended – we’re all great people and employees, good job us! But honestly, part of it is narcissism. Real talk, we all want to feel important and like what we’re doing matters, even if it’s just updating the bulletin board policy for City facilities. Part of how I do this is by convincing myself (and my organization) that I am absolutely IMPERATIVE to whatever project this is, that it would be IMPOSSIBLE to carry on without my very special skill set and input.


I apologize for the jarring capitalization, but we as public servants, myself included, need to hear this, and I know what those caps mean (YELLING). When you believe yourself the linchpin to a project or process or organization, it means so many things, both positive and negative. Here are some of the implications that you may not realize:

  1. You don’t trust your team or organization to carry on the work you’re currently doing. The inverse of thinking you’re the only one is believing no one else can succeed at the same task. Even if you’re not actively thinking that, it is definitely a vibe being sent to others.
  2. You’re setting yourself up for burnout. It feels good in the short term to be the one that people turn to with all the answers, but veteran public servants will tell you that isn’t sustainable or good for the organization. Spread the wealth of knowledge! Also, see item #1. Your team can do it.
  3. There’s a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence. I can’t say where that is for you, but remember to take stock of your actions and see if it still feels right to you. Maybe even bring in an outside opinion! Friends love telling other friends how to improve their lives. I will personally volunteer to review your decision-making and provide extremely valuable opinions.

As a caveat, I do all of these things and suffer the consequences regularly. But it helps me to remember that the foundations of our organizations run deep. They are so much bigger than just us! The work we do is important, but unless your job title is “Atlas, Holder of the Celestial Sphere,” I think it’s okay if you take a vacation and let that call go to voicemail.

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