A load of old Barnum

barnumPlace your hands on the screen and let’s see if I can gain an insight into what sort of person you are.
Here we go.
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable yet largely hidden strengths that you have still to turn to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be slightly insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you always make the right decision. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept other’s statements without satisfactory proof. But you think it can be unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
Sound familiar? Well it should because that is how most people see themselves. You are not alone in feeling this way. Far from it. While we all harbour some fantasy of ourselves as completely unique, the kind of people who peddle this sort of tripe – astrologers and psychics among them – have always known that most people have far more in common with everybody else than they’d like to believe. What makes you genuinely unique is your relationships with others.
In fact, the above passage is largely made up of ‘Barnum Statements’, which most people think are true of themselves but not so true of others. Coupled with people’s generally poor grasp of the laws of probability, this creates a fertile spawning ground for psychics, astrologers and spiritualists.
You can pull a similar stunt when you’re writing about particular professions. If you regularly read the trade magazines for civil servants, lawyers, marketeers, accountants, architects, designers, engineers, consultants, call centre managers and people in IT, HR, FM, PM, QS, CS and BS*, you’ll daily come across an editorial making a fairly common sort of point about the way in which that profession sees itself. We can Barnumise it thus:
What you do is of significant strategic importance, yet you do not receive the recognition you deserve. You tend to be under-represented at boardroom level where you could add significant value to the organisation. Unlike those bastard architects/surveyors/accountants/project managers etc, when it comes to major issues you are not consulted early enough so decisions are made on the basis of bad information or no information. As a result the organisation invariably screws up big style. And just guess who’s going to have to put it right? That’s right- muggins. You’re not paid enough for the great job you do, either. And another thing: people have got completely the wrong impression of you. You’re not geekish/ difficult/ socially inept/ arrogant/ closeted/ unattractive/ middle aged (delete as appropriate). You’re the nice guys.
The fact that everybody thinks this about the job they do makes life a little bit easier for two groups of people. Editors of trade magazines can repeat this sort of stuff all they like and probably win awards for it with the thanks of a grateful profession. Suppliers can also use it as a key part of their marketing message. For a start, it offers an easy PR opportunity for those vendors keen to show how much they empathise with their customers through a ‘we-feel-your-pain’ piece in an appropriate journal.
As an extension of this, there is a tendency for professions to demonise each other. For example – and it seems to be difficult for both sides to discuss this out in the open – there’s an undercurrent of bad feeling between facilities managers and architects. Facilities managers in particular seem to resent the fact they have to manage the results of the creativity of other people, feel they aren’t involved in the creative process soon enough and possibly resent the high profile enjoyed by architects.
I’ve always seen the difference between building design and FM as the difference between conception and parenthood. One is an act of creativity that takes a relatively short amount of time to complete (speak for yourself, I know) but which people think about a lot. The other is an act of responsibility that never really ends and which people may talk about a lot but nobody else is really all that interested in. There’s a reason why Channel 4 televises the Stirling Prize and leaves the BIFM Awards alone. What seems to make all this harder to bear for FMs is that they are often in loco parentis, so are often managing a building not of their own making.
So my point is this. The ideas and feelings that unite us both as individuals and as professionals are far greater than the things that divide us. We may think we’re all one-offs, but any uniqueness we may possess is apparent mostly in our relationships with others. Worth remembering when the guy from IT is getting on your tits.

*I made the last one up. I think. If you’re a BS, you’re not alone.

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3 Responses to “A load of old Barnum”


  1. 1 Stephen Foster February 26, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    All truly Fascinating and a definite welcome addition to the blogosphere and my own personal blogroll, but what this site really needs is the application of the calendar widget so you can become dysfunctionally addicted to making the dates light up every single day and be left with a feeling of incompleteness if you find yourself in an emotional state 5 mins after midnight remembering that you forgot to do it.

  2. 2 markelt February 26, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    I’ve taken your advice as usual. I need more stress.


  1. 1 A glimpse behind the curtain « Desk jockey Trackback on July 7, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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