By Sanders, Robert L.
ARMA Records Management Quarterly , Vol. 28, No. 1
We records managers are known for our pessimistic point of view. We attend conferences devoted to planning for the worst imaginable contingencies. We participate in workshops on dealing with smoke and water damage. Every morning we look overhead at the pipes in the basement to which our department is relegated and exclaim knowingly, "When those things burst and the records are soggy, we'll remind them of what we said..." We are known for dire predictions such as, "Very few companies without an effective vital records program can survive five years after a major disaster." Our publications contain full-page pictures captioned "This company could be yours" and portraying a distraught executive surrounded by a pile of charred and water-logged paper.
Like the real estate agent specializing in cemetery plots, our careers partially depend upon our employers' believing "it could happen to us." We are prophets of the likelihood of misplacing a document not secured in the central file or of losing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit because of the absence of an adequate records management program. We buy every book and calendar on Murphy's Law, not because we think they are humorous but because we believe in their inevitability.
However, without being ready to commit myself to an institution as a schizophrenic, I must admit that, alongside my usual pessimistic records management self, there lives a Wannabe Optimist. Like any other schizophrenic, I am not always able to repress my other self. One day last week, for example, an event occurred that enabled him to emerge. As the other members of the agency's emergency preparedness team told the staff how concerned they were for employee safety, I had nothing to contribute to the staffs comfort level. "The best I can offer," I said shamefacedly, "is consolation that at least your grandchildren will have a record of what you were working on when the catastrophe occurred."
As I walked away from the meeting in self-imposed solitude, an unrefereed debate between the optimistic and pessimistic aspects of my personality began. What follows is a transcript of that discussion.
Wannabe Optimist: [spiritedly] "Must the records manager be doomed to endlessly repeating Murphy's Law? Must he always be the dour-faced pessimist, the harbinger of devastation? Isn't he in fact missing many wonderful opportunities for achievement based upon optimistic risk-taking because he can only think about what might go wrong? Has he not become a victim of his own gloomy self-fulfilling prophecies? Isn't there a way of introducing the power of positive thinking into records management? If he were really to have the faith of a mustard seed, would he not be able to move mountains? What about Leibnitz's proof that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds? What about the little engine who could? Can the records manager not become an optimist and still be a records manager?"
Pessimistic Self: [put on the defensive by Wannabe's insistent manner] "As usual, your arguments sound convincing, but they are just nebulous phrases with little substance. If I gave you control, what would you do in actuality? How would you optimize my procedures?"
Wannabe Optimist: [unexpectedly rising to the occasion] "The key to becoming an optimistic records manager is to plan with the adage of the self-fulfilling prophecy in mind.
The pessimist believes in failure; therefore, he fails. The optimist believes in success; therefore he succeeds.
"Consequently, since our optimistic plans are self-fulfilling, there is no need for a contingency plan based upon the possibility of things not working out in this best of all possible worlds. A pessimistic contingency planner is like the man who walked to town with his eyes focused only on the road to avoid falling into a pothole. Although he never fell into a pothole, he ended up in the wrong town, because he had not looked where he was going. …