Leigh DowWednesday,23 January 2013

The Snap:

Antarctica’s Palmer Station, located on Anvers Island is one of three American research bases in Antarctica. It is also the only station north of the Antarctic Circle and the smallest U.S. outpost. After an extended stay, many station “Polies” experience a phenomena called “going toast” and they rarely discuss the details with outsiders. You can only get to Palmer by ship because there is no room for an airstrip and it’s a five-day trip from Chile, it’s the epitome of isolation.

The Download:

You can see how nearly everyone experiences an extreme type of cabin fever, or “going toast”, where the most common symptom is losing track of time.

1. When going toast, you simply stop noticing things because you do everything by route and routine. In a Reddit thread, one Polie shares a time when they shaved someone’s head while he was passed out drunk. It took him three days to notice it – only after someone else pointed it out to him. How many times have you done something because it’s just part of the routine, not because it made any sense whatsoever? Weekly staff meetings are a great example. How many have you been to that were just to check a box rather than drive action or decision making?

2. At Palmer Station, pay varies wildly for each person and skill, with an increase often based on how many years you have been in Antarctica. This is very similar to the corporate increase for “keeping you chair warm and your head down” effect I witnessed in a few companies. In some companies, many of the most highly skilled and innovative were paid the least, compared to those with a more lofty education or those who never rocked the boat and kept their head down. Once a Vice President told me to “dumb it down” when talking to my peers. For the record, chair warming is a skill to itself.

3. Polies usually work 9 hours a day, six days a week, but there are additional station duties they have to do on rotating schedules. In many companies today you are required to carry your grain of salt above your head and don’t question. Do that and you are golden. Don’t ask why a high school grad gets paid overtime, but you are giving up weekends and nights for travel, adjusting for time zones or answering emails at ungodly hours before some asshole ruins your entire project. If you let it, your personal time can be completely highjacked.

4. Palmer bedrooms are small and come with bunk beds, with two to a room. In one company I worked for they went to “two in a box” cube space to save money. This was cube space already designed for one very tiny person. My cube mate and I couldn’t get up and leave without bumping the other with our chair. Do that over and over and over again for six months and see how toasty your are. It’s like being on a never ending flight with a 3 year old sitting directly behind you. And that’s without even mentioning all their personal quirks and food choices.

5. By all reports, Palmer has a lot of booze around for “entertainment” and the male/ female ratio is about 70/30. I worked for tech companies, where I was often the only woman in the room or on the trip. 70/30 actually sounds delightfully high to me. I also lost count of the many drunken business trips I witnessed. Booze may no longer be in the office Mad Men style, but it hasn’t left the business world.

6. The effects of climate change are very noticeable in Antarctica, glaciers have receded half a mile just in the last 30 years and the sea ice is extending less every year. If your company is more than ten years old, look around the office. When was the last time your company updated the interiors? Does your cube have stains? How old is your chair? Companies have been holding on to cash for years now and the climate change went from posh executive suites and respectable work spaces to less and less emphasis on the space you occupy as a hard working employee. Additionally, when was the last time you felt challenged? When did you see your company reward intelligent risk taking, even if it resulted in failure? Once a company reaches a certain size, those aspects of the culture tend to shift.

Not all companies are like Antarctica, but it’s important to know where you best fit and when it’s time to go, before you too turn to toast. Polies are amazing people, who obviously have a sense of adventure and are risk takers by nature. Many describe their going toast phase as when they realize abnormal becomes the normal. If you, like the Polie in this interview, realize you are holding “semi-decent conversations with the several mannequin heads” in you room – it’s probably time to move on and find a new frontier. He describes his version of hell as, “working for the little office with the little lunch break and the little retirement fund as you lose a little more hair and a little more hope.” After going toasty, I totally get it. Do you?

Hat Tips:

Business InsiderBig Dead Place, Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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