In a dream, I’m on my deathbed. As the moment approaches, I ask, ‘Is this billable? ’ followed by, ‘To what do I bill this?’
I ask friends for advice on interpreting my dream.
A high-school classmate, Ron, now a medieval historian, advises, ‘Ah, but who will be answering? Sounds like an illustration out of the medieval ars moriendi. Look out!’
Knowing the ars moriendi were medieval texts outlining protocols for ‘a good death,’ I ask, ‘You mean dying isn’t billable?’
‘Au contraire,’ Ron answers, ‘but who will be holding the divine credit card reader?’
A mutual classmate, Bob—a middle-school teacher and Assistant Principal—sharply disagrees: ‘The question might be read: “To what account do I bill this?” meaning “To whom am I accountable?” It’s not a matter of ars moriendi but of ars vivendi.’
College classmate John, who ekes out a living through sweat of his brow and strength of his hands, suggests, ‘The experts are hill people: the rugged terrain where they spend their lives puts them a step ahead of most bill collectors. Ask them.’
Another college classmate, Gus, a lawyer, promptly emails me a do-it-yourself manual for setting up and maintaining systems of billable rates.
Yet another college classmate, Gary, known as the ‘poet lawyerette,’ says, ‘Instead of asking, “Is this billable?” I’d ask, “Can we make a deal about the value of the time that’s left?”’
I spent my career in an industry that demanded its workers bill each quarter hour to any of numerous charge codes. As it happens, the company’s name was MACRO. Colleagues committed to a single client and project had little reason to ask howto complete their timecards. However, those who worked on multiple projects and sometimes performed non-billable work—tasks that couldn’t be billed to clients— often characterized the time-reporting experience as ‘vexing’ or ‘unsettling.’ Everyone knew, being billable was highly correlated with being valued, and having ‘billability problems’ meant your ‘future’ was ‘at risk.’
Management made it clear we were expected to bill every moment we reasonably could to client-billable projects rather than to overhead. When asked to attend an all-staff meeting or perform a small, non-billable task, someone inevitably asked, ‘To what do I bill this?’ MACRO management bridled at such micro questions. They speculated that askers believed they operated on a higher ethical plane or suffered from a deficiency in ability to read between the lines.
Former MACRO work colleague Trish, now a mindfulness coach, says, ‘Your dream is a reminder that every moment counts.’
Another MACRO work colleague, Stan, an anthropologist, says, ‘You worked way too long in that milieu. Asking for someone else to take responsibility for providing a charge code, even in a dream, is either a way of avoiding responsibility or quibbling over meaningless details.’
MACRO’s CEO, Frank—long the final arbiter of billability questions—advises, ‘Your time should be charged to “unassigned”’.
Returning to my dream, I’m lying in bed, I know the end is near, yet I’m asking whether this is billable. I want to know to what account I should bill this. After telling colleagues who asked how to fill out their timecards that they knew the answer, here I am, asking the same niggling questions, on my deathbed no less. Am I too unable to read between the lines?
Only I can decide. Nobody can tell me how to fill out my timecard. Only I know how I’ve spent my life. The moments that mattered were hardly ever client billable. I can’t abdicate to others my responsibility to answer the hard questions.
Perhaps by asking on my deathbed, ‘Is this billable?’ and ‘To what do I bill this?’ I’m really asking ‘Am I still valued, even in the moment of my death?’ And if I am, ‘Does that mean my future is freed of risk?’ AQ