Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

Antonius Tsai
3 min readDec 11, 2022

Taking full responsibility for authenticity in our work

Most of us work in organizations that we are somewhat ambivalent about. These organizations are nominally run by human beings but behave in practice more like a money-seeking machine. Whatever it is that our organization produces, an undue amount of attention will get paid to where the money is going and how to get more of it. I work at a university, where we “produce” education, research, and healthcare; the main metrics for those are money-related.

Over the years, I have come to a inner “truce” regarding how I feel about organizations. I have come to realize that organizations do have to care about keeping operations going, growth, and membership. It’s through all those logistical and mechanical operations that the organization is able to survive. In a way, the way that an organization continues to be an organization, is through mechanical survival behavior.

A few years ago, I read a book written by Gordon MacKenzie, the then Chief Creative Officer at Hallmark (the greeting card company) titled, Orbiting the Giant Hairball. The author equates this mechanical survival behavior as the hairball. If we work in an organization, we must acknowledge that the hairball exists without being sucked into it, that is, “orbiting” the hairball.

So whenever you feel your head being pushed down onto an organization’s cultural chalk line, remember the challenge is to move out of the way, to choose not to be mesmerized by the culture of the company. (p53. Orbiting the Giant Hairball)

I have to admit, the hairball (i.e. organization) that I work for has many perks. I have a stable income. I have wonderful colleagues. I like our education mission. As much as I lament the stupidities perpetrated by the hairball, I also know that the alternative is to leave the hairball and work on my own or start my own hairball. So I stay and learn how to co-exist with my hairball, for now.

What’s interesting is that the hairball has learned to grow fond of me as I have learned also to appreciate and be more accepting of it. It has allowed me to be in “orbit” and to maintain my own quirks. It even sometimes asks me for advice. For my part, I view my orbiting role as watching over the hairball and tending to the needs of people, that is, my colleagues and friends.

In my favorite passage of the book, Gordon’s boss was asked about what Gordon does. His response:

Gordon’s job…is to keep track of new ideas and sort of sense the spiritual needs of the organization and address them.

If you find yourself working in an organization, realize that there is a part of all organizations that is the hairball. The art of organizational work, which leads to meaning and authenticity, is to learn how to work under your own agenda, even as you are a part of an organization.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2 NIV

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Antonius Tsai

My work is in helping people connect to their greater selves and authentic purpose. (https://antoniustsai.com/)