Made of Metaphors Brian Sharp en-us Tue, 20 Oct 2020 23:24:23 -0700 Sett RSS Generator Boundaries and Infinities: A Post about Responsibility This post is a sequel to my Role Shapes post from last year. Like that post, this post is about a metaphor for working on a team, and talks about each of us as shapes in a space of work that gets done. This year, I’m talking about a slightly different space. I&rsq]]>

This post is a sequel to my Role Shapes post from last year. Like that post, this post is about a metaphor for working on a team, and talks about each of us as shapes in a space of work that gets done. This year, I’m talking about a slightly different space.

I’m going to call last year’s metaphor the “hindsight model.” The hindsight model talks about a finished project, and all the work that went into it, and the shapes we each carved out of that. It’s “hindsight” because you don’t know what all that work is when you start. You can only know for sure what all the work was once you’re done.

This model, then, I’ll call the “foresight model.” It’s about an ongoing project, and the responsibilities we each have as members of that team. In the foresight model, the shapes aren't about work we have done, but about areas of responsibility, like parts of the field we’re covering for when work arises.

To explain that, I’ll tell you two stories.

Emily’s Story

Emily just graduated from a prestigious college program, during which time she was recruited heavily by one of the bigger video game publishers out there. Knowing how tricky it was to get a job in the industry, she jumped on the opportunity, and took a role as a producer for a game team in Los Angeles making a sequel to the publisher’s most popular franchise in collaboration with another of the publisher’s studios in the UK.

From that description, it ought not come as a surprise that Emily now finds herself jumping into a large, existing machine, with lots of people already doing stuff. Here’s what Emily’s role looks like:

In this diagram, every shape is a person, and the space is all the potential work that might arise. In this little fable, Emily’s job is to produce the animation team making the player animations. So her responsibilities might be something like:

  1. Track all known work for her team.
  2. Track each animator’s current set of active tasks and progress towards their current goals.
  3. Track and communicate dependencies her team has on other teams’ work.
  4. Anticipate obstacles for her team and use political and social skills to nip them in the bud.
  5. Establish important relationships to ensure she has a strong network to lean on.

Her shape on that diagram, then, represents all those responsibilities. Emily’s shape is finite: it is bounded on all sides. It doesn't shoot off into infinity. And all the adjacent shapes are other people’s roles. Let’s say in the course of tracking her team’s work, Emily discovers some work for the texture artists. Well, one of her neighboring shapes is another producer whose responsibilities include “Track all known work for the texture artists.” Usually, the right thing to do is obvious: Tell that producer about the new work and move on. If it’s critical to her animators, Emily might say so.

But sometimes it’s not quite so simple. Maybe it’s late at night and the other producer isn't around and it’s blocking her animators. Maybe it’s contentious work that not everybody agrees should be done. There are times that Emily might need to use her judgment and overstep her role a bit.

Those boundaries are dark black lines in the diagrams, but in reality they’re much fuzzier – they have to be fluid. And when you are in a role like Emily’s, the fluidity at the boundary is the most interesting part. That example is a simple one, too. They get far more complicated:

What if Emily thinks that one of her peers, an adjacent shape, isn't doing a very good job, and it’s going to endanger Emily’s team or even the whole project down the road? Of course there are obvious avenues here, too: Tell the other producer’s manager! Trust the system! But Emily already followed all those rules, and the manager didn't share her perspective. Eventually Emily’s sure the evidence will be indisputable, but by that time the damage will be done.

It’s easy here to pull out a soapbox and say, well, no good company should have issues like that. You have to be willing to fire problem people! You have to have an open, honest dialog about responsibilities! You need a direct and unflinching review process to handle these issues!

But issues like these happen at every company all the time, and the bigger the company, the more often they happen. And the reality is never so simple: Maybe Emily’s overreacting. Maybe the manager is incompetent, too, and it’s going to take some time for the system to sort that out, time the project doesn't have. Maybe there are legitimate differences of opinion and trying to pick one perspective as “true” is just not possible.

In these situations, Emily still needs to do her job. And if she’s truly excellent, she’ll find ways to navigate these issues rather than just throw up her hands and say “Not my problem” and perform her work to the letter of the law. Maybe she can come up with a clever, politically sensitive way to take on that extra work herself or distribute it to others without the other producer feeling the imposition. Maybe she can build the kind of relationship with the other producer that leaves him open to taking her advice.

These are the challenges that Emily faces in her new role. To succeed, the skills she’ll need include discipline and personal talent for the production work, of course, but moreover she’ll need the political savvy and social skills to navigate the boundaries between her shape and others’ with nuance.

Paul’s Story

Paul gets halfway through college and decides the overly-structured environment isn’t for him. Plus, he’s been coding since he was 8 years old, and has some pretty good ideas for new products. So he drops out and starts a company on his own. Here’s what Paul’s role looks like:

Paul’s shape is infinite – if you keep zooming out, it keeps going. There are no boundaries at the edges. Paul’s responsibilities look like this:

  1. Decide what needs to be done.
  2. Do all of it.

I’m not being glib; those are the two challenges he faces. He’s only one person, so he can only do a very limited amount. He has to decide what’s important. Rent time at a coworking space? Work out of his apartment? Buy better equipment or save that money for food? Then there’s building the product. How to do it? Should he look for funding? That might inform the way he starts building. And so on.

The challenges Paul faces are the challenges of a man faced with infinite potential and limited time. And to succeed, he’ll need vision, personal talent, discipline, confidence, and decisiveness.

Spoiler alert: There’s not a ton of overlap between the skills Emily needs and the skills Paul needs. Both need discipline and personal skill for the work, but that’s about it.

I’ll go further than that: Neither Paul nor Emily wants the other’s skill set! Paul doesn't really have time for much nuance, and if he has Emily’s finely-tuned social sensitivity, the attitudes and opinions of friends and business partners might consume a lot of his attention in times when he ought to be forging ahead. And if Emily has Paul’s singular vision and drive she’ll almost certainly come across as brusque and dismissive in her role.

Emily and Paul are fundamentally different creatures. Working in the “work force” requires – and therefore teaches – a very different set of skills than you need to succeed as an entrepreneur or employee of a very small company.

In terms of the visual metaphor, the difference between them is that Emily’s shape is finite and Paul’s is infinite. A finite shape has a finite list of responsibilities, and the nuance is in the fractal intricacy of its boundary with all the other shapes. An infinite shape’s responsibilities end with “et cetera”, and the nuance is in triage: The shape is infinite, but the person occupying it is finite.

The interesting part is when conditions change. Let’s start with Paul.

When Things Change for Paul

For Paul, conditions change when his company grows. Let’s say Paul sells his good friend Dana on the company, and Dana drops out of school to work with him, and they divide all the work up evenly. Now, the company looks like this:

This is interesting: their shapes are still infinite – all shapes at the edge are, because there are no boundaries at the edges. But they both have clear domains now. Maybe they agree that Paul handles all IT work plus the Costco runs for coffee and snacks, and Dana handles the books, and both of them code. They still both have to triage aggressively, because there’s infinite work they could do, but now they also need at least a rudimentary awareness of the other, and the basic decency not to go stomp all over the other’s code without at least saying something.

Now let’s say things keep going well and they attract some investment, and have enough money to bring in a few more friends who couldn't join sooner because they needed salaries. Now the company looks like this:

All the roles are still infinite, but there are some boundary lines being drawn. They’ll have to develop some respect for their individual domains. This starts to take some adjustment, for Paul.

Now the company takes a big step: they hire an office manager. Someone part-time, with very clear responsibilities, to shoulder some of the straightforward burdens that everyone agrees are taking up too much of their time. Now the company looks like this:

They have their first finite shape! The difference is palpable: Infinite shapes are the “buck stops here” people, the ones at the top who take ultimate responsibility for the company because, well, that’s their job. A finite shape is an employee. Their office manager probably doesn't have much equity, if any, and he reports directly to one of them, and there’s a clear understanding of what he does & doesn't do. He works Mondays through Thursdays from 10am-4pm, he receives packages, handles any office visitors, and does the Costco runs.

But eventually they grow more, and hire a bunch of other employees who report to Paul and the other business partners, and the company looks like this:

They've added some senior people, who have new infinite shapes at the edges, and probably significant equity to go along with it. But they've also added a bunch of finite shapes. And now they have employees who have to do Emily’s work: they are bounded on all sides by other people, and need to start exercising political and social skills to get things done.

Paul has a team, now, and they look to him for management and counsel. They’re mostly finite shapes, so they need a manager who can tell them about political savvy and nuance and help them develop the skills of working within their constrained roles but still having an impact.

But Paul doesn't know how to do any of that. He knows how to forge ahead and make big decisions and push on things so they get done. And none of those are appropriate behaviors for his new team members.

The worst part is, Paul might not realize it. Because it’s how he’s used to working. His behavior was appropriate and highly effective when the company was small. And from Paul’s perspective, it still is, because he still does it and gets away with it. Why? Because his tenure makes him the 800lb gorilla, but people in Paul’s situation can be surprisingly oblivious to this. Often, Paul doesn't understand why other people don’t just behave like he does. After all, it works for him!

People like Paul, when they give advice, often focus on personal effectiveness, alpha behavior, and triage, and deride or overlook the importance of management, coordination, and “overhead.” They are allergic to process and overhead because for small companies, that’s the right way to be. It takes tremendous self-awareness, humility, and flexibility for people in Paul’s situation to internalize the changes intrinsic to a growing company and develop that new skill set.

If you've ever known a high-level executive who was guilty of “seagulling” – swooping in from nowhere, shitting all over something, and then flying off – you know what I’m talking about. People in privileged positions who don’t understand the importance of relationship-building and nuance in larger organizations end up marauding through situations and leaving them even worse off, all the while thinking they’re being highly effective.

The way you avoid waste in small organizations is by staying lean and not wasting time with politics. In larger organizations, it’s almost the opposite: you avoid waste by respecting the boundary lines between shapes and navigating them with nuanced coordination, communication, and management, none of which are usually strengths for people like Paul, who got to where he did precisely because he thrives when there aren't boundary lines.

When Things Change for Emily

For Emily, conditions change when she works her way towards an infinite-shape role at the edge, either via promotion within her company or by taking a job at a smaller company.

Paul’s challenge is that he’s so used to his work pointing off into infinity that it can be hard to understand how behave respectfully when it points straight into a boundary with someone else. By contrast, Emily’s challenge is that she’s so accustomed to boundaries on all sides that when they aren't there, she may not know how to act. When suddenly her work points off into infinity, she needs to set aside all that tact and diplomacy she’s been building up for years and embrace more of Paul’s skill set.

When people talk about Impostor Syndrome I think usually they’re in this situation.

When Emily’s role is a finite shape, there are people on all sides of her. So most of the time, she’s the right person to do everything within her shape, because if she weren't, she could move those responsibilities to someone more appropriate by adjusting boundaries. Sometimes her shape grows and she has to learn new stuff, and that can be scary, but as long as her shape is finite, she knows what her responsibilities are, additions are incremental, and most importantly, changes don’t require her to behave in a fundamentally different way. The most challenging part of her work is still being sensitive to boundaries.

When her shape suddenly doesn't have a boundary on one side, it means that anything that happens in that direction is her job. Let’s say Emily takes a job in a high position at a small company. One day she’s in a meeting with six other people, and someone points to something written on a whiteboard and says “Who’s handling this?” Emily sits silently with everyone else until in a moment of shock, she realizes that nobody else is going to answer. It’ll be something with which she has zero experience, and she’ll feel completely unqualified to do it – Impostor Syndrome! – but immediately as that thought enters her head, she’ll also realize that there’s nobody qualified who can do it. So, that’s her job now too.

When your role is an infinite shape, you end up doing a lot of work that you’re totally unqualified to do just because it’s gotta get done, and if you don’t do it, nobody else will.

The challenge Emily faces is not just agreeing to take on the new work, but realizing that she needs to start behaving differently. Infinite shapes have different sorts of jobs: There’s a kind of fear of the unknown pointing off in the direction of Emily’s new particular infinity, and everyone is looking to her to assuage that fear. She’s used to leading with nuance and making people feel included and avoiding stepping on toes, but none of that is going to assuage that fear of the unknown. People want her to show up with a vision, to express a confidence that they can hold onto, a sign that she has a plan and is confident it’ll succeed.

For people in Emily’s situation, this can be especially difficult, because on the inside they’re not feeling confident at all. They’re feeling something more along the lines of, “Oh my God I hope nobody figures out I have no idea what I’m doing right now.” They feel like, through monstrous clerical error, they have been seated in the cockpit of a 747 hurtling through the air, full of passengers tacitly expecting a competent pilot at the yoke.

Where Emily succeeds, it’s because she has mentors she can trust and confide in who can help guide her, and the willingness to become the person who now speaks for this particular infinity with sangfroid, candor, and confidence. It’s a very big shift, and usually also hinges on Emily having some healthy way to handle all the stress, but like anything, it starts to feel more natural with practice.

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Thu, 22 May 2014 07:58:47 -0700
Don't Believe Your Stories When I talk about having a meditation practice, people sometimes ask why I do it, what I get out of it. In a way being goal-oriented about meditation is missing the point, but at the same time, certainly it yields tangible benefits. One of those has been on my mind lately so I thought I'd write a little about it.

Meditation has helped me see the difference between stories and life. Before I meditated, I thought they were the same. Actually, I didn't think about it at all. I took it for granted. Seeing the difference is profound and important.

If you haven't watched the recent clip of Louis C.K. talking about smart phones and profound sadness, you should.

Chilly autumns like the ones we have in Seattle make me wistful and nostalgic and I have lately been really in touch with that basic loneliness he talks about. It comes up as a bare feeling for just an instant before my mind fills it in with story. And my mind is tricky: it tries to make it seem the other way around, like the story came first, and the loneliness resulted.

I'm sitting in my apartment alone and I'm single and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.

I've lost touch with this good friend and I remember the times we had together and don't anymore and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.

I remember past autumns in different homes all of which is lost to me in the sands of time and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.

Before I meditated I didn't see my mind making up these stories. I thought the stories were just true, in a basic way, like it's true that I am in Seattle typing this on a keyboard right now. I thought my life and the stories my mind made up about my life were the same thing.

Buddhism describes the mind as one of the six sense organs. Eyes: visuals, ears: sound, nose: smell, tongue: taste, body: touch, and mind: thoughts. Thoughts are just sensory input like sounds. I like this way of thinking about the mind. We are not our minds and the thoughts we think anymore than we are our eyeballs and the sights we see.

Our minds are sensemaking organs: They look for simple relationships between the events of our lives, and those are the stories the mind spits out. We like things to make sense, and things make sense when we can relate them to other things. That's what a story is: events with relationships. And the events of our lives do have relationships to each other, but the true relationships are indescribably complex. But we don't want that. Our minds like simple relationships. Simple relationships make things memorable. A lot of memorization techniques are about that, taking a set of things and layering simple relationships on them, like imagining them all arranged in your childhood house. Our brains are very good at remembering that.

Even the simplest stories, a chronological series of events, are editorial works: Your mind is choosing which events to use. If you describe your most recent vacation, maybe you just talk about ten events that happened one after the other. But your vacation was countless moments, and your mind chose ten events from that list. It is just one story about your vacation. There are an infinite number more your mind did not choose to tell you.

The mind curates your life into stories, and those are what you remember.

Simple causality, "A caused B", is always an oversimplification when talking about real life events. One of the core tenets of Buddhism is Codependent Arising, the philosophy that all things are causally related. But the point is, that web of causal relationships is dense. Everything depends on everything else. It is unknowably complex.

You can also find this philosophy in the excellent book, Difficult Conversations. They say, when you're having a tough conversation with someone, never focus on blame. Focus on contribution. Blame implies simple causality: This is your fault, not my fault. But the reality is, no situation has a single cause. Everyone contributed to the situation arising. Talk about that, instead.

After you have meditated for some amount of time, you start to see two separate events: the moment you have an experience, and a separate moment, an instant later, that your mind starts telling you a story to explain it. Once you see those as separate things, it is like gaining a superpower. You can listen to your mind's story without believing it.

Until you can see this separation, you get hooked in the story and it's a messy experience. Maybe you start by feeling loneliness but then you're thinking about the story, and your mind keeps spinning. You're alone, it says, because there is nobody out there for you. And so then you feel despair. Or if you have a partner, your mind wonders why you still feel alone. And you feel guilt. Maybe you are a bad partner. Now you feel fear, helpless to stop the rollercoaster your mind is taking you on. And on it goes.

Once you can see this separation, you can just sit there and feel the sensation, uncluttered by narrative. This can still be very intense, but it's much simpler, much more straightforward. You feel lonely. What does loneliness feel like? A weight at the outside of the eyes. A slight tightness of the throat. The eyes are a little moist. There's a sweetness, too. When you think about other people, it's very easy to feel compassion for them, easier than normal. When you look around and see the things you do have, you notice a strong sense of gratitude.

Louis C.K. does such a great job of describing this, how profound it is to just sit there and feel a strong sensation. I have always struggled to explain that to people. "OK, so meditation helps me just feel whatever I'm feeling, but why would I want to feel what I'm feeling if it's bad?" Because it isn't "bad." "Bad" only exists in the story your mind tells you. When you can just stay with the feeling, it is very rich, infinitely richer than any simple story about it can ever express.

Don't believe your stories.

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Wed, 02 Oct 2013 18:24:54 -0700
Here Be Dragons: Production and Uncertainty I gave a talk at PAX Dev recently on the skill of staying with unpleasant emotion. My basic argument is, if you're not comfortable staying with fear and anger, then they control and influence your actions in bad ways and you make poor decisions.

Here's the video of the talk. It's just under an hour long:


I had more material for the talk than I could fit in an hour, so a bunch of stuff got cut. One of the big things was my thoughts on production - the discipline in game development responsible for schedules, coordination, and logistics - and how a skillful relationship to negative emotion is especially critical for producers.

Before I left Bungie, I had a conversation with a friend there, a producer with whom I had often disagreed. He spent a lot of time working with data to make predictions about the schedule. I was teasing him about how elaborate his spreadsheets were. I told him I didn't use them very much for my team.

"Right now we're just working to make things faster, and that means iterating - figuring out what the next low-hanging fruit is, knocking it off, and then moving on to the next one. Extrapolation isn't even meaningful right now."

"Well, sure," he said, "Obviously you can't predict how long it'll take to build something if you don't know what you're building."

And therein lies the fallacy. Creative work like games is chicken-and-egg by nature. You are always simultaneously building the thing and figuring out what it is you're building. They are both convergent processes. You start out having very little idea of what you're building, and very little of it built, and you must move both of those things together at the same time. This is true of all creative work. I read Change by Design, about IDEO's process, and it's immediately recognizable. Everyone in creative industries arrive at this rhythm. It's fundamental.

To use phrasing like "if you don't know what you're building" is deceptive because it suggests it's a black-and-white thing: you know, or you don't. In reality it's all shades of gray. It's about certainty. The only time you're 100% certain of what the thing will be is when it's done and you can look at it. Until then you're just getting closer.

To make matters worse, you can never really know how certain you are. Maybe you think you're almost there, and then you start pulling everything together and that's when you spot a hole in your design. You thought you were at 90%, but you were really at 60%. Whoops.

And that's the rhythm of the work. That doesn't mean you can't aim for dates and hit them: You do that with the final piece of the puzzle, scoping. The cadence looks something like this, in the end:

1. Refine your vision for the thing.

2. Estimate how long it's going to take.

3. Start building it and, simultaneously, learning more about it, building your certainty.

4. When you learn something surprising that invalidates your estimates, go back to step 1.

Every time you pass through step 1, you reform the vision around what you have to work with and how much time you have left. You trim things, you reenvision the thing as a new thing, coherent in itself, that fits in the time left.

Don't spend too much time on #2 for any given iteration. You just need to do it well enough to keep working and to have something reasonable to track against. But you don't ship great thing on time by estimating perfectly. You ship great things on time by estimating adequately, and iterating a lot, and constantly reenvisioning what fits.

OK, so generating ultra-precise estimates isn't really necessary. But it's worse than that: If your area is not terribly certain, generating ultra-precise estimates is extremely dangerous! And here's where it relates to my talk: I mention a few dangerous knee-jerk reactions to unpleasant emotion, and one of them is the Craving for Certainty. As a producer, you need to be very careful not to feed this craving when that certainty is a lie.

Ideally, when your area is uncertain, your job is to be a shepherd, driving your team to the areas of uncertainty and getting them to linger there, doing work to make decisions they can be sure of. But you can't always do that. Sometimes the path to certainty is blocked. And when that's the case, you have to fight to make sure everyone still knows things are up in the air. It's like old maps. You don't just leave an area blank. You write in big letters: "Here Be Dragons."

Here's a story of how things go wrong:

You're a producer. Your team was working on some new design features, and needed to see them working in-game to really be sure of them. But the game wasn't working, so that work had to wait. So they really weren't finished, and you knew they weren't finished. But then your boss asked you for a rough calendar of feature work for your team. You sent back a spreadsheet, broken up by person and by month, roughly penciling in what they'd be doing and when it'd be done. There was no way in the spreadsheet to represent uncertainty, though. You knew that more than two months out it was very rough. Probably wrong. You said so, in the email where you attached the spreadsheet. But once the spreadsheet had been forwarded three or four times, nobody read that part of the email anymore. The other producer on the other side of the building who was building the overall schedule just copied and pasted yours in, and all that uncertainty was lost. Then people started using his aggregate schedule in presentations. "We know how it'll all fit together," they'd say, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
You kept telling people that it wasn't really so certain, and they paid you lip service. "Oh, sure, everything can change." But their actions belied their words. They didn't really take it seriously. They kept marching ahead. They made plans around the data you gave them. And so when the time came, and your team revisited that work, and found that they were totally wrong and had to rework a bunch of stuff, the schedule implications sent shockwaves across the whole project.

This happens because people love certainty and hate uncertainty. When you generate an artifact like an Excel spreadsheet with a schedule in it, people will treat it as gospel, because they like feeling certain and don't like feeling uncertain. Nobody wants to stay with the discomfort of a wide-open scary future. Daniel Kahneman talked about this on stage with Nassim Taleb. He said, people have real problems keeping multiple possible futures in their heads at once. It's not something we're good at. It makes us feel bad, and we don't like it.

I'm suggesting something radical, something that I've never seen anyone actually do. If you're a producer, and someone asks you for a schedule that extends into areas where you're very uncertain, say no. Refuse to generate them a schedule. You know it's a lie, anyway. And if they get angry and say, well, just give me the thing that seems most likely right now, say no again. Refuse. Because you know that schedule will end up on someone else's desk, stripped of the uncertain context, and it'll get used to make other predictions. And people will seize on it because it looks like certainty. And bad things will happen.

In a perfect world, on a creative project, you resolve the biggest risks earliest, so that over time, your certainty converges smoothly towards 100%. It doesn't always work out perfectly, but a well-structured project should be able to get pretty close. And yet, on every game I've worked on, there's always one huge late-game surprise, a huge upheaval way too close to the finish line for comfort.

And this is always why it happens. Denial. Craving for certainty. Earlier in the project, when the risk should have been seen, should have been worked through so the team could have made a real, confident decision, they got short-changed. They were coerced into making a commitment without doing the work to believe in it. And through a series of miscommunications and games of telephone, everyone understood it to be a solved problem.

Don't feed the Craving for Certainty.

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Thu, 05 Sep 2013 13:09:24 -0700
Context is Everything: A Tale of Two Beaches [Sorry for the post delay and the switch to photographs for this one. I'm searchng for a better illustration method than the way I was previously drawing on my iPad, and anyway photos are more appropriate for this post anyhow.]

Both times I've been to Tonsai Beach I've gotten food poisoning.

This time I learned it has a name: Tonsai Belly. Food handling practices aren't up to Western standards, I guess. But then, neither are standards for garbage (most of it is burned in piles), water (bottled is the only fresh source), and lodging (most bathrooms are outdoors, hot water is a luxury.) The economy of Tonsai is so small that cash is a problem: the ATM dispenses thousand-baht notes, and most food and drink is tens of baht. There are maybe thirty stores total on the entire beach, so there's not much commerce.

In spite of its challenges and small overall size, Tonsai has two things in abundance: rock, and people who climb it.

Make that three things: Tonsai has charm. Lots of it. The buildings are made in a driftwood-and-bamboo style that is simultaneously earnestly local and also surprisingly robust. The craftsmanship is very good. And so the beach is peppered with low-key lounges, coffeeshops, and climbing stores busy with Thai residents and visiting foreigners alike hanging out in hammocks, balancing down slacklines, and sitting around talking about the routes they climbed that day, the ones they'll tackle tomorrow, and the projects they'd most like to work up to.

We landed on Tonsai Beach - you get there from Krabi airport via taxi and then longtail boat - and I felt a couple things. First, I thought, "This place is stunning." Then I looked around and thought, "These climbers are stunning." Almost everyone on Tonsai beach is a climber. Literally almost everyone. You wonder if the place is a theme park. It's such a staggering concentration of climbers that when you see someone who doesn't look like a climber you wonder if he got off on the wrong beach.

When I was done ogling the fit, shirtless climber dudes (and, to a lesser extent, the tanned, tank-top-wearing climber chicks) lounging around all over the place, I then had some other emotions:

Intimidation. Inadequacy. Frustration.

I think I'm a decent climber, but I don't train, not really. These people train. I looked around and immediately realized, I'm not showing up anybody here. I'm not getting on a climb and giving someone else advice. I'm going to be one of the weakest climbers here. It's an uncomfortable place to be.

But then immediately I thought: I wish I could stay here all season. I'd train so hard I'd get really strong.

* * *

Both times I've been to Railay Beach I've eaten cheese pizza.

In both cases it was because I had Tonsai Belly and couldn't take the spicy Thai cuisine anymore. Railay Beach is a respite for the spice-weary foreigner: luxurious resorts offer split menus in their restaurants, with full Thai cuisine but also reasonable facsimiles of Western fare, for those with chronically (or, in my case, acutely) less-adventurous stomachs. The main 'Walking Street' in Railay advertises Bud's Famous Ice Cream, apparently from San Francisco. Currency is easier to come by; stores are more plentiful and business is busier.

The most luxurious of the Railay resorts is Rayavadee. Security guards kept us from entering the grounds, but we got far enough up the steps to see that their most expensive accomodations, the Phranang Villas, go for $5000 USD per night.

Railay has many things in abundance. Gleaming tile. White sand. Private pools. And beach tourists. Lots and lots of beach tourists.

There's also great climbing in Railay, so on our second day we took a boat from Tonsai to Railay. As I walked down the beach I had some emotions:

Pride. Superiority. Self-assuredness.

On Tonsai I was passing climbers obviously stronger than me, carrying my rental equipment over my shoulder past them to the rock. On Railay I was walking past sunburnt people lying inert on the beach who stared in fascination at me as I walked by with my climbing gear. On Railay, tourists stand gawking and photographing climbers on even the easiest routes like they're some exotic animal species. It's easy to feel cool as a climber on Railay.

And immediately I thought: I have to get the hell off this beach.

* * *

The craziest thing about the dual cultures of Tonsai and Railay is that these beaches aren't on opposite sides of Thailand. They're right next to each other. When the tide is out, you can walk from one beach to the other in ten minutes. They're only a couple hundred yards apart. The culture shock gives you whiplash.

The rock in Krabi, this region of Thailand, is dramatically vertical, jutting directly up from the flat beaches in towering spires and pinnacles and cliffs. It makes for phenomenal climbing, and also for the hard separation of beaches that preserves the cultural isolation. Out of sight, out of mind.

It has a storybook quality to it, the miniaturized scale and exaggerated cultural differences. It's like Tonsai and Railay are step-sisters in a Disney adaptation of an old fable.

It is, of course, a fable about context and accomplishment. It is the fable about all of us, with great dreams, lulled by comfort and pleasure into a dull, dreamless sleep. And occasionally, if we're lucky, we're brought back by a minor humiliation, a sense of loss, maybe wounded pride, and behind that sting we feel the dreams anew.

Both Tonsai and Railay are supportive environments in their own way. Railay supports the ego. "You've worked hard enough," she says, "Lay down here and rest. Have some Bud's ice cream. It's from San Francisco, you know."

Tonsai supports the other way, through challenge. "You're not really hungry," she says, "And you know you'll feel better - in a deep, lasting way - if you get out there and train. Come on."

Environments like Railay are everywhere. Environments like Tonsai are not. They are rare and precious. Often when I express frustration with my training, or point at a goal I want to achieve, there is someone nearby ready to make an excuse for me, to tell me I'm already working too hard, or say that from their perspective it sure seems like I'm climbing pretty well, or whatever.

After visiting Tonsai I realize I need to thank people politely when they do this and then ask them not to make excuses for me. Excuses are there to assuage the frustration, to "make you feel better," but this is a mistake. It is exactly this so-called "negative" energy of frustration and disappointment, when it arises, that we need not to dull away but to channel back as energy to work harder. I resolve to be more grateful for my frustration, and to use it as the gift it is.

Strive to find places to live, people to love, and routines to cherish that support not by coddling the ego but by challenging. Live every day in Tonsai.

Pro tip, though: bring your own food.

* * *

This is a post about accomplishment, so here are some things I might anticipate in the comments: "Climbing rocks or whatever you're accomplishing isn't the only thing in life, so maybe you should chill out," or maybe, "What do you have against people in Railay just trying to enjoy their vacation? You don't always have to be accomplishing things to be a worthwhile human." Let me head those responses off now:

I agree with you. Accomplishment is not everything. Beach vacations can be lovely. What is important is being honest with yourself about what makes you truly, deeply happy and finding environments that support that.

Alan Watts, in a piece I've linked to before, talks about accomplishment, referring to the great concentration and mental states achieved by master meditators. He pokes fun at them, saying:

"But that's just like being able to ... push a peanut up Mt. Tamalpais with your nose, or any other kind of accomplishment you want to engage in."

I think this is important to understand. No accomplishment is intrinsically better than any other accomplishment. In fact, there's nothing intrinsically good about accomplishment, period. The only value accomplishments have is the personal value we each get out of them.

It's crucial to realize this because then you stop trying to defend your accomplishment in terms that boil down to "My accomplishment makes me a better person," and you can simply say, "I climb because it makes me happy to climb."

At that point it's just a simple choice: will it make me happier to train climbing and lose a few pounds so I can climb harder, or will it make me happy to spend that time eating ice cream instead? And if I choose the latter, is it a rational, reasoned decision, or is it just a failure of discipline, essentially miswanting? Well, the question is, later, having eaten the ice cream, will I later wish I hadn't? Will I wish I had gone climbing instead?

My answer is basically always "yes." And that's what I'm talking about here. I'm not talking about beating myself up, being too hard on myself, getting off on that masochistic feeling of inadequacy. I'm just talking about cultivating discipline, and recognizing the importance of context in supporting my discipline.

Because let's face it, that thing you wish you were better at? The excuses you tell yourself about life balance and overextending yourself? What if you stopped telling yourself those excuses and channeled that frustration into training? I'm willing to bet you'd be a happier person. I know I would.

One last thing: The people on Tonsai? And the people on Railay?

Guess who smiles more.

(It's not even close.)

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Sun, 03 Feb 2013 22:37:00 -0800
On Bear Traps & Being with People I drew that illustration a few days ago, on Christmas. In my family, Christmas is about being with people. I have a large family, largely of Roman Catholic Irish ancestry, and I see a lot of them when I fly back to the east coast for Christmas. I find it an interesting c]]>

I drew that illustration a few days ago, on Christmas.

In my family, Christmas is about being with people. I have a large family, largely of Roman Catholic Irish ancestry, and I see a lot of them when I fly back to the east coast for Christmas. I find it an interesting challenge to be with them all. I don't mean that they're hard to be with in the sense that they're rude, or have poor hygiene, or run rapidly through the house or hide under tables. I just mean that it takes a lot of attention from me to really make the most of the time I have with each of them.

The ability to be with someone else is the ability to give them your attention - simple as that. I don't think I'm especially great at this, but I am writing about it because I have met people who do this very well, and it's obviously very important to do. I think practicing being with people is one of the most valuable ways that I spend my energy.

I also think that without role models, without having met people who do this well, I wouldn't "get it" even to the extent I do now. I think experiencing this is really important because, as an experience, it loses something in the retelling. If I can inspire you to do one thing in reading this post, I would like for it to be this: seek out people who are very good at being present with others. Experience it for yourself. I dare you to leave unmoved.

The most moving experience of presence I've experienced was at a retreat held out at Bastyr University just outside Seattle. It was a weekend meditation retreat led by Kamala Masters, a woman I had never met. She was soft-spoken, thoughtful, deliberate, but relatively informal about how she did things. I came to the retreat at a point where I was struggling with a bad breakup, the kind that makes for lots of intrusive and painful thoughts when I was trying to do walking meditation or sitting meditation or really any meditation at all.

It was really rough. I don't think it was a great time for a retreat, even just a two-day one. By the second day I was finding it so exhausting just bringing my mind back over and over and over as it wandered into painful daydreaming that I finally gave up and left. I went to tell Kamala I was leaving, but it was lunchtime so she was in the cafeteria line with a large line of other students who were talking to her, and as I walked up I was interrupting.

I was frustrated at myself for giving in, and exhausted from the hours of meditation harder than I was really ready for, and embarrassed to be drawing attention to myself in the busy lunch line, but I didn't want to show any of that, so I walked up to her, smiled, and I don't even remember what I said, but it was a bunch of polite fluff. "I just wanted to thank you so much for the retreat, but it's been very tough for me so I've been thinking..." and so on.

As I was talking she was just looking at me, very calmly. I remember an image came to me right at that moment, very vividly. It was as though I was throwing fistfuls of leaves at her face to blind or distract her, expecting her to recoil, turn her head, raise her arms, but she did none of that. She just stood still and the leaves just fell away.

It was actually kind of a terrifying experience, realizing how much of the words I say are just armor, defense, ways of deflecting the conversation away from my real vulnerability, and furthermore seeing that unlike most people I'd met, this woman was utterly unfazed by it.

She just looked at me with compassionate eyes and the faintest hint of a kind smile at the corners of her mouth, gave an almost imperceptible nod and said, "Thank you."

I had to high-tail it from the cafeteria before I burst into tears.

They say as humans we want just to be seen and to be loved, and the practice of really being with someone else is doing both of those things for them. And it doesn't take much. It took Kamala a bit of patience and two words.

I cannot do what she did. I aspire to it. But what holds me back is not a lack of something - it's not that Kamala has some skill or some compassion that I don't. Rather, my ailment is an excess, a kind of built-up tension. The illustration is a loaded bear trap, primed, coiled, ready to snap shut. My tension is like that: it is a flinch reflex. When I feel a conversation getting too close, in the blink of an eye I snap shut, I close myself off, and distance myself with some diversion or deflection.

This metaphor is important because you can't get better at something if you don't know how. If you want to build muscle, you need to understand that you do that by using your muscles at their limits and eating protein and so on. By contrast, if you want to get better at being with other people, it's not like weight lifting at all. It isn't about doing hard, strenuous work. It is about being gentle and paying close attention, like learning how to get closer to the bear trap without setting it off. It is a practice of release, of letting go, of slowly disarming that trap.

Lee Glickstein is a public speaking coach who runs groups he calls "Speaking Circles" in San Francisco and an organization of the same name that runs them internationally. I haven't attended personally but I have friends who rave about them. If you read the site, the thing that may strike you most is this: he's a public speaking coach, but his approach seems relatively unconcerned with actually speaking. He treats it as rather secondary. The circles have three guidlines, and the second is this:

  • The second guideline is for the person up front. Notice we don’t call that person “The Speaker” – because when you’re up front there is no expectation that you speak at all! Your full priority up front is to be in Relational Presence with one listener at a time. Words may arise naturally, or silence may prevail.

At first it seems odd. A speaking circle might not involve actually speaking? But if you think about it a while, it makes sense: for a lot of people, speaking is the way their bear-trap snaps shut. It's compulsive, a way of filling uncomfortable silences, drawing attention away from the present moment, distracting the mind. It's what I was doing with Kamala, and it's what Glickstein doesn't want his participants doing to each other. It is one of our most common strategies for dissociation.

The practice of being with others starts by noticing our strategies for not being with others.

All our strategies have a distinct "feel" to them. The more you pay attention, the more you'll recognize it, like a familiar flavor at the back of your throat. They smack of safety, but not the safety of mutual support, rather the safety of distance, of isolation. Pay attention during conversations for those moments where you very suddenly feel more at ease. For me, that's always a sign I've just employed a strategy to escape.

For managers, this is especially important in one-on-one meetings because presence is so important to connecting. I once had a team member who had a tendency to fill up our one-on-ones with rants. It was a practice his prior manager had supported based on the conventional wisdom that one-on-ones are the report's time to say what they need to say, and a good manager's job is to listen.

The problem, I soon saw, was that when this individual was ranting, he was not present. It was a strategy for not really being there in the room with me. And so I mustered up my best impersonation of my therapist.

Him: "This thing is a disaster, and if those guys had noticed this last year we wouldn't have this problem, but now it's too late and this whole project is way behind."

Me: "That sounds like it's really frustrating you."

Him: "Well, it's going to screw the project if we can't figure out how to get the performance up to where it needs to be!"

Me: "That must be difficult to watch from the outside. Just listening to you right now, I feel a sense of helplessness. It's making me feel frustrated!"

Him: "The worst part is, everyone should have seen this coming from a mile away. This is a classic blunder."

Me: "That may be true, but this meeting isn't about solving that. Right now, honestly, I'm more interested in how you're feeling about it."

Him: "Uh, I guess it's just wearing on me. I'm trying to focus on the stuff I need to get done but I can't stop thinking about their situation. It's a train wreck and it just makes me angry every time I think about it."

That's not a verbatim conversation, of course, but it's one I've had many, many times, with many people, and I'm sure I've been on the other side of it even more often. It's the process of coaxing the bear trap back open. There's a very palpable shift in the last thing he says, where he's begun to bring his attention back into the room and back into the present.

I'm not saying you can't talk about external objects or events. You can, and in many other kinds of meetings that's your explicit goal. But there is a very significant difference between bringing those objects and events into the room, conceptually speaking, and sending your attention out of the room to them. If you've ever sat in a meeting full of people staring at their laptops, you know exactly what I mean by "sending your attention out of the room." Taking notes is fine. Ten straight minutes of no eye contact isn't.

If you're a manager, there's a specific trap you need to watch out for, which is expecting vulnerability from your report without returning the favor. There's an asymmetry to your relationship: you're responsible for helping him grow, but he has no such obligation to you. And so you can slip into this dynamic like you're the wise old monk up on the mountain and he's come seeking wisdom, and he has to prostrate himself before you and you rub your chin thoughtfully and dispense advice, safe and secure up on your mountain.

This doesn't really work. You should spend most of your time together focusing on him, it's true, but you have to approach your work as peers tackling problems together. Open up a bit. Volunteer your feelings when it's appropriate. My second line in the hypothetical conversation is an example of this: "Just listening to you right now, I feel a sense of helplessness. It's making me feel frustrated!" Leading the way here can help set a tone that says, this kind of presence is OK. And it makes you a real human. And it helps to make you humble.

Vulnerability as a manager does open up the Pandora's Box of power dynamics, so if you have an especially combative report this takes a bit more care and nuance, but that's true of all of life. All vulnerability with anyone takes trust, which builds over time.

But even if you're not ready to bare your soul to somebody, you can resolve that when you're physically together, you'll work to be present with them.

* * *

There are two things you can do to work on this, as far as I can tell. The first, like I mentioned above, is to go find people who are already good at this and spend time with them so you have first-hand experience of what it's like. Meditation retreats are probably a good bet, but I also mention imitating my therapist. I had the fortune to work with an excellent therapist (psychoanalyst) for several years, and she was a fantastic example of presence and attention. In addition to helping me sort through a bunch of my own stuff, she was an invaluable role model. Not all therapists are so good, and you need to find one that clicks with you, but I highly recommend it.

Then the second thing is to find specific practices for working on relaxing that bear trap. My main one is this: when I'm in a one-on-one conversation with someone and a silence arises, I resist the urge to break the silence by talking. And then, while we're sitting there in silence, I also resist the urge to think about something outside the room. I pick something in the present to focus my attention on. I like to pick a sound in the room, because I know it's something the other person can hear, too, instead of picking something only I can feel, like my breath, or the way it feels to sit in the chair I'm in. For some reason, focusing on a sound helps me feel more present with the other person.

If you have any specific practices you've found helpful in doing this, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave a comment describing it. I like having a repertoire of them so I have routines I can turn to when I catch myself withdrawing or closing up.

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Fri, 28 Dec 2012 20:18:28 -0800
Difficult Conversations I had a post written about difficult conversations. It was quite reasonable. Then I read this article by Clayton Christensen on the Harvard Business Review, and specifically this quote: "Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other o]]>

I had a post written about difficult conversations. It was quite reasonable. Then I read this article by Clayton Christensen on the Harvard Business Review, and specifically this quote:

"Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people."

I read that and realized my post was far too tame and this topic is incredibly important. So I wrote this post instead:

Having difficult conversations is one of your fundamental responsibilities in living. Difficult conversations are the very essence of love, intimacy, and generosity. And every time you postpone or avoid one out of fear you are wasting your precious life, failing in your responsibilities to others, and acting out of cowardice.

The reason we avoid difficult conversations is simply fear. Facing fear is hard by definition. Fear exists precisely to stop us from doing dangerous things. It's appropriate and good to feel fear if you're about to do something very dangerous. But we also feel fear in a lot of situations that aren't actually dangerous. Difficult conversations are among those.

Yes, there are risks in having difficult conversations. One or both of you in the conversation might experience rejection, shame, or guilt. It might threaten your or their identity, which can be terrifying. None of those are easy things and we have a flinch reflex to avoid them. But difficult conversations are about doing the right thing and being honest when it's tough.

The illustration is about fear. For some reason, years ago, I was thinking about fear and this image popped into my head: fear is like a molasses surrounding you, oozing in against you. You can push it away from an area by forging into that area yourself. And if you leave an area vacant, fear will slowly ooze back in. It's true of everything: if I haven't been rock climbing outside in a year, the first time I'm 50 feet up on a rope I'm terrified. But I just do it a few times and the fear recedes. It's true with difficult conversations, too. It's important to understand this metaphor because it shows you a few things. First, there is no way around being anxious and afraid of your difficult conversations at first. To push the fear back, you have to wade right in. If I'm afraid of climbing, I can't go practice tap-dancing to make the fear go away. If you're afraid of difficult conversations, only having difficult conversations will make you less afraid. And second, it gets better. Have those difficult conversations and the fear will recede. I promise.

Alright. Let's say you're managing a team. Let's say you have a team member who's struggling, who is missing some core skills she needs to really shine. And let's say it's a really bad case: let's say she actually thinks she's really good at those things, and it's a matter of personal pride, and you know a conversation where you tell her honestly you think they're real weaknesses is likely to go poorly, maybe with tears and/or yelling.

Guess what? You must have that conversation. You owe it to her to have the conversation. It's your job to have that conversation. But it's going to be awful! Is it so bad if you just don't bring it up?

I'm going to be really blunt here because this is important: if you don't have that conversation you are failing. You fail to honor your commitment to that person, and you fail to honor your responsibility as a member of the human race. Management is a serious and solemn obligation: You work diligently to help her with her work and her growth as a person. That's the agreement, that's the contract, and you're chickening out. You should transfer her to a different manager who will do their job. Either that or you should fire her - not because she's failing, but because you are. You should fire her because by keeping her around and not talking about what really matters, you are wasting her life. You can choose to throw your life away, but you cannot choose to throw someone else's life away. Her time is not your time to waste. It is very important to understand your work in this way. Wasting another human being's precious life is a serious, serious offense.

How do you know when you should have a difficult conversation? Obviously you shouldn't berate people constantly just because you believe they could be doing a tiny bit better. Let's say you have someone who's doing fine, could probably be doing more, but when you probe a bit, seems totally content. Just mention to him the options - "If you ever want to do more, we can talk about that" - and leave it at that. He doesn't have a problem. Don't project your impatience onto people. But if you have someone who's not succeeding and wants to be, or who clearly wants to do more and is being held back by limitations he doesn't understand or believe, that's a dissonance. Dissonance is a signal that you need to have a difficult conversation.

This all goes for difficult conversations outside of work, too, but I won't talk as much about that because it gets a lot murkier where the obligation is. Some friendships aren't about brutal honesty; some are. In some cases it's expected, in others it's not. There's more nuance there. In partner relationships even more so, and there's a lot more skill involved (and if you ask my ex-boyfriends they might suggest I'm not exactly qualified to speak as an expert in this area!)

Professional relationships are more cut-and-dried. Helping your reports grow is your job. It is your sworn responsibility to them, and if you aren't going to do it, let them find someone who will.

* * *

"OK", you say, "You've shamed me into doing this. Now how do I approach it?"

If you haven't read my previous post, which was about practicing with intention, now would be a good time, because I'm going to refer to that basic practice a lot on here, starting right now.

The key part of a difficult conversation is being in touch with the proper intention when you go into it. In a nutshell, that intention is this: I am telling you these observations I have made even though it is difficult for me because I care about you and believe they may help you learn and grow.

Here are a few notable things that aren't part of that intention: I expect you to take this advice. My observations are absolutely correct. I am personally attached to the outcome. I know better than you do what's appropriate for you. I'm telling you this because I want you to see me as smart. I'm telling you this because I like identifying as a "mentor" or "teacher" or "wise person."

Now, the reality is, some of those will always sneak in. None of us are saints. But the more you practice seeing your intention and connecting with a pure and loving intention, the closer you'll get. This isn't something you can think your way through. It's practice. Like I said, read the blog post and do the practice.

This intention goes even for conversations where you're telling someone, "If you don't fix these problems I'll have to fire you." Being fired isn't the end of the world, and it's not a personal judgment. It just means a professional relationship wasn't working out. Good people have relationships fail all the time.

* * *

OK, so you've practiced a bit and you feel like your intention's pretty pure, and now you tell me, "I'm not very good with words. How do I choose my words properly? It's a sensitive conversation, so I really need to be careful."

One kind of planning for a difficult conversation is useful: you have to get your ducks in a row. Figure out the core message you need to convey so you can say it concisely and make it crystal-clear. Know your concrete examples again so you can be concise. "A good example of this is last Monday's production meeting. You seemed visibly agitated when Dan asked you to explain your technical plan, and it felt to me that it had a chilling effect on the meeting." Write a crib sheet if you need it. This planning is important because it allows you to be clear and thus respectful of the other person.

But worrying over "word choice" is usually concern about the micro-details of the way you say something. "What if I blurt it out and it sounds accusatory? What if I accidentally offend her? How do I know the right thing to say?"

To paraphrase Alan Watts, I say to you: You are asking me that question because you don't want to say it, not really. If you have the proper intention, there's really nothing to fret over. It is, as Watts says, "precisely postponement." You're stalling.

Consider a truly difficult conversation: Let's say it's fallen to you to tell a close friend, someone you deeply love, that someone he loves has died. Be honest: You know exactly what to say. You sit the friend down and say, "I have to tell you something: this person you love has died." And that's it. And then you are there for him in his grief. If you spend any time beforehand fretting about the word choice and telling yourself that it's very delicate and you must rehearse, all you are doing is stalling. The words are simple. They spring from the intention.

It is the same way with any difficult conversation. Sit the person down and tell her, "I have to tell you something. There is a problem. Here are the things I have seen. Here is what they say to me, and here is why I am concerned." Then be there for her. Let her have her reaction. Listen to her with an open mind. And then have a discussion about what actions you both might take.

Practice connecting with your intention. Do it. I can't say this enough. Practice. Sit and see what comes up. Let the self-conscious and self-absorbed stuff drift on by and connect with this: I am telling you these observations I have made even though it is difficult for me because I care about you and believe they may help you learn and grow.

When you sit this person down and say the words you know you need to say, you should not feel proud, or large, or powerful. You should feel humble; you should want to bow your head. You should speak your words as an offering. You should feel sadness as you witness her pain, and joy as you witness her resolve. If you don't, that means: Do more intention practice next time.

I said it up at the top and I'll repeat it here: this gets easier. This is the good news. When you practice having these conversations, you chip away your fear of being real with people, being honest and direct with them, and you learn to approach that honesty from a selfless place of caring for the other person. This is an incredible skill to have and it will deeply enrich your life. I look back on how things used to be even just five years ago before I'd really spent time practicing this, and I see myself held back by fear, or I could call it selfishness. The more I've practiced, the easier it's been for me to start these conversations with people, to be honest and open with them, and the less I worry that I'll just come across as rude or alienating, because I can feel now when I'm coming at the conversation with a truly selfless intention, and when I'm not, well, sometimes at least I know to hold my tongue.

This is especially important because most people don't do it! Most people aren't fully honest with you, or when they are, it's clear they're trying to be hurtful or put you down to feel better about themselves. This ability to offer the truth to others, fearlessly and selflessly, is a rare and precious thing. It is one of the most powerful forms of love there is.

And, if you're a manager, it is one of your most sacred responsibilities.

So go practice.

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Sat, 01 Dec 2012 12:54:27 -0800
Surfing at the Zoo This illustration is what happens when I mix my metaphors. The alternate title for this post was "Thoughts Become Words", but then the illustration would have made even less sense. I've been having a lot of conversations about intention lately. I really think it's import]]>

This illustration is what happens when I mix my metaphors.

The alternate title for this post was "Thoughts Become Words", but then the illustration would have made even less sense.

I've been having a lot of conversations about intention lately. I really think it's important to live deliberately - to live on purpose, not by accident, not to just get swept along. To have dreams, and to pursue them.

But there's a balance. You gotta know what you can control and what you can't, and you have to make your peace with what you can't.

Reality is like an ocean. You don't control the ocean by wading out and punching the waves. That's what crazy people do. But just because you can't control the waves doesn't mean you give up and go limp and drown. Instead, you learn to surf.

Surfing is responding to life intelligently, taking what comes and working with it in a constructive way. Surfing is intelligent behavior.

Behaving intelligently requires that you're aware of the urges behind your actions so you can see the urge and think about it and respond with intelligent action. I heard a story once from a meditation teacher about how she was at a retreat and her teacher gave her the instruction: "Don't do anything unless you are first aware of the urge." So she was in the cafeteria eating and stood up out of her chair, and then realized she hadn't first been aware of the urge to stand up. So she stood for a moment, trying to figure out what to do, and then shrugged and sat back down.

Living that way would be pretty drastic, but stop and think: every action you take, from the most life-changing decisions to the slightest gestures of a fingertip, are preceded by an urge. How often are you aware of the urge before the action occurs?

"Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny."

- Gandhi

In her awesome book, The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox-Cabane talks about Hollywood before method acting. Back then, the craft of acting was just trying to control outward action to play a character. Now we look back at those movies and they look comically absurd. Women waving their arms around, wide-eyed, deranged. Men gesticulating wildly with absurd facial expressions. They were trying to act by starting with the action. It doesn't work.

Then method acting came along and said, start with the thoughts. Get into the character. Visualize. Do these mental exercises to make your thoughts those of the character. Then let your thoughts become your words.

You can't change your behavior, brute-force. You have to start with the thought, the urge. You have to see the intentions motivating the action.

It's tempting to think we always know what our intention is, but we don't. That's pretty much the whole point of Freud's subconscious: we have motives we don't know about, and we mistake them for other (usually nobler) things. I had breakfast recently with a friend who teaches meditation whose group has been practicing with intention recently. He said it's been really humbling to practice with his group because even after many years of practice, when he sits down to meditate with them, he realizes he's unaware of his intentions almost all the time.

It's important to practice seeing our intentions for three reasons:

1. It lets you know there is an urge and intention behind all your actions, even if you're unaware of it. If you don't see this, when your life is problematic, you can only blame circumstances, reinforcing a sense of helplessness, or grit your teeth and muscle your way through it without actually addressing the core problem.

2. It gives you a positive, productive response to anger, frustration, despair, and hatred. These can be tough experiences because for a lot of us when they arise, our conditioning is to act them out in harmful ways, to try to push them down and go numb so we don't have to feel them, or to spin up stories in our heads that just reaffirm the experience, explain it, and amplify it, making things worse and worse. As you practice watching your thoughts, it gives you a healthier way to handle these experiences. When they come up, you can start to see them and say, "Oh, this is my trigger to sit down and see what's happening." Over time that becomes more habitual and replaces the harmful reactions.

3. As you get more comfortable feeling these urges and seeing the underlying intentions, you really can work with them. You can decide to change, and you can do it in a way that feels much healthier. Self-aggressive forcible approaches to change that rely purely on will power are like a rider trying to steer a stubborn elephant by shoving him around. But the elephant and the rider are both you. When you can see and work with your deepest intentions, the rider and the elephant work together in harmony.

Here's a practice for getting in touch with your intention. You can do this anywhere - at a stoplight, in a checkout line, or right now, in the time you decided to spend reading this post. You have to try it and see what works and tweak things to make the practice your own, but here's a starting point that has been very helpful to me:

1. Take a few minutes to still yourself. Sit down in a space where you won't feel self-conscious, get comfortable (but not so comfortable you fall asleep), and just focus your attention on something tangible like the breath, an object you can see, the feelings in your foot, it doesn't matter. I'm sitting near gate 77B of SFO airport right now and I just focused on the tail of an airplane I can see out the window for a while. Just train your concentration on something, and when your attention wanders, gently bring it back. Do this for a few minutes until things feel like they've settled down a little.

2. Bring to mind a project you're working on, something that is important to you that you are putting effort into. Ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" And then pay attention to what comes up. If it's hard to identify emotions, look for physical sensations in the body: Tightness in the chest? Clenching of the jaw? Maybe anger. A hollowness in the throat? Maybe sadness. A calm relaxation through the torso? Maybe happiness. A fluttering in the pit of the stomach? Maybe anxiety, maybe excitement, maybe dread. This gets clearer over time as these sensations become familiar. In your head, name the ones you see. "Angry." "Nervous." "Restless." "Peaceful."

Remind yourself, as you do this, that this isn't about judging yourself critically. Everyone I know who does this admits that a lot of the time, the underlying intention is not the noble thing we want it to be. I'll bring to mind a project I'm working on at Bungie, secretly hoping to see a pure, selfless intention, and what comes up will be, "Huh, I'm angry at that one guy who I think is smug and actually part of why I'm working on this is I want to see him proven wrong."

But also remind yourself that intention is rarely a single thing. The longer you sit, the more will arise. Here's the second metaphor: seeing your intention is like watching animals at the zoo. When I start this, the first things that come up are the strong, volatile stuff. It usually looks something like this:

Anger, pride, insecurity, sorrow. It can be startling and sometimes difficult, but just like animals at the zoo even if your gut reaction is terror, the reality is they can't actually hurt you. It takes bravery to stay still in the face of all this, but if you do, eventually those vicious animals get bored and wander off. And when they do, more stuff comes up, subtler, quieter stuff. They are timid creatures, too shy to share space with the angry ones, and too quiet to be heard over the roar. As the strong emotions start to settle down I'll usually start to feel a peace, a relaxed kind of sweetness, a sense of my heart breaking at the beauty surrounding it all. This is the part of me whose intention is caring and love, the part that wants to do the work because it is helpful and can yield joy.

When you get in touch with this side, an amazing thing becomes very obvious: you'll realize it feels good. It's a wonderful feeling, an expansive sense of joy and love and gratitude. When you're in this state of mind, it's very apparent that the way we normally are, with more aggressive emotions, is simply unpleasant. It's tense, it closes down the mind, it focuses us on judgment and negativity.

As you do this practice over and over, that state of joy and gratitude starts to get more familiar. At first it might feel revelatory or cathartic, which is very pleasant, but then you keep doing it so it stops feeling revelatory and starts feeling normal. It becomes more accessible. You can more readily bring that state to mind. You experience first-hand how much more successful your actions are when you're in that state, how they don't cause collateral damage and don't leave you with the hangover of regret.

Like most things, this is not a practice you finish. If you start doing this today, in ten years maybe you'll be in touch with your intention 1% of the time. But that's not really the point. You'll have more patience with yourself, and you'll have tools for working with tough situations. You'll have a much healthier set of habitual responses, and you'll know that state of acting, every so often, from a place of compassion and loving-kindness.

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Tue, 20 Nov 2012 08:30:00 -0800
Balancing Act I've been thinking a lot about balance lately. I keep catching myself treating it like a state, a way that things can be: "Everything is in balance." It's an alluring fantasy, especially when I'm stressed because I can look forward to some future where I've done all the ]]>

I've been thinking a lot about balance lately. I keep catching myself treating it like a state, a way that things can be: "Everything is in balance." It's an alluring fantasy, especially when I'm stressed because I can look forward to some future where I've done all the work and things are in balance and the stress is all gone.

Except in the real, dynamic world, balance doesn't work that way. Balance is not a state of being. Balance is an activity. When you walk on a tightrope, you are never balanced; you are always balancing.

Maybe this seems obvious to you, intellectually, like saying "life's a journey, not a destination." But I always catch myself treating balance like it's a state, and I bet you do, too.

What motivates your actions? When something seems out of balance, and you are working to change it, is your motivation the underlying itch of "Just this last thing..."? I do this all the time. At work I'll see a situation that is on fire and I'll start working to put that fire out. Nothing wrong with that. But if I meditate a little bit to really see my underlying feelings, I see impatience, aggravation, and a sense of reaching, stretching out and grasping at some imaginary future where this fire is out and I can finally rest. Deep down there's a part of me that is looking forward to everything being balanced so I can take a deep breath and exhale and all the tension will leave my body and I'll finally be at peace.

As long as I'm alive, that moment will never come. I will always be balancing, and it will always be work, and that is the work of life.

When I lived in San Francisco I practiced Iyengar yoga with Manouso Manos, one of the most senior Iyengar instructors in the world. We were working on a pose one day and he said,

"Think about antilock brakes, how they work. They're sensing wheel lockup and pulsing the brakes on and off very quickly. That's how you should practice. As you hold the pose you should be constantly searching the body with your awareness and making these adjustments, hundreds of them every minute, always, and never stop."

You're never "done" with a yoga pose in the sense that you've "mastered" it. That doesn't even make sense to say. It's like claiming you're "done" with biking because you've "mastered" it. It's not about getting somewhere so you can stop. It's about the activity itself.

That antilock brake metaphor is a good one because it describes the closed loop of balance. Evaluation, exertion, evaluation, exertion. You must evaluate where you are to determine what adjustments need to be made, and then you make those adjustments with effort, and then evaluate anew.

The evaluation process means that balance is a fundamental process of dissatisfaction. Balancing is all about looking for all the ways you're out of balance so you can fix them! If you're happy to just shrug that stuff off, then you aren't balancing. If you practice yoga and you aren't interested in looking for the increasingly subtle adjustments you need to make - that shoulder blade is riding up, that arch is collapsing - then you are not practicing the pose, you're just making a shape with your body.

But that doesn't mean you have to be a constantly dissatisfied person to be working for balance. It's a little bit of a paradox. You have to care, not be checked out, but you can't get so attached that it really starts to get to you.

This is equanimity, which just so happens to be one of the Buddhist brahmaviharas, the four divine abodes or sublime states. And indeed, the far-enemy of equanimity is craving and its near-enemy is indifference. Equanimity is the state of caring deeply - working hard at that balance - but transcending the stress and pull of each turn of the wheel.

How do you do that?

Well, as equanimity itself is a balance, it is also not a state but a process (whoa, dude, meta!) Here's the evaluate/exert loop I've found helpful in working towards equanimity:

Evaluate: learn to recognize when you are subconsciously treating balance as a state, when you are acting from the expectation that if you just fix this one last thing then everything will be "balanced." I do this a lot, and when I do not see it, it means I'm living with the pervasive sense that things are not OK. Buddhist teachers describe this as "leaning forward" in life, always living for the next moment, not the present one. Learn to spot the signs: tension, frustration, anger, dejection, despair are all good signs to me that I need to stop and sit for a moment.

Exert: marinate in the truth that balance is a neverending activity, the evaluate/exert loop that goes on and on. Every time you go to solve a problem, say to yourself: When I solve this problem there will still be countless more. I will never be "done." I am solving this problem because that is my work, and I accept it.

Don't stress about that marination. The work is not to know the truth; it's to realize the truth, and realization comes from soaking in it, not furiously thinking about it. All you have to do is keep your attention turned towards the truth, not reason about it logically.

There's a transcendence that happens sometimes, as you soak it in: you can be satisfied with dissatisfaction. You can show up to work every day - you can show up to life every day - to evaluate, to critically judge the state of everything around you, but with a mind that is neither critical nor judging, but peacefully accepting things as they are. And then to work cheerfully with every fiber of your being to do what must be done.

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Tue, 06 Nov 2012 08:00:00 -0800
A City View I got a lot of feedback that the post on role shapes was useful to people, but it's only one metaphor, and no metaphor is complete. The subtractive way of thinking about work simplifies away many aspects of development: it ignores the way the needed work can change and ]]>

I got a lot of feedback that the post on role shapes was useful to people, but it's only one metaphor, and no metaphor is complete. The subtractive way of thinking about work simplifies away many aspects of development: it ignores the way the needed work can change and morph over time, it ignores the way that good decisions in one area can change the work in another, and it postulates a "set of all work" as though it's a knowable thing. Other than trivially simple projects, the set of all work is not something you can just write down with confidence. A huge part of the challenge of running a project is the skill of sussing out what needs to be done in the first place, and reconciling world views between teammates so you can have productive conversations about the work.

When I think about this what comes to mind is a city. The city has development that needs doing, and also ongoing maintenance. Fires happen, bridges collapse, stuff like that. Your job, your whole team, is to array yourselves around the city to get the work done. How do you lay yourselves out?

Every place you can stand in the city involves a tradeoff between direct agency and line of sight. By "direct agency" I mean the ability to actually do things, like fix broken water mains or build a garage or pave a road. By "line of sight" I mean the set of all things you can see from where you're standing, and how well you can see them

If your project is very small, then in the metaphor it's a little village. If it's really tiny maybe it's just a little shed. And maybe there's just two of you building the shed. There aren't that many perspectives you can have on a shed. You will sometimes see things differently, because you're standing on different sides of the shed, or one of you is on a ladder looking at the roof while the other is inside looking at the interior. But it's easy to reach a shared fundamental understanding. You can get blueprints and spend half an hour looking at them and agreeing on them.

Maybe your project is a town, and your team is still small enough that everyone knows everyone else. This is a nice place to be. Everyone knows the overall structure of the town, where the town center is, and there aren't so many people working that anyone can't keep it all in his head. Maybe you've got thirty people building roads and buildings, but with just a few people doing planning and coordination and occasional consensus-building among the whole group, shared perspective is still very possible to maintain, and you're able to spend the bulk of your time on the actual building work itself.

As your project approaches city-size, your team grows past Dunbar's number and you don't all know each other anymore. Furthermore, the project itself is too big for any one person to hold in his head. You have to array yourselves around the city to get the best coverage you can. You need a lot of people in the streets so they can do the work of building, but it's impossible for them to all talk to each other at once. So you put people in buildings up a bit higher to help coordinate entire blocks. And then people up even higher to help coordinate whole neighborhoods.

This metaphor is about perspectives. Consider three people at various heights.

Let's say the street has a few massive, car-destroying potholes in it. The guy down on the street can see it, and it's his whole world. He's shouting at the woman on top of the yellow building about it. She can kind of see them, enough that they might catch her attention but not so much that she can tell how big a deal they are. And the guy on top of the skyscraper? He can't see them at all.

But let's say the guy on the ground is about to close the road to repave it. He can see a couple streets down in any direction, and across the park, but otherwise just has to take it on faith that it's a good time to start paving. The woman on the yellow building can do a bit more scouting, but not a ton. The guy on top of the orange skyscraper, on the other hand, can see if twenty blocks away someone else has closed a road and begun directing traffic right towards this intersection. He can see if there's a crew ten blocks away heading over to dig up the road to do some electrical work. He can see if other paving crews are about ready to start using the city's limited supply of steamrollers. It's all a bit distant to him, so he can't see details, but he can see it, and he can warn the other two and call across to others on other rooftops and coordinate.

Especially in larger companies, it's pretty common for people on the street to look up at the people on the skyscrapers and say "That doesn't seem so hard. I could do his job." And it's true that paving roads is hard work, and standing on a skyscraper looking around may not look like much. The jobs are challenging for different reasons. The guy on the street has a straightforward job, but the guy on the skyscraper does not, and that's what makes it a challenge.

The guy in the street may do a lot of very skilled work, but his responsibilities are easy to describe. His culpability is very constrained. He's there to pave the road. He is a craftsman, and the challenge of his work is the challenge of craft. The guy on top of the skyscraper doesn't have such a clear role. His job is to make sure everything goes well in the area he can see. That's very nebulous. A lot of the time that means he has to run back and forth on the roof of the skyscraper keeping tabs on everything he can see. But sometimes it means taking the elevator down to the ground floor and getting out there and helping pave. Sometimes it means getting over to another building roof to help with a specific project and then getting back to the skyscraper as fast as he can. The hard part is knowing in the moment which action is best. The work is figuring out the work.

I had a manager once who joked that he began every day with eight full days of work to get done, and the challenge was deciding which one day of work to do. I like that, and in my experience eight's about the right number. When that number gets much higher - when I feel like I have a hundred days of work I want to do every day - I know it's time to delegate, to get more people on rooftops near me, because I'm leaving too much on the floor when I have to triage that aggressively.

For everyone, at all levels, whether you're on the tallest rooftop or down working in the sewers, the imperative is this: you need to understand the nature of the city. If you're on the street, understanding the nature of the city means talking to people up higher and asking them: What do you see? Tell me about the neighborhoods I can't see. How is it all fitting together? Even if you just go on paving, you'll understand the context in which you're doing it. You'll start to see the bigger picture. And you'll be able to bring your up-close-and-detailed experience to bear on those larger patterns to refine them and help the team make better decisions.

If you're on a rooftop, understanding the nature of the city means not forgetting that a city is made up of a million details. Most of the time you're looking far in the distance for the broad patterns, but every once in a while you have to get in the elevator, ride it all the way down, and see up close how the paving's getting done. Not because you're going to do a great job paving - you'll probably be awful at it, compared to the people doing it every day - but because your broadest observations are no good if you've forgotten how asphalt works, how paving works, how the real work of building gets done.

And no matter where you are it means realizing that you're all looking at the same city, but from different vantages and angles. At the risk of metaphor overload, there's an ancient Indian story of the Blind men and the Elephant. Several blind men are presented with an elephant and asked to describe it. One feels its tusk and says the elephant is like a solid pipe. Another feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a tree branch. Yet another feels the ear and says the elephant is like a hand fan. Another feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. And so on.

This extends to the city view. If you're on one rooftop and someone else is on another, you might both be able to see the same third building. And you might say it's looking great and she might say it's a disaster. It doesn't mean one of you is wrong, and arguing about it is as useful as the blind men arguing about the elephant. Instead, realize that your perspective on everything is specific to your vantage and your angle and is fundamentally incomplete. Embrace the opportunity to talk to others so you can incorporate their perspectives, too. And if yours and theirs differ, consider that they may both at once be true.

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Wed, 24 Oct 2012 07:30:00 -0700
The Push My job at Bungie these days is about one core piece of technology we use to make our games. It's a system that all the artists, designers and sound designers use to get their work into the game. So, like any technology job where you're building a product other people us]]>

My job at Bungie these days is about one core piece of technology we use to make our games. It's a system that all the artists, designers and sound designers use to get their work into the game. So, like any technology job where you're building a product other people use, there are two kinds of work: the work of building the technology and the work of supporting the people using it.

Things have been busy enough lately that I was trying to focus just on the coding and not do much support work. It wasn't really working out. All around me the artists, designers, and sound designers were struggling with issues while I was trying just to plow ahead on the coding work we need to get done. When the support work boiled over and I had to stop and attend to it, it took a ton of time and effort. Because I'd been burying my head in the sand trying to get code written, I didn't have any context for what was happening with the users. If I had to help someone, first it took me a good half-hour of asking random people questions just to have enough context to even understand what the problem was and what needed to happen.

I couldn't ignore the support work, though. Eventually I had to turn my attention towards it, and so I did, one week, and it consumed basically my entire week. I got just about nothing else done. It was frustrating seeing the coding work pile up, so my response was to keep trying to minimize my involvement in the support work. I'd do as little as I could get away with, try to hand off problems to someone else. Bu it didn't seem to actually help. It still took a ton of time just to figure out enough about a problem to know how to hand it off to someone else, and if anything that ramp-up time was getting longer.

* * *
If you've ever watched the Tour de France, or the road biking events in the Olympics, or ever seen any group of people riding road bikes together, you've probably noticed they tend to cluster together in a compact formation. They're not just riding close together because they like the company (and the increased risk of crashes and injuries.) No, they're riding close together because of drafting.

Drafting is a physical phenomenon that boils down to this: It's a lot easier to bike if you're right behind another biker. How much easier depends on a bunch of factors: whether there's a headwind, whether you're on flat ground or biking up a hill, how smooth the pavement is and stuff like that, but overall, drafting makes a huge difference. The guy "pulling" - riding in front - might be doing about twice as much work as the guy drafting. It's in that ballpark.

So let's say you're riding with your friend, who is in better shape than you. He pulls so that you can draft, and you both get a workout. That's a nice thing about biking: people of somewhat different fitness levels can ride together because the fitter person can pull. Anyway, here you are: he's in front in the green shirt, and you're casually spinning your pedals behind him in your sweet Hawaiian shirt, and because of the physics of drafting, you're not even working that hard.

Everything's well and good until he speeds up a little and you don't notice fast enough and suddenly you're several bike-lengths behind him: you've been "dropped." You've lost the drafting boost, and life just got hard:

When you're far away from him like that, you're having to do exactly as much work as he is. You don't benefit from drafting at all. When you've been dropped, therefore, your first priority is to get back on his wheel. The problem is, you're not strong enough even to match his pace for very long, and to get back on his wheel you need to ride even faster than him. You're quickly tiring as you fight the wind, so what do you do?

When this happens to me, a lot of the time I'll catch myself trying to ease my way back onto his wheel gently, just giving a little bit more so I don't exhaust myself. In a way it feels intuitively correct: this way I smooth out the effort and don't exhaust myself by the time I get there. But that intuition is wrong! What I should do is push, hard, to get back on that wheel as quickly as I possibly can. It's about the last thing I want to do in that moment as I'm already struggling and tired, but it's the most efficient thing to do. I need to really push and sprint back to catch him.

What's wrong with the smooth, gradual approach? Let's talk about assumptions. The gradual approach assumes, implicitly, that doing a portion of the work yields a portion of the benefits. Maybe I'm assuming it's linear, which would look like this:

That graph describes a world where closing half the distance between me and him gets me half the drafting benefits. So there's no huge hurry because as long as I'm closing the gap, it's getting easier. I still end up doing a bit more work but I never have to really kill myself so it's probably worth it. The gradual approach would absolutely be the right one if the effort curve looked like this:

That graph describes a world where closing the gap even a little bit makes things hugely easier, and there's a big envelope towards the end where the drafting benefit is almost entirely maxed out.

I don't actually know what I'm thinking when I catch myself closing the gap gradually. I'm pretty sure I'm not imagining that second curve, but if you asked me if it worked like the first one, I'd say no, because I know better. I think the key is, when I'm using the gradual approach, I'm not consciously thinking about the effort curve.

Drafting doesn't work like either of those curves. It's actually hard to find concrete data about the exact physics, but I found a wind tunnel study that tested drag coefficients on the drafter where he was anywhere from zero to seven bike lengths from the leader and the conclusion was, the drafting benefit falls of very sharply. I actually suspect there may be a point where the turbulence makes it's even harder to pedal than normal, but I couldn't find clear evidence of that. In any case, the curve looks something like this:

What's that mean in English? Drafting is an aerodynamic phenomenon, a result of your friend pushing the air out of the way as he rides through it. He and his bike moving through the air are an example of turbulent flow, which leaves a slipstream behind him, a pocket of air that is moving forward with him, at a lower pressure than the surrounding air, and shielded from the wind he's riding into.

This pocket is not very large, and as you exit this pocket the slipstream benefits fall off very rapidly. As you leave that sweet pocket of magical drafting air, the turbulence kicks back in and hits you pretty abruptly. Here's how that looks:

What this means is if you gradually ease yourself back onto his wheel, if it takes you 30 seconds to do it, for about 28 of those 30 seconds you're pedaling at full difficulty. You're not doing yourself any favors.

That's why the right thing to do is power through the hard part so you can get to the small envelope and slipstream again. You give an initial push so that you can establish yourself, after which you can take it easy again.

* * *
Back to my work situation. After a week of struggling with support work consuming all my time, I realized my situation was a lot like bike drafting, and I was making the mistake of trying to ease my way into it. I was sitting in that turbulent zone: I was bearing the full brunt of the support work, but because I was trying invest as little as possible each time I did it, I had to pay the full price of contextualization every time. What I mean is, I'd get an email about support, and I'd read it and I'd have to figure everything out from square 1. I'd think, who is this person? What is he doing? What does that mean? What is this problem? Has this happened before? Do we know anything about it? Where would I even start trying to fix it? Maybe two hours later I'd find out that it was a known bug someone was already working on and if I'd had enough context I could have immediately said so and gotten back to work.

After burning a whole week that way, I got wise. Monday rolled around and I pushed. I spent the whole day working to get myself up to speed so I understood the context for all the support work. I worked with a friend in our user research team who built me a "dashboard" webpage I can look at that tells me at-a-glance about everyone who's suffering from crashes, failures, or excessively long wait times. I subscribed to email notifications for some of the users who tend to have the most problems so I know what they're up to and can respond to their problems quickly. I spent time talking to everyone involved to understand their world-views, so when I saw an email from any of them, I'd know how to interpret it immediately.

And with that one day of push, I broke through the turbulent wake and found myself in the slipstream. When support issues came up, I could glance at them and immediately contextualize them: "Ah, this is the fourth time he's had this crash today, and three other people have hit it, but it only just began today, and yesterday I know these three branches got integrated back into the one he's working in." It's an accelerator, and it's self-sustaining: by continuing to do this support work, I keep my contextual knowledge up to date and it stays easier. Just like you have to keep pedaling when you're drafting, just enough not to get dropped.

I'm trying to use this metaphor anytime I start something new, now. If I catch myself trying to devote just a little time every day to the new venture, I stop and ask, what does the effort curve actually look like for this work? Is this the kind of thing that I can ease into, that I can adopt gradually? Or is it the kind of thing I need to start off with a big, initial push?

Usually when I'm trying to do something gradually it's because I don't feel I can commit a big chunk of time up-front to it - just like when I'm doing the gradual thing on my bike it's because I'm tired and don't want to put out a bunch of energy all at once. In both cases I have to stop and remind myself that the gradual approach may feel better at first but even in the short term is much worse. And in those cases the only two viable options are to make the decision to push - to carve out the time or energy for it immediately - or to admit I'm not going to do it at all. Either of those can be the right decision, depending on the situation. The import part is recognizing when the work demands an initial push, and not make the mistake of trying to do it gradually.

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Mon, 15 Oct 2012 07:00:00 -0700