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Multi-level Vision

I remember watching a TED talk a while back where the speaker described how to represent data from different scales at the same time. The example had a picture of a house superimposed onto a street map superimposed onto a city map superimposed onto a country map, etc. It was hard to see all of this information at once, but occasionally you’d get flashes of how everything fit together.

Software architects have to do this all the time

One of the most important architectural skills is seeing through all of the layers of a piece of software at the same time. I don’t think you can be an effective architect without this. An architect has to know how a change in one layer will affect all the layers in a system. Often, something that makes sense in one layer is a terrible idea in another.

What makes this even more challenging is that each of these layers may involve different technologies. Not only must an architect have the vision to see potential problems, but they must do so in a way that holds multiple paradigms and structures in place simultaneously while threading multiple paths through all the layers. Occasionally, while doing this, an architect will see everything fall into place and have a momentary, deep insight into the entire system. The challenge then becomes capturing something coherent enough to act on before the insight vanishes.

It requires lots of practice and experience to develop this kind of multi-level vision. I don’t think you can learn how to do this casually—it’s something that you have to work at for a long time. How long? I think the current rule of thumb is for about 10,000 hours.

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Why is everyone having a midlife crisis?

What’s been going on lately? People are stressing out. Marriages are under strain. So many people seem so unhappy. Is it the economy? Is it our jobs? Why are people acting so uncool?

“And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?”

Maybe because these are the people I associate with, I’ve seen this most in my own generation — Gen X and the oldest of the Gen Y’s. Why is this happening? Are we upset because we’re not where we expected to be at this point in our lives? Is it dawning on us that we’re not going to win a Nobel Prize or be billionaires or retire before we’re 40? Is the economy preventing us from buying that Corvette/Lotus/Tesla that we so wanted?

Did we have the wrong role models? Maybe Ferris wasn’t right after all. Maybe being too cool for school isn’t going to work out. We shouldn’t have been so cynical. We shouldn’t have held back so much. We were scared that everyone was watching, when in fact no one was. We wore “slacker” like a badge, when it was really a tag. Were the Baby Boomers right about us?

“How many times a day do I have to tell you to BE COOL?”

Let’s call a spade a spade. Gen X is having a midlife crisis.

We need to take responsibility for ourselves. Do we honestly believe that _______ [our wives/our families/our friends/our peers/our bosses/our reports] _______[messed things up/got in the way/held us back]?

Wouldn’t it be better if we sat down, took stock, and wrote up some goals for the next 40 years of our lives?

If we don’t like our jobs, why not do something else? Aren’t we something more than what we get paid to do? Now is the time to step up and do something great as a generation. Didn’t the Harvard Business Review say that we’d leave the workplace and start our own companies? We were supposed to show how lean, nimble companies could outperform the Goliaths. Where are those companies? What are we doing?

Get a grip

More money won’t make things better. A new girlfriend won’t make things better. A new car won’t make things better. A new life won’t make things better.

If we’re struggling to figure out what the Meaning of Life is, try this:

Each person is but a temporary trustee of the life stream.

— Bossard and Boll, in “Sociology of Child Development” (1948)

I remember when my wife first told me that the old sociology textbook she was reading for her field exam had flat-out told her the meaning of life: that we are “guardians of the living stream”. At first we laughed. Then we thought about it and realized that, in some sense, they were right. I’m not sure how that line made it through all of the revisions and rewrites and feedback and editing, but this satori-inducing phrase rang true. We’re not going to be here forever. We can’t change the world by ourselves. In the end, the only way to ensure the world gets better is to get it together: make a difference while we can and teach our children. Our most important duty is to guard the next generation and protect them and nurture them and teach them so that the “living stream” keeps flowing and keeps improving the world.

It’s not about our expectations. It’s not about showing everyone. It’s not about having it all. It’s not about us, and once we get over that fact, we’ll be fine.

Engaged Detachment

“You perceived it [the wall], so it was there. But now you have accepted the unacceptable, and the wall no longer blocks your path.”

— the Ancient One, in “Doctor Strange” (2007)

Workplace Enlightenment

A few years ago, I had a bad boss, a boss so bad that people with decades of experience said that this was the worst boss they ever had, someone who consistently and continuously drove the best talent out of the organization. My point in bringing this up is not to complain but rather to explain how I achieved a certain type of workplace enlightenment that I call “Engaged Detachment”.

When you go into work, you want to do a good job. If you are an individual contributor, then doing a good job is in your best interests. If you are a manager, then sometimes doing a good job means doing things that are not in your best interests, or even your manager’s, but is in the best interests of the organization as an enterprise. I touched upon this in an earlier post. This is a tough spot to be in. It’s tough because most managers (and people) do things for selfish reasons (I suppose that’s what “rational behavior” is, after all). Such managers will never do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves. If you suggest that a typical manager do anything that limits their power or influence, even if it benefits the organization as a whole, odds are that you will be shot down. It’s a shame because in the long run, doing things in the interests of the enterprise will ultimately benefit everyone.

In such a situation, you have two main strategies:

  1. Salute your boss, request direction, and carry out your instructions.
  2. Fight with your boss, reject direction, and ignore your instructions.

While it may be fun to pick the second strategy, this is the surest way to burn through all of your political capital and then be fired. Even if you do things for the benefit of the organization and others see that, a bad boss can subtly ruin your reputation and take you down. There is no way to make the second strategy work. An organization cannot function if everyone (or even a few people) worked this way. The fundamental problem is that an organization with bad managers and bad leaders will be a bad organization. There isn’t anything you can do about this — unless you’re a stellar leader coming in as the next CEO (or if you start your own company 🙂 ).

The first strategy is hard to swallow because it can destroy your soul. It can lead to frustration, unhappiness, and stress. It can spill over into the rest of your life and impact your family, your friends, and your children. It can ruin your life. It can tempt you to complain to your co-workers, or talk behind your manager’s back, or complain to your staff. This is not productive. This creates a vicious cycle of negativity. At some point this will probably lead to the second strategy. So what should you do?

Engaged Detachment

Being stuck in this predicament, and being, I think, a thoughtful person :-), I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I should do. After a few weeks, the phrase “engaged detachment” popped into my mind. At first, I dismissed this as a nonsense phrase like “dry water” or “popular engineer”, but the more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense. In order to properly function in an organization that doesn’t make sense, you have to be engaged in your work, but you must also be detached from it; if you get too wrapped up in your work, you’ll go nuts. You have to somehow detach yourself from your job in order maintain your self. I touched upon this briefly in “You aren’t what you do (for a paycheck)“. If you can do this, you will have reached some kind of workplace enlightenment.

The first rule of Fight Club is…

I recently watched “Fight Club” for the first time. Not sure how I missed it in ’99, but I watched it now because Chris Brogan posted that it was his favorite movie — and because he had a picture of his DVD shelf that included “Iron Man”, “Gotham Knight” (I’m sure “Doctor Strange” was somewhere to the left). Anyways, in the middle of “Fight Club”, Brad Pitt’s character proclaims “You are not your job!”. That’s a good mantra.

Moment of Enlightenment

For me, realizing “engaged detachment” was really just a moment in time. I could see how I could do my job without destroying my self, and I began to practice this but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do forever. This momentary enlightenment — a flash of insight into the world — offers you something of enormous value. It lets you make sense of where you are so you can take another step on your life’s road. For me, that step was engineering an exit plan so I could start a company that would fix a big, deep problem that every organization faces but which no one knew how to fix, the problem that led me to “engaged detachment” in the first place.

My company has a solution to this problem that I’m getting ready to take out to the world. I’ll keep you posted.

Thoughts?

If anyone has any thoughts on any of this, please share!