Thursday, February 19, 2009

3 Tenets to Being Better

Lately, I've found myself having to teach a lot of beginner-level engineering techniques. Any time I work with people who are just getting started in their chosen fields, the same type of conversation occurs. They inevitably want to know how to get better. In some cases, they want to know how to be the best.

The funny part happens with those who take a while to get to the point of asking for help. You see, the good ones usually have achieved some small measure of success already. So they're feeling particularly competent and capable. And faced with demanding situations, where they find themselves out of their depth, they don't always immediately recognize it. And even if they do sense the impending doom, they don't necessarily want someone else to help them. They want to try and swim a little on their own first.

So whether they are really good, or they just think they are, they ultimately end up having to ask for the opinions of more senior people in their field. The more they flounder, the less helpful I can be. The less they struggle, the more help I can give them in specific situations.

Now the truly gifted ones don't just ask for help with a specific situations, they want to understand the principles involved. They want to know how to become better, which is more than just sucking less.

Over the years, I've found myself giving a lot of the same specific principles that are built on only a couple of foundational tenets.

  1. Learn the basics completely and comprehensively.
    Reading voraciously. Read everything you can get your hands on from people who are actually doing the type of work you want to do. Know the conventions they use, learn the language, the vocabulary and the slang.
  2. Build up your style, your repertoire of techniques, and stick with them.
    Pick the tried and true methods that you prefer and practice. Have defensible answers for your choices, so make them deliberately. Keep the number of techniques manageable and deviate as little as possible. Don't switch without overwhelmingly compelling reasons.
  3. Fail fast and when failure is cheap do it often.
    If you are doing something new, don't be afraid to take risks. Just make sure they are recoverable and inexpensive. Prototype, mock-up, white-board, sketch, and pseudo-code as much as possible. If something has the potential to go down, get to the stress point as quick as possible so you can address it quickly or get passed it.

A few things to consider about these tenets is that they aren't just about learning quickly. They are about unlearning quickly as well. You can't embrace something new until you get past your hang-ups from your history. When you can unlearn quickly you will be more creative and nimble in your solutions going forward.

Being deliberate in your choices means you will be more consistent and reliable in the majority of things you do; specifically the things that matter. You'll know the choices that matter because they are the things you chose early and from which you rarely deviate. When your choices can withstand fads, trends, and the stylistic preferences of others, you'll know they are well chosen and important.

There is more to just making quick choices. Your choices need to either fail quickly or last a long time. This is usually measured as effectiveness. To make more effective choices, you need focus, creativity, and deliberation.

This notion of making deliberate choices and sticking with them is an aspect of mindfulness. In the 2004 edition of Scientific American Mind, the first issue, you'll find some great technical details about the notion of mindfulness from a neuro-scientific standpoint.

I just know that people who are more mindful are more effective, and being the best is usually about being the most effective.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Just Beyond

Do you have friends that are continually pursuing the same goals? They have something they want/need and they talk about it all the time but never seem to get it? They might want a better job, to be in a relationship, more time, more money, or less stress. And with this friend, it doesn't matter what they do, the goal is always eluding them. Sound familiar?

I certainly run into my share of individuals like this. They always want advice, or help, or a connection. With enough practice, these individuals are easy for me to spot, even when I'm not very familiar with them. The trick for me is to notice the inconsistencies in their presentation. It's a bit general, but usually when the non-verbal signals get really disconnected from what's being said, it's a good sign that it is the words can't be trusted.

When our internal maps gets messed up, it can be hard to realize that about yourself. And if you are trying to help someone like this, you have to be aware that you can't necessarily trust what they say about their maps either. That's why being able to reconcile the physical signs and the spoken words is so important.

In cases like this you can do real damage if you take the words at face value. I have a colleague who has been switching jobs for years. He was never satisfied with the work, or the peers, or the bosses, or this or that. He would talk about his "dream job" all the time. Within weeks of taking any position he would invariably start to find all the flaws and unravel why this job wasn't perfect. Within months he'd be looking for a new job no matter how well he was performing, or how much was going "right" about the current job.

Over the years, I've done my best to help him with connections, references, etc. After all, you want competent, good performers to be successful. And for those years I was always listening to the words. One day I was distracted for some reason I stopped listening to what he was saying. That's when I noticed what he wasn't saying.

This prompted a round of questions to help figure out what was on his internal map. When we spoke about his current job, he reverted to a different verbal map and physical representation. After a few conversations exploring his maps, he was able to bring his maps into alignment and has been very happy in his latest job for quite some time.

What was difficult in this situation is that I'd spent so much time providing my friend what he asked for instead of what he needed. I was missing something so simple, so natural, so obvious. It was too obvious. And that's the quickest way to identify this situation, the sheer simple obviousness of what's being requested.

If the goal is so straightforward but the language and presentation aren't in alignment, there is usually something twisted in the maps underneath. Let me restate this with a few examples:
  • What's being asked for is the same thing as what they want. They want a better job so they'll . . . be in a better job.
  • What's being asked for can't be clearly stated. They want the "right guy" but describing what that looks like is vague and uncertain or changing.
  • The weight of the request is significant enough they have to change state to make the request. They have to change posture, stance, or level of fixation.

Once you've identified a misalignment with the underlying maps, you can take steps depending on the specific maps.

If you are finding yourself cycling on the same issues over and over, or just can't seem to reach that goal that is always just out of reach, try doing some map work. Make sure you aren't missing that crucial symptom that's just too obvious for you to have seen already.