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.

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