Saturday, November 3, 2018

The art of futility

Recently I looked back on my graduate thesis; it wasn't great, but it didn't suck. There was some pretty heavy statistics in it, a lot of survey work, and all of that was put through analysis by little ol' me. The focus was on the role of women in Japanese advertising. I think one of the reasons I've stayed dedicated to my wife for two and a half decades is that she sat for a couple of weekends and did surveys on hour after hour of Japanese television. That led me to go back to my undergraduate thesis that examined the history of journalism in war. That led to some reflection on the test I had to take to graduate college; we were given sentences and had to tell the author and work it came from. Even I'm impressed by the younger me.

When I compare that with what I'm asked to do now, it is somewhat depressing. The last time I had to do any heavy analysis of any kind was when I outsourced a team to India; I clearly remember nobody thinking my approach was right, and then, after it was done, getting praise because it had been. There is little need for statistics in my job; I would need some serious work to get up to speed on that.

This has gotten me to thinking on the value lifespan of education. Meaning, there is a point after which the things we've studied stop to be relevant.

This isn't a fresh idea.

Lately, maybe for the past year or two, this has been heavy on my mind because my son has headed off to college. I want to think I have given him the tools needed to not sit at a bar when he's in his late 40s and wonder if he did the right thing, education-wise. I want to believe he is more prepared than I was at his age, when for complex reasons I was doing something I didn't want to do in order to please others.

That's been a trend in my life. It's made for a decent career; managers like to have that person working for them who will do the hard jobs with little complaint. I am the human equivalent of the backhoe, always ready to work endlessly, tirelessly, until one day I break down. As I did last year, hard. But like the backhoe, the mechanics fixed me and I limp along digging those ditches day in, day out.

I don't want that for my son. As my father didn't want it for me. As his father didn't want it for him. Back and back it goes. Laborers, born with callouses on our hands to save the world the trouble of giving them to us.

Learning I have in abundance. Multiple languages. Books by the thousands. I've dug those ditches - real ones. I've replaced engines in cars. Repaired transmissions. Changed, in fact, every part on a car you can think of. I can tell you how to get from point A to point B in cities I've lived in, some not in decades.

Learning, I have decided, isn't what you build a career on. You build a career by getting lucky and having managers that let you go to a level where you, too, can surround yourself with people who have learned things.

Luck is the key to life.

Once, a decade or more ago, I sat in a meeting about level-setting job titles. Much as some insist otherwise, a job title is important, especially if you are born with callouses on your hands. In that meeting there were many like me. But what I remember most is the developer who stood up. See, we had been bought by another company, and it was time to level set. So the developer said, "I'm a Developer III, and I know that a Developer III makes X-dollars more a year than I make. Will we get that higher salary." Yes, he was told.

But that was  lie.

Rather than give him the salary due to him for his job, they gave him a job title that matched his salary. He took the Developer III experience and left. Because that's what you do.

Well, that's what other people do. I seem to just sit and take my beating.

Learning nothing, it seems.

It's the Atlas problem I have written of before. The Gods didn't relegate Atlas to hold up the sky as a punishment. They did it because he was good at holding up the sky and they needed somebody to do that. So Atlas holds up the sky and cannot be replaced, because without him the sky won't be held up.

This post is, if anything, a message for the managers of the world. Look around you. Look at your team. Do you have an Atlas? Do you have someone you can't let go of because they are so important to you? Take a look at them. Don't assume they want to be Atlas. Don't assume they like holding up that sky. Some do, for sure. Most don't.

When you find your Atlas, ask yourself if you're okay holding them back. Because that's what you're doing if you don't go around shouting to the masses that you have an Atlas. And Atlas is awesome. Atlas could do a lot if given the opportunity and the support.

But if you're okay holding Atlas back for your own success, that's fine, too. Just don't call yourself a leader.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

I don't get taoism

I have been reading the Tao of Pooh lately. Well, trying to. It's very enjoyable, but it might hit too close to home and I find myself reading it in short bursts. Perhaps the problem is that "home" is the general problem with my life, that thing I seek but have never been able to truly identify, a place I have but don't find comfortable. Pooh, so the book goes, is the perfect representation of Taoism; he is carefree without necessarily meaning to be. Because of his ability to live in the moment, he is at peace. Anyone who has watched Pooh for even a few minutes understands, and maybe envies, him for his general happiness. Nothing seems to disturb him, at least not for long.

Taoism's primary definition is that it cannot be defined. You aren't supposed to figure it out. Meaning will come as part of the process; filling an empty vessel and things like that. There's a Christian teaching that is along these lines: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Take the trouble of the day as it comes" (Matthew 6:34).

There are some fundamental problems with seeking the kind of peace found in Taoism. For starters, the practical things in life are practical for a reason. It would be great to live the carefree life, to float like a leaf on water, knowing we have no control over the currents of the stream or the wind in the air.

A leaf has no mortgage. Or a family to help support. No obligations.

There is no college tuition to pay. Clothes don't just show up at my house.

But the basic truth is this: stop worrying. That's nearly impossible for me; I have ambition, and even though at 48 (almost) it is pretty clear I won't achieve that ambition (at least professionally), I cannot simply shed that particular mantle. It gnaws at me. I'm not a conspiracy theorist or big believer in karma; but sometimes it makes a person wonder if things aren't stacked against me for some reason. Why rip a person's dreams away from them with no explanation or discussion? Perhaps the world has simply become evil, and it infects people I once considered friends.

I am Piglet combined with Eeyore. All this time I defined myself in that way. An anxious worrier whose depression is an obstacle no employer can get around. There are no Poohs around me, though, no Christopher Robins to accept me, warts and all. Only after reading the book did I understand that I should try to be Pooh, and I recognized that, to others, maybe that's what I can be.

This is what I will meditate on as I ride my bike down long, winding Middle Tennessee roads. I will strive to not need to strive. I will plan on not having to plan. I will let life wash over me as water over a rock.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Water Heater

My water heater was put out of its misery on 4/28/2018. It had a good life. For fifteen years it served my family well, through bitter cold days when we maybe stayed in our showers a bit longer than needed. It wasn't a famous brand name; that journeyman water heater did its job with distinction.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed water on the garage floor. I thought it was from my son's car, condensation from the AC. Last weekend I removed the things stored in front of the water heater and realized it was fatally broken, leaking from somewhere inside. There's little you can do about that.

All week I kicked around my options. I wanted to go with a tankless type water heater, but my gas line and vent were both undersized for that and I didn't have the time to properly plan a way to do it. Besides, it wouldn't save me that much money to go tankless, considering the added cost.

Saturday I went to the U-Haul dealer and rented an appliance dolly for $10, then went home to prepare. I cleaned out the area in front of the water heater and looked over the current space. It's been a very long time since I did any plumbing work, but the nature of the work has changed in that time. These days there is no need to solder copper pipes together; there are all sorts of compression fittings available to make the job easier. The problem with those products, I soon learned, is that they are not quite as flexible as their steel-braided design makes them appear.

My son was coming home to help with the install, so just after noon I went to Lowes and bought the water heater. I let the old water heater drain for a half hour, which somehow wasn't long enough. We moved it anyway. An old water heater will collect sediment, making it quite a bit heavier than a new one. Our new water heater was 150 pounds; the old was around 175 at least. They are cumbersome things, with no handles or any place to grab onto. The space for our water heater is a bit tight. I wiggled in on one side, my son took the front, and slowly, carefully, we slid it off it's stand to the floor.

He helped me position the new one, which wasn't much easier. In the end I grabbed it underneath and just muscled it up onto the stand, proof that sometimes you can over-engineer solutions to things that are best resolved with a direct approach.

Two hours later, after three trips to Lowes and one to Home Depot because I was embarrassed to go back to Lowes again, the water heater was connected and hot water flowed again to the house. (I would have to go to both Lowes and Home Depot a final time to return some things.)

I bring this up for a couple of reasons.

First, while I knew how to install a water heater, I didn't know how to plan to install a water heater. Those are vastly different things, and it's important for project leaders to understand this distinction. There are experts in a field who know what they're doing; they also cost a lot of money. For example, I would have had to pay someone at least $500 to install my water heater; all of the parts I needed cost less than $100. You pay for experience and the efficiency that brings. When you ask someone without that experience to figure things out, that will take more time and that has to be built into the project plan.

Second, not every mistake is critical. With the water heater I knew the general parameters of what I was doing, and worked well within those. Sure, I made some mistakes, including some that I never thought about (like the gas line connection needing some re-routing). But those mistakes were bumps on the road, not show stoppers.

Far too often we fear those little mistakes so much that we see them as larger than they are. That's where the expression "make a mountain out of a mole hill" comes from.

So go about your day with perspective. Mistakes are normal. They help us grow and improve. And be willing to let your staff make them, and let them try things they don't know how to do.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Roots

My son is heading off to college soon. It has made me reflect back on the choices I've made, both for me and for him. They seem to have worked out, for the most part. He has scholarship offers from two excellent schools. He still likes to hang out with me; asks to hang out with me, in fact.

Maybe it's those mountain roots.

When I was young, living in the shadow of the Appalachians, we pretended to be farmers. Really, we were just bumpkins who had some land, and every so often we had cows or horses or something that looked like a garden. And I mean that in the most positive way. Readers of my blog know that I am quite proud of my redneck heritage. Everyone should be, because we all share that past. Just about everyone was, a generation or two back, people of the land. Country folk. Rednecks. Not the pretenders who live on half acre lots and drive pristine trucks with knobby tires that have never seen a speck of mud, with a spray-in bed liner that has never known dirt or mulch or any hardship, much like the men who drive those trucks; and it's mostly men who pretend to be that which they aren't: rednecks. I don't begrudge them their fantasy; maybe I'm one of them, though my truck is beat up and is held together only by the quality manufacturing processes of Toyota. I seek out hardship, it seems. I use a push mower, hand cut wood, come up with projects that guarantee physical pain just so I can figure out a problem and walk away from it with blisters and cuts and body aches in places that really shouldn't ache.

That's how I was raised. Work meant using your hands and I never really fully grasped how to work any other way than by doing.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed at my first job, as a ditch digger at the water company. Would I be on my first back surgery? My second knee surgery? Would I have continued riding bikes? Would I have ridden more? Would books mean as much to me as they do today?

Would I be happy at work? Or does that follow the person and not the job? One thing about the blue collar world: the hierarchy is more structured and more respected. You become a foreman for a reason, and I've never heard of that title being taken away form someone without it including a termination letter. Responsibility is earned and taken seriously. I was lucky in my life to have good managers, for the most part. But the best were in those days when I labored for a living.

I have tasted that responsibility in my career and had it yanked away in the most cruel way, for reasons either fabricated or exaggerated. It's not something I understand, and maybe never will. Humans confuse me sometimes.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Movies and life lessons

Last night, as I drifted in and out of sleep on the sofa, cursing insomnia and a sore back, I happened to catch the movie Hero with Jet Li.

The synopsis of the movie, per IMDB: "A defense officer, Nameless, was summoned by the King of Qin regarding his success of terminating three warriors."

It's a little more complex than that. Based loosely on an assassination attempt by Jing Ke, the story is an elaborate weaving of how a Qin warrior, known only as Nameless, successfully killed three known assassins and, as a result, was allowed to proceed within ten paces of the emperor. Nameless has perfected a technique where he can attack with lethal speed from ten paces in the blink of an eye.

The movie, by legendary director Zhang Yimou, weaves this basic tell from three perspectives. And that's what had me thinking most of the night.

First is the perspective of the story as told by Nameless.

Second is the story as interpreted by the Emperor.

Third is the story as it really was.

There are strong parallels to life in this movie.

How often does the interpretation of reality so radically differ from the truth? We form our memories of events to fit with who we are. Maybe we don't want to do that; probably most of us don't know what's what is happening. But the source of much of the world's woes is that two people can see the same exact event and remember it two different ways. You only have to look at politics to see this in action; or a sport team. We form reality to fit our opinion, rather than the other way around.

There is no way around this, if history is a predictor of future behavior. Yet maybe things are changing, slowly. So I challenge everyone to go out today and try to be the person others aspire to be. Mold your life around the concept of kindness. We can be the change in the world; but we have to understand that change might not be something we agree with. So accept that, and move on.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Too serious

"Why do you look so serious?"

So asked a friend at the gym this week. He smiled and shook my hand.

"I'm always serious," I said, meaning it to be lighthearted, an off-the-cuff comment between friends.

"Don't be," he replied.

We exchanged some more banter; he was leaving, I was going in, and we went our separate ways.

Is it so simple? That thought (predictably) occupied my mind as I worked out. I have been told a lot in my life that I am too serious. A friend said that in college I was the oldest freshman she knew. Not that I am the focused, intense sort of serious; not a lot, anyway. Put me in a crisis, yes; if you see me playing a sport or riding my bike you can witness the intensity with which I approach things.

But to not be serious. Just like that. What would it take?

I've been working on my philosophy of the binary life. It's not a new notion at all. The idea is that every decision can be distilled down to a choice between two things. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes not. Look for more on this in the coming weeks.

I am committing, again (as it were), to not take things so seriously, to make that decision to be happy, to be less stressed, to de-focus for just a bit and enjoy the world as it happens.

We'll see.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Anniversaries. Again.

At my mother's funeral, just under four years ago from the time I am writing this, I spoke about a binary choice that we're faced with every day: to be happy or not.

It's not an easy choice, and there are great arguments as to why it isn't as cut and dried as that. But we humans crave complexity, it seems. It quests after us as much as we it, a symbiotic relationship that keeps chaos alive and well in the world. Stress and anxiety are perhaps more familiar than happiness. Our lives are lived in a constant push-pull between obtaining the things we need to survive, on one side, and the work/life balance that for a generation has been a mantra of self help gurus.

Have you ever tried to distill things down to a binary choice?

It is very difficult.

A good example of this difficulty is going out to eat. That is also a good example of the way we naturally go for the binary process. First there's finding a place to go; Greek or Italian? Neither? Sandwich shop? Chinese or Mexican? Ethnic or American? Then there's the decision we make inside the restaurant. A menu, even a simple one, will have many things to choose from.

In the end, though, it's a binary decision.

Four years ago I recommitted myself to the quest for happiness. Every single day I commit myself to choosing happiness - Joy (which was - is - my mother's name). It doesn't work most of the time, to be honest, because of the chaos that thrives in our world.

But I try. And that effort means a lot to me.

So you, too, should attempt to find that happiness in your life. Make that decision to seek a happy path, even if faced with every reason in the world to be sad.