Overcoming the inertia of indecision

In many areas of endeavor, high certainty is a rare commodity. Of that I am quite certain ….

The stress that goes with coming to decisions can stop people cold, effectively freezing them, their families or entire organizations till one is confident enough to proceed. This angst does not occur in a vacuum; it is the result of past failures and disappointments, complete with the criticism and shame that accompany them. It’s no wonder people wallow in indecision.

But as my manager once quipped (and this is a favorite of mine): “If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything.” Thomas Edison, after all, had thousands of “nice tries” on the way to the incandescent light bulb. His story is really one of persistence, not indecision. He was committed to a goal.

I’m writing about those who can’t even get that far. The inertia that can governs people is a dangerous habit that stops lives cold at each and every crossroad.  Over time, it is more dangerous than the mistakes that are so feared.

So it’s vital for someone who’s prone to this to develop steps to avoid it – to actively, progressively and quickly make decisions. Here are some of those steps:

  1. Gather intel – It seems obvious, yet the fear of proceeding even forbids the first clear action to come to a decision – learn about the parameters, procedure and possible outcomes of the different options before you. This can involve reading, searching the internet and most effective: talking with parties who have been there before. How truly bad is it to fail?  How truly great to “succeed”? It’s the testimony of those who’ve been there that can go a long way to encourage the procrastinator.
  2. Use pilots – There is no rule that says you have to commit everything you have to one path or another. A limited trial is an excellent way to test the waters and see how a decision would work if you fully made it. Of course a woman can’t launch a pilot pregnancy, for example. But she can try making the adjustments a pregnancy and parenthood would entail (except for the gestation part) – like taking care of someone’s young child for a weekend.  Of course many decisions are not as final as having a child, but the commitment level should be high.
  3. Fail quickly and cheaply – One of the precepts of the Agile development process is extremely useful in making decisions. This differs from the pilot approach in that the investment can be much higher. But it is the same in the limited time of such a commitment. It is obviously preferable to have a disaster after a month than after two years. Another perspective to this is that a limited time sprint of a project is a vital part of decision making. The truth is, none of us really know what it is going to be like down a certain path until we do it.
  4. Learn – Gathering intel is a first part of this, but formal schooling – even seminars – and learning by doing (see Fail quickly and cheaply) should all contribute to the knowledge of the decision maker. It’s also vital that what is learned is not only tactical truth but strategic principle. A single failure or success should contribute to knowledge and not stand on its own.
  5. Don’t personalize failure or “there is no failure” – Put simply, you must fail. It’s required. What culture does to people who fail is call them failures. Clearly that is extremely destructive thinking if you let it in. So … don’t! Things that didn’t work out are arguably more valuable than things that did. That’s not a “rose colored glasses” statement, it’s data. There are no failures really, just lessons learned. One set of objectives was not achieved, but another set was. Make sure you record the life lesson objectives. You’ll need them later.

There’s no reason to freeze in your tracks when it comes to choosing paths. Usually it’s the shame of past failures that keeps people stuck. No matter what faith (or “none”) you are, I want to share what I do with shame, as demonstrated by Christ:

Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God:

Scorn shame – HATE it. Not the people spewing it, but hate its effect on you.

That is a whole other topic, but it’s important to recognize what’s eating at you during points of indecision. And take steps to get out.

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The grief police

Reeling from the triple bombings in Brussels yesterday, some of my friends have projected the colors of the Belgian flag or written pleas for prayers for Belgium. Others have taken it upon themselves to judge those expressions of shock and grief by saying that they are biased and thus, flawed. Citing the multiple loci of international terror, they search articles, the meme-o-sphere and blogosphere for graphics and pointed prose that aims to correct the presupposed racial and cultural bias.

Police

The trouble is, the presupposition is both erroneous and proud. And as such, it will be ignored or have the opposite effect than what was intended, because it will only annoy people.

Here’s why:

  1. Identification. If people see themselves as closer related to Belgians than Turks, Arabs or Africans, it’s because they are closer related. This is not bias, it’s ethnicity. And cultural affinity. If the pictures of the bloodied women in the Brussels subway connect to westerners more than those of women wearing hajibs or African women, it’s because that scene and those people look and dress like us. That will always be true. Turks, however, will naturally connect more with suffering people who look and dress like them. It’s not bias, it’s cultural and ethnic relationship.
  2. Historical affinity. The allies, America, Britain, Canada and others, fought and defeated the Nazis 72 years ago in Belgium. Belgium was a founding member of NATO. That matters, because the spirit of that alliance was that an attack on any of its members was an attack on them all. Turkey joined later which constitutes no second-class membership, but the link between the West and Turkey has never been like that among the European NATO members. No bias but affinity.
  3. Proximity. “If it can happen there, it can happen here” – said by Europeans or Americans – is more true referring to Belgium than to Africa or Turkey or other Middle Eastern states. Part of this is the nature of bordering nations in each case, part of it is form of governance another part is patterns of people movement. It may be inconvenient that the demographics of those practicing terror are Muslim and from Arab lands. And is tragic to use those demographics too loosely and ban all people whom they describe. Furthermore, I’m making no assumption that a terror incident in a nation that has lots of people who fit those traits is somehow less tragic or traumatic. But it is the case that terror done to nations further away has muffled implications compared to those closer. So, the outpouring is less. And those who would ban people movement to keep the problem away gain fuel. But for those who mourn, again, no bias, just proximity.

Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus spoke these words during his introduction – the beatitudes – to the Sermon on the Mount. The mourning is not only the common sorrow of loss but a deeper grief over the state of humankind. That kind of mourning cannot be practiced with bias, because it starts with my own sin and depravity. And really, I’m the only one I can let God work on. And I must surrender the conviction of wrongdoing to the Holy Spirit, who is VERY good at it. I mean that I make a lousy Holy Spirit.

When we project bias or any presumed internal attitude or disposition on others, we are attempting to do a job we don’t have the equipment to do.

Let people mourn. Deeply. As they will. It’s actually a very constructive practice in the end.

 

Candidates and leaders

The presidential election season is at its hottest point right now and it won’t cool off until a POTUS is elected in November. I have puzzled for a long time at my inability to embrace candidates. Listening to the diatribes of rabid fans from the left of right – and I am most delighted to have dear friends from both persuasions – has only made me more alienated.

It’s not so much with the process – the fire of political rhetoric both positive and negative has its place – but with the actual field of candidates we have this year. And .. well, most election years. It always seems that in the end I am voting for the lesser of two evils. There hasn’t been a candidate I would endorse for decades. Part of that is because I’m not an institution like a newspaper or trade union and I don’t have to endorse anyone. And part of it is that I just don’t align with the two party approach. But even that is not the whole story as I’ll talk about below.

So, in the first place, we have the issues that everyone crows about. The voting public is asked to fit into 2 groups – conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat). Using just three categories of stances one might have on the issues and allowing for only three view on those issues (I insist there is a moderate place in each category), we have a 9 entry table:

basicpoliticalspectrum

The “International” category includes things like foreign relations, immigration, etc., though most would include some of that in “Social”. My points are 2:

  1. This is a very simple picture of the true spectrum.
  2. If one fits into a solid conservative or liberal stance everywhere, there is still no candidate that does and that is a statistical rarity.

But I don’t even think an issues-based affinity works to choose a Commander-in-Chief. What I want, and what I think the nation needs, is a leader.  The qualities of a leader are different from those of a candidate who can draw a crowd and go toe to toe in a debate.  Leaders do that too, but they do much, much more.  Here are some qualities that show what I mean:

  1. Inclusion over issues – The ability to unite and inspire even ones ideological foes is a rare talent, and even more rare among presidential candidates. The president heads up only 1 branch of a three branch government. An issues-only presidency makes for legislative gridlock and aggressive judicial review. And this applies to the leading the American people, because crisis – and there will be that – requires it.
  2. Compassion at the core – While the left would lay claim to this point; I don’t mean it that way. The ability to hear out others and address their concerns with what are overriding concerns on your part matters. People are going to disagree, for lots of reasons. How someone treats his/her detractors speaks volume to that person’s character, and fit for the job. An inability to rise above vitriolic, ad hominem rhetoric disqualifies any leader.
  3. Courage to be unique – More than fitting a party’s platform, or the patterns of any tribe, the best presidents have convictions informed by higher sources. As a person of faith, I admire those who know that the parties do not fit with what they know to be true. Self- and tribal-interest mar righteousness, pulling its actions to into harmful directions. A leader with courage to be him/herself will receive accusations of not being strong-enough and others of being oppressive and abusing power. When both of those happen, we have a president.

 

I know I’m not alone in my reticence about this year’s candidates. And I know even writing this will alienate those who have been polarized. My goal is not that, but to help us all understand what a real leader is.

 

 

 

The Hubris of Revision

I read an article yesterday picking on Valentine’s Day. It took down the card companies, the forced and scheduled love, and even the Single’s Awareness Day which it has fostered.

The article said it was fine to celebrate. But somehow it was necessary to find things wrong with that, which is akin to saying “You are free to do that, but you’re an insensitive and ignorant idiot.” At least that’s what I heard.

It didn’t really go into history, and I think that’s because the writer may have found himself attacking something really beautiful. But historical and cultural revision is all the rage.
RevisionistHistory

And I’ll say it – it’s predominantly by the millennial generation.

Now getting history right is good. Let me talk a little about a popular-to-malign figure, Christopher Columbus:

I do think Columbus has been over-lionized, and mostly by a distinct group – my ethnic Italian friends. But the attack on old Chris has presented him without any good qualities. He was, at the very least, a daring explorer. And on the bad side, at the very least, a horrible governor. So now if you celebrate his day – which was always a good day to take off from work – you are a heretic and one espousing pillage and rape.

Not so!! I have no particular connection with things Columbus and I’ve known since 15 years old or so that the Norwegians were the first Europeans to set foot on North America.

So what? Columbus set sail across an ocean not knowing what he would find. His modern critics have the courage to post entries on the internet.

His crew was a collection of tough, morally compromised men who believed they answered to no one, not even Columbus.

I don’t know the details and context of the abuse his crew and people heaped on Native Americans. Neither do his detractors, though they love to find and spit disconnected writings as if they prove their points. We can probably say he at least didn’t stop it. But we don’t know what would happen if he did. There are other explorers who treated the indigenous people they encountered with kindness and dignity. Bartolome de la Casas is such a person.

Columbus had weaknesses – in particular he was a poor leader and governor. His men ran rampant and did their brutal best to ruin the good country and people they had found.

I’m not making excuses for Christopher Columbus. I’m saying he wasn’t as good as the holiday says and not as bad as his modern critics say.

The more troubling phenomenon is the need to revise. To make some points:

1. Snobs revise. C.S. Lewis coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to describe the phenomenon of a generation declaring its superiority to past generations by applying its enlightened perspective to those living in past centuries. Note that he wrote that in the 1940s – so there’s nothing new about revisionism.  But “snobbery” is an accurate description of the practice.  One thing is certain – that same practice will be exercised by one’s children.  The snobs will be vilified by future snobs.

2. Context and progress matter. In the American south during the slave era, racism was rife. Believing that Africans were subhuman was required to live in a society where they were treated that way. It was wrong, horribly unjust and we live with the wounds of that society to this day. But expecting someone who lived in that society to have the values of 21st century America ignores the economic system in force and the struggle it would take to bring justice. So, reading the words of a white slave owner – like Thomas Jefferson – and coloring them all with a single fact is willfully ignorant and unfair.

3. Injection is fallacy. Like Walter Mitty, those who insert themselves as heroes, retroactively into systems and times of injustice and abuse are day dreaming. It’s so easy to write critically and spew ad hominem vitriol on one’s forebears. It’s an entirely different matter to live under such systems and stay alive to make change. Nazis killed detractors; and the fear that spawned helped poison the minds and actions of an entire generation of German people.  There were heroic ones who resisted, but they did so risking it all.

4. Do revisionists really care? If those writing so critically applied the same energy to the known injustices of today; they would get a taste of the roadblocks and realities of the good fight. That way they would understand better that, for instance, misogyny was once a sea in which entire cultures swam (indeed still swim) and its practice, assumptions and language permeated everything.

Please, let’s revise US. And let’s practice mercy – finding the good and virtue amidst whatever else we might find wrong – with our historical past.

We will then find that mercy triumphs over judgment. Period. And when we need mercy, we will also receive it. There was someone really important who said:

Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

God and the geek – part 793 – The Facet Value Vector

I’m working on a very cool project – which in itself is a story of redemption for which there’s no room here to tell.

The first part of software work is to design. And that’s where the work is at. I am the lone designer though I’m bringing in lots of people to help give opinions and information. You don’t do this alone.

But I hit a snag. There was a nasty design problem that just wasn’t yielding to my efforts. All solutions I came up with were either too slow or just incomplete. It’s a tough one.

If you are non-spiritual please bear with me here; it’s part of the story I promise.

One of the ways I pray I call “passive prayer” – I believe it’s a form of praying without ceasing that St. Paul encouraged. When I do it, I think and do stuff and then ask God what He thinks. Or, I can just stop if I’m stumped and ask for help. Because God is an engineer too! 🙂

It was in such a spiritual atmosphere – on the airplane to our annual conference actually – that my mind realigned to think about the problem at hand. It was a classic “you’re going about this all wrong” revelation.

I recorded the new approach and between talking to customers at the conference I prototyped it, writing some Java code to check out the idea with real data.

The results were amAZing. Not only did it solve the complete problem, it did so 100 times faster. That’s a big number when you’re trying to speed things up in the software business.

I explained the idea to some friends who are close to the project. One of them said I should patent the idea. Maybe I’ll try to do that, but his comments were testament to its originality and effectiveness.

Soli Deo gloria – all glory to God here – there are serious annual revenues riding on the success of this work.

But that pales compared to the value in letting you – and everyone – know that God is there for the seemingly mundane stuff. Like the Facet Value Vector.

Now, I know that engineering scares a lot of people. It scares ME sometimes. But if I revere minds that think technically advanced things, how much more will I revere the mind of One who can inform them.

But whatever problems you are faced with – and we ALL face problems – I invite you to pray and find God there to answer. Not a huge, formal thing, just a breathe asking for help. Because it’s there for the asking.

Paris at war

14 June 1940 – Paris fell to Hitler’s army. The fuhrer had expected to loose 1 million dead in the invasion of France. In his hegemony of madness, it was worth it to him. But the conquest of France had “only” cost about 27,000 German dead. The French had lost something like 75,000 killed but had 1.5 million taken prisoner, where most would remain for 5 years.

While Germany had military advantage in every way, what made it so easy for them was the morale and fear of the defenders. Communication was poor, so false rumor and any whiff of defeat tore into the confidence of the soldiers. Entire lines collapsed without the Germans firing a shot. Tenacity was in short supply.

Fear is a powerful weapon. Its rule over entire nations can last decades. But eventually its grip loosens when its victims rise up to take back what has been stolen.

The world was a different place in 1940 than now. There are parallels to be drawn between Nazi Germany and the current world’s-worst rogue state, ISIS. The rule of fear is the most obvious. And the ethnic and nationalistic fervor in Germany in the 1930s, a reaction to defeat and punishment after the first World War fueled unconscionable cruelty and wanton destruction. Likewise, the rise of Shiite tribes in Iraq during the American occupation and their hateful crimes against the Sunnis, coupled with vacuums created by the withdrawal of American troops and the Syrian civil war, gave rise to ISIS in all its cruelty and destructiveness.

I’m writing this the morning after the attacks on Paris by ISIS, killing (at this count) 128 people. I want to voice some points in our contemporary context and atmosphere. I have no delusions of grandeur, just thoughts I need to express. Here goes:

  • We, the free world, are at war. The convenient dismissal of Islamic terror as merely the acts of criminals ignores the ongoing slaughter. It’s a war we need to fight – now – in the strongest way we can. Else we will fight a bigger war later, at much higher cost. Boots on the ground. Start with Raqqa.
  • The blame game doesn’t help. Bush started it by invading Iraq. Obama started it by withdrawing too early. We are where we are. All that matters is what we do from here on.
  • The enemy has distinguishable characteristics. Muslims who have bought into warped doctrines. Overwhelmingly – though not exclusively -Arab and from the Middle East. The free world is so named because it has great laws guaranteeing liberty. When that liberty is attacked, it cannot extend towards those who attack it. Profiling has a bad name when applied to domestic people of color. But profiling is going on right now against this enemy. That will bother some. They should get over it. It is a small minority of Muslims we need to track and fight.
  • We are clueless and have remained that way about Islam and Arab culture. I do fault the Bush administration for not having a way to win the peace after strongman Saddam Hussein was removed. And for not understanding or respecting tribal rule. These people are not American.
  • Movement and flux are new weapons. We will learn – I predict – that the perpetrators in Paris were returning French citizens. Returning after a visit to a certain place and after certain periods of time. Restricting the movements of such people – with quarantine internment, say – makes perfect sense. The civil libertarians will again object and should be entertained then ignored. Borders are particularly porous in Europe, but so are laws. The murderous success of so few is testimony to something that needs to be better controlled.
  • Technology is also being used against us. The Nazis and Imperial Japan both used radio to spread their propaganda and lies. It was mostly ineffective. Not so ISIS’ use of technology. They are winning disciples to their cause. We’re not perfect and we should never claim to be, but still we have a better story and a truer one. That story needs telling. On Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.
  • Terror works, if you let it. The retreat of the French in 1940 – due to (often unfounded) fear – was disastrous. So will be any fear that is acted upon the current situation.
  • After the fight, reparations work – the reason Germany didn’t rise again and start WW3 was because of reparations. After victory was won, forgiveness was extended and received. In 1999 my Berlin taxi driver apologized to me for Hitler. After hostilities cease – and there will be hostilities – there is a need to help people, not just rule them. It’s a foreign concept in the Middle East, but it wins hearts.

When Hitler swarmed to control the European continent, despite the climate of isolation, the rest of the world knew it would have to fight and defeat this evil. And the longer it waited the more it cost.

See ISIS.

25 August 1944 – Paris was liberated.

Generational identity – revision meets reality

It was leadership from my parents’ generation that made the decisions to fight the war in Vietnam. For a generation that had fought against two evil regimes – Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – adopting isolationism was unthinkable. And the new enemy ideology – Communism – was spreading. The national mood was bellicose. So .. fight!

It wasn’t until I heard reports of the older brothers of some friends being killed by snipers that .I realized it was actually costing us anything. Then came the protests. By the time I was in high school, my generation had established its own beachhead on the national scene. Country Joe and the Fish sang “It’s one, two, three what are we fighting for?”. “Old enough to kill but not for votin’ ” rasped Barry McGuire. And after the killing of protesters at Kent State University by National Guard troops, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang “Four Dead in Ohio”. Those, among other hits, were the anthems flooding the song lists on the new venue of FM radio.

And we changed our culture, if not THE culture  Head shops arose to feed the hunger for bohemian style, free love and optimal smoking of marijuana and hashish, just for starters. We were cool and we knew it.  And .. we were victims of an identifiable evil.

My generation had revised the discussion and had invaded the national conscience. I remember the power and pride I felt in those days, to be part of a whole generation who was finally getting it right.

And in some ways, we did get it right – today we can look at the Vietnam war as a debacle – a bad idea spawned from bad information with bad motives. It’s easy to see, now. There was no domino theory in play wherein China was advancing its empire into Southeast Asia – the Vietnamese hated the Chinese – and Ho Chi Minh saw socialism as reform over French colonial rule. For Vietnam, it was a war for independence.  America was propping up a corrupt government in the south.

For my generation – at least those around me – our revision of the dialogue and effect on national direction became part of our identity.

Going back, you can find that every generation develops some level of a contrarian spirit and is convinced of its own righteousness, regardless of a gross lack of perspective and experience. An event as dramatic or costly as Vietnam isn’t necessary. Any issue, any injustice, marginalized group or sin of the former generation is fair game to “get right” and rally around.

The identity is the goal.  But if reality is consulted, and it will always be, my generations’s anti-war movement got it wrong in many ways:

  • The treatment of returning soldiers was completely shameful. Flower children, not being so floral, threw cups of urine in the face of wheelchair-bound veterans – because the “correct” response to the war was to dodge the draft and move to Canada.
  • Communism was and is bad. The jury is in. We didn’t want to talk about it, but I have had the honor of working with ex-USSR citizens. Their tales of brutality – as a rule – speak for themselves. It is all the rage to cite what’s wrong with America – and we should fix that. It’s a whole different story coming out of nations ruled by totalitarian socialist regimes.
  • The questioning of America’s forceful role in world conflict has reproduced a lack of vigilance and rise in isolationism that can resemble that prior to the second world war. When there is real evil (see ISIS) it is historically better to fight it earlier than later. Because fight it you will.
  • The hubris of a generation caused a complete ignorance – or denial – of the sacrifices of our parents’ generation. They were not perfect, but they were perfectly great. I will remain humbled by what they went through and gave to us. Shame on us where we have not been humble enough to see that and put on some gratitude.

The example of the war in Vietnam is only a pointed example of generational pride. All revisionism suffers from it. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery”. And it is always found to be full of error and excess.

As a workable example, I don’t expect many of my children’s generation to even read this. Maybe after I’m gone and they see the cycle (and it can be found somehow). I don’t make that observation with any resentment – I had avoidance to reading what my father wrote.

But I was wrong. Badly.

I rest my case.