The deafening expectations on a drone

I recently heard a friend express a mindset I know too well – that he was drowning in the expectations of others. I have been there. There was a time when I felt that I was even accountable to my dog. I don’t know or care if there is a clinical name for that state of mind. I only care that it’s wrong and that it’s healthy to get past that feeling.

It’s not that others can’t impose – they can and do. It’s not that we don’t truly have obligations to meet – we do. The problem is that we can sink into an existence that doing what is expected of us is all we are. We become beings whose only value is doing our jobs. Worse, those jobs only increase in number, have virtually no rewards and they never end.

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The people and institutions in our lives enforce a thankless, workaholic drone existence. No, not the pilotless drone aircraft, the drone bee, who does nothing but work for the queen in service to the hive:

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I have found some ways out of this trap, but for sure it can still be a struggle, and one that depresses and steals joy. Here are some ideas:

  1. Celebrate. If you are like me, you work for and/or with people who rarely if ever give you a sense of completion, even when you are victorious. At least that’s how you see things and how you hear what they say. Every finished task is rewarded by a list of future expectations. In that situation, it’s not just advisable but required that you intentionally mark your accomplishments with times of relaxation, reflection and parties. I mean spend resources – time and money – to formally do it. You have done and/or built something beautiful.  It’s part of life’s rhythm to sit back and rejoice in that, enjoy it.  And if you don’t do that, your longing for closure and the accompanying “feel good” will plague you. I know this from experience.This includes celebrating the finished work of others. Because the joy is contagious whenever you do.
  2. Identify voices. If there are certain people who make it a habit of telling you only what you haven’t done, make sure you notice and give them a label – toxic. It’s not that you always get to separate yourself from these people, but you can certainly marginalize their impact on your life. It may be that you must pay attention to these people (e.g. this might be your boss). But the message of incessant shortcoming is not good to listen to; so learn to tune that part out.
  3. Turn down the volume of competing priorities. I have had times when urgency was all I heard. And I was not imagining it – it was all there was. So I developed a saying – “If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent” – that has served me well. Find the few people who can help you and get your priorities straight. If they can’t help you 1) make your own priorities by level of impact (list things by what you think can you do that would help the most) and 2) know they are not worthy to be advisers or authorities in your life.
  4. Ask for help. I was never accountable to my dog. It was just a job I had assumed that turned into drudgery at times. We didn’t even need a dog in the first place, though Alex gave me great joy also. But as for stuff like that, rotate the job with others or take the steps to just eliminate it from your life.
  5. Decide what really matters. Years ago, a wise friend in the Christian faith shared a verse from the Old Testament with me – Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Now I have determined I’m a mortal, so this pertains to me. The first two parts – act justly and love mercy – define attitudes and actions towards myself and others. Am I just with myself – really weighing what I’ve done and am doing against how things were before I did those things ? And do I love mercy – towards myself? Do I forgive myself, cut myself some slack and allow for myself to learn life’s lessons? The last part is about being humble; putting others first and letting myself be a small part of something much, much bigger.

    And these things apply to how I work with others. Acting justly and loving mercy gives them the same benefits I need.

    So if this is all that’s required of me – and I would posit it does – the urgency projected onto the drone are simply the wrong measuring stick for a life well lived.

It’s Christmas in 2 days. Let’s relax and celebrate. Because we need it.

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Can we learn from Bruchko? Please?

We have just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  Along with the general attitude of gratitude suggested by the holiday is a the history of least a single point-in-time harmony of Europeans and Native Americans.  The image of the two groups in fellowship, enjoying a share meal is seared into the minds of young American children from early age.  And it’s not that inaccurate:

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But it’s also not complete as a story.  Because the whole story mostly features the two group not getting along well at all.

Native Americans were misnamed “Indians” by the wave of southern European explorers who found themselves landing in the shores of the Americas. “America “ itself was a name bestowed upon the new world, after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

By most DNA and historical analysis, the tribal groups inhabiting the Americas at the time of the “discovery” by Europeans had migrated from eastern Asia thousands of years earlier. Their distinction as the earliest inhabitants establishes a context for what would follow, but their real origin makes the moniker “Native American” a bit less sticky.

Whoever or whatever existed in the American continents prior to their arrival would be more “native” than they. This does nothing to soften the horrible tale of brutality later practiced against them. I mention their origin only to note that their discovery and settlement of the same land traveling from the east had at least the same aspect of people movement as that of the discovery and settlement from the west by Europeans. And we’ll never know what else it had in common.

I have thought and hard about how the ensuing conflict between the two cultures could have been avoided or lessened. Aside from the Europeans sailing back and leaving the Americas and their residents alone – maybe establishing trade partnerships, say – there was going to be conflict. Consider:

  • The Europeans who came to the New World were discoverers and settlers. Negatively they could be called conquerors, though the European version of conqueror was quite different than these settlers. They were not diplomats or people sensitive to other cultures. There were traders for sure, and perhaps these were the most likely strike a harmonious balance with the indigenous people.
  • Cultures were going to clash. There were many difference, but the principle one causing conflict concerned land. Owning and permanently settling on land was a foreign concept to Native Americans. And restrictions of where could live, hunt, fish and farm were also foreign.
  • There was a profound technological advantage. There has been much said and written about the forgotten (or repressed) advances of the Native American people. In spite of this, the Europeans held a 800-1500 year advantage in development upon their arrival. I do not say that to say that made them better as a people group, though that’s exactly what they concluded. The racist attitudes created an atmosphere that squelched any move for reconciliation.

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Now, Native Americans were not the only people treated poorly by the westward moving whites. Mexicans, Asians and Africans also received prejudice and brutal abuse.

So, beginning with King Phillip’s War, there would be conflicts between the peoples. The Europeans prevailed, supplanting their culture over the land. It is in the wake of that prevalence after conflict that we live today. It can also be said that the conflict is not over – there have been skirmishes that persist even today.

Native American population is thought to have decreased from 12 million to about 250 thousand by the end of the 19th century. Most of the decrease is attributed to disease, but loss of life due to conflict and relocation was awful.

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Saying that conflict was inevitable is not to say that cruelty or maltreatment was. The war had atrocities like many others, and after a point, neither side cared much about the culture or even survival of the other.

There have long been voices calling for restitution and restoration but I would hold that neither can occur without allowing Native American culture to dominate, at least provincially.  And yes, that means the war for cultural dominance is still with us.

I will assign value to advancement in technology for the benefit of people without it, divorced from its often-linked cultural domination. Some might call this culturally insensitive; I really just want the best for all people. I believe that the advancement of the human race through innovation and invention is a blessing for all humankind. And yes, not all technology is good or used well, of course. Like all people who are exposed to new things, we do well to be suspicious of the motives and practices of those introducing us to new things.

So how can Culture A be brought up to speed with the blessings of Culture B? And how can the differing elements of culture be reconciled?

I thought about this and one story came to mind.

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It was Bruchko – the story of Bruce Olson who sought out a reclusive tribe of Native South Americans in Venezuela – the Motilones – and not only brought them into the 20th century, but made them a political force to be reckoned with in the nations of Venezuela and Colombia. They kept their land and evolved their way of live mostly peaceably.

And please, if you assign him a stereotyped role as “missionary” you will miss a very important story of compassion and cultural sensitivity.

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How can this story help us today with Native Americans in the US? I don’t know, but I want to believe it can be done. Because it has been done.

Nothing “senseless” about it

I don’t like war. But when it happens, it doesn’t matter what I like. And if I dub an act of violence “senseless” when it makes perfect sense in war, I practice self-deceit.

We’re watching war, like it or not. We’re at war, like it or not. We have a tough time saying that word “war” because a) the events don’t fit our patterns of territorial acquisition – though they really do – and b) our very neighbors can be turned into the enemy without our knowing. And let’s be sure we fully understand the murderous antipathy that happens in b); body counts tell a vivid story of hatred.

The root of Islamic terrorism is a mix of greed, poverty and broken, missing or dysfunctional government. I don’t mean American or European government, but that in the Middle East from where most jihadists hail. They find Quranic verses to justify all manner of depravity and slaughter. But they recruit those who calculate they have little to lose in life and yearn to be heroes of something. And indeed they do not.

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Why then are the targets America and Europe? It’s because those nations are seen – somewhat accurately – as those with interests that prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes while vaunting an un-Islamic culture. Jihad is waged against infidels – those of another belief system. But it’s more than that internally. It’s a tribal-based chauvinism directed against those who have shamed the tribe. And there is no statute of limitations on such feelings of shame – the nations of Europe and America are called Crusaders due to a long, selective memory (indeed there was no America yet).

It is of interest that if America and Europe stopped consuming Mideast oil that China and Russia would continue – propping up those same leaders.

As important as any of those sentiments are, there is one that is greater. It is so strong that bitter Muslim enemies unite behind it. Of course I mean resentment towards the democratic state of Israel. Its Jewish identity offends Muslims. The tragic relations between Arabs and Jews have created a permanent state of war. Of course, who but the Europeans and Americans are those who support Israel? Thus, the lumping. And again, not inaccurate.  Though to emphasize the good sense in supporting Israel – it remains one of the only nations in the Middle East where an Arab (yes Arab!) can vote.

But there’s no getting around it – Western Civilization, for all its flaws and injustices – stands opposed to the caliphates, monarchies and oligarchies of the Middle East. And I have no issue with citing its evolved superiority. I don’t say that proudly because there is no human history without systemic crimes and injustices. But the means in place to address those are further along in the West.

It’s obvious that this war cannot be fought conventionally. George W. Bush said that after 9/11 but no one has gone deeper into strategy beyond better military options. I am no pacifist in this conflict, but if one leads with guns one or uses only guns, then it will only enforce the hatred, ironically because our guns are better than theirs.

So, what to do? There are thousands of lists out there, so here’s number 4903:

  1. Love a Muslim. It is absolutely true that most Muslims are NOT jihadists. They don’t even bite. They need to be heard, understood and loved.
  2. Nix the tribe. Individuals are much more effective to engage with than armies. And I don’t even mean the armies with guns. If I want another to surrender his/her preconceptions, I should surrender mine. Because most of them did not come from me in the first place.
  3. His name is Jesus.  The Crusaders got it wrong.  Very wrong.  This is not at odds with “nix the tribe” because Jesus followers are from every tribe.  He didn’t conquer by force, he did so by dying, loving those who were killing him.  And yes, that’s more powerful than suicide belts.
  4. Work and support justice for the poor. Very few charities get the money to the problem. Find one. Support it. Raise a child.
  5. Become energy independent. Not only in the name of being green, or more natural but because Mideast oil is too valuable to the whole world.
  6. Advocate for better Israeli/Arab relations. It’s a bitter past but not all Arab people are united in the desire to destroy Israel. Nor are all Israelis hateful of Arabs. There has to be middle ground to find here. Support those who seek to find and walk on it.
  7. Pray. Doubtless there are those who are decidedly non- or even anti-spiritual reading this. That’s okay, we’ll pray for you too. These problems are bigger than us all, so I have no problem promoting them to One who can actually help.
  8. Fight and support the fight. Yes this includes supporting the military forces of the West, but it’s also a cultural and moral fight. Learn the truth and tell it – even if it indicts our side and thus pollutes our cause. Truth wins the war.

We have a mess on our hands. Doing nothing is not an option. Jihadis want us dead. It’s a war.

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.

When umpires get it wrong

A while ago I figured out why I have always been a baseball fan. Sport – particularly that one – is analog. Drama gets played out on the field that we see in our lives. It’s a replay or a sidebar to all that has happened or is happening. The characters have similar analogs – pitchers are those who put their best foot forward and present their goods, skills and personalities. Batters are those who – a third of the time at best – send them packing. And they do it by being scrappy – bunting, beating out an infield hit or Texas-leaguer – or masterful – culminating in the grand slam home run.

There are two teams with management and strategy honed for each game and each season.

And there are .. umpires.

I was watching the Red Sox bat in the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium last night. Here’s another reason I’m a baseball fan – you can’t script this stuff. Of course bases loaded. David Ortiz is up. He strikes out. Not because there were 3 strikes thrown, there was one (ok if pitch 5 was a strike there were 2). He is called out on strikes that were not strikes. Here’s the pitch placement:

Umpire Ron Kulpa is an evil villain today in Red Sox nation as he would be among any fan base rooting for the team that he victimized. And I’m sure his performance will be analyzed by the big wigs in MLB and maybe something will come of it.

But I’m more interested in the analog, as I said above.

So first, who are the umpires in our lives? That’s pretty easy – they are or bosses, the authorities, the government. And I must include God, as we perceive God.

And it’s no wonder why people get so steamed when they get it wrong; when our players get judged unfairly. But the analog is deep, and deeply instructional, because when umps mess up:

  • We are reminded who our authorities are. That is, who has power over us. Sometimes we can change who they are, sometimes not. But there are ultimately two responses to the rule of authority – acquiescence or rebellion. In the face of injustice, both are perilous. The former because it can ignore what’s really inside of us and the latter because it considers our position higher than it is and, as St. Paul said of the authority – “he does not bear the sword for nothing.”
  • We see disappointments that had nothing to do with us. Our projects are canceled, we lose our jobs or even more tragically, our marriages or families. Again, it had nothing to do with us. But we struggle to believe that because we know we’re not perfect. Because in disappointment we always try to find a reason so we can try to avoid it next time. So we blame. Ourselves. Now it might be true that we did have something – and maybe a lot – to do with it.  That is, it wasn’t a bad call after all.  But the truth is that the tendency to blame ourselves is universally overblown.
  • We learn – erroneously – that we can’t trust as much as we thought. Multiple bad calls forge patterns in our emotions. This can get dangerously generalized to the point that we view all the world as hostile. That blossoms into operational and even clinical paranoia. The trick here is to isolate the bad call, see it in situational and relational context. If there is a pattern, identify all the patterns, not just the ones that dealt us a bad hand. And big point – see the hand of God as always for us, even when we are disappointed. God’s goal is our redemption. Always. Thus, God can be trusted. Always.
  • We fail to move on. There will be another game, another day, a different and fair umpire. Adopting futility will do nothing but take us down a dark hole. Different than trust issues, this takes us into depression – seeing things worse than they really are. People still love us. We’re still talented, desirable and valuable. A bad call, or a bad ump can’t change any of that.

Like many reading this, for me there is a flip side. I have also been an umpire. Who made bad calls. Often there’s nothing I can do to fix the error; either the people are gone or just won’t talk about it. To be sure, I made good calls that weren’t accepted either. No one is perfect, and the place where our imperfections hurt the most are when we are leaders.

Grace, humility, mercy and forgiveness are what get me through the day and through life. Because the umpires calling my game get it wrong. Many times. Humility calls me to remember when they got it right too. And honesty says that is most of the time.

Let’s go Red Sox!

Dr. Freireich

I remember growing up and hearing about childhood leukemia as a death sentence. The disease was so horrible that collections like the Jimmy Fund in Boston were founded to fight it (and other childhood cancers). I don’t remember when things changed, but over the years it has gone from being nearly 100% deadly to a very serious yet treatable disease.

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath book. Though it cites the biblical story – and there are those who really should know that story – its focus is on debunking and countering well-founded associations people have formed between environmental factors and outcomes. It’s not just fascinating, it’s seminal reading. As an example, Gladwell tells the story that follows.

DrFreireich

Emil J. (Jay) Freireich (also called Emil Frei III) was a kid who grew up in St. Louis. His father passed away when he was very young. He entered Colgate college with $25 in his pocket. He worked hard and earned his medical degree from Yale. He was not an agreeable person, with arguably horrible bedside manner and even worse relational skills with coworkers. But he was relentless.

When he began work at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, leukemia-ridden children would typically bleed to death. There was no stopping it; their blood was so diseased. Freireich studied the problem and started transfusing massively to restore platelets. Problem solved, bug fixed.

Treatment for the underlying condition was the choice of three drugs. Success rate was low. Against biting criticism and open opposition, Freireich experimented with combinations of all three. Then he found a fourth and added it also. The kids he treated would die differently but would die nonetheless. And quickly. But he kept on, until he got the combination right. Kids starting surviving, and then the cancer started going into remission.

Because of his persistent effort, childhood leukemia is treatable 90% of the time today.

Not too shabby, Dr. Freireich.

And a lesson to those who are holding back because of criticism and opposition – which are actually fear and envy. Push through. We all need you to.

And yeah, I pray for people like Jay Freireich.  Because I don’t care whose hands are used to heal people.

The lure and peril of quick-fix

I recently was called into a meeting to review an alternate approach to a technical problem I knew very well. The presenters smiled a lot, joked incessantly with one another (though not with their audience) and showed how their approach would deliver a solution faster than another other way. As I spoke with my management friends afterward, I didn’t even have to prompt their reactions. “It won’t work, not at scale” and “I don’t see this working” came from those who are not paid to be technically savvy.

Those reactions were right. And though the work is only beginning, the approach is not sound and is destined to known dysfunction and hand-waving, compromised workmanship. I don’t say that from an envious heart of “not invented here” but from the perspective of one who’s seen too much and too many fail for the same reasons.

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The deep lure of the quick-fix has repeatedly astounded me. In the corporate world, it happens when those in power don’t understand the work it takes to produce goods and services and develop suspicion based upon reports of others who don’t understand the work. They come to the conclusion that they are over-paying and over-indulging their most productive workers.

But quick-fix can happen any time that impatience is adopted. Any group or leader can fall prey. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was wildly successful because it attacked procrastination. What other footwear would you buy to attack your complacency? But projecting complacency, inefficiency and practical waste onto those who work hard and with integrity is misinformed.

Despite all the spin and Teflon-coating on those responsible yet not accountable, a quick-fix is very often disastrous.

This is not to say it’s easy to fight. Those prone to it want to be process heroes. And there is legitimate process evolution to be done. But it’s also the job of those who know quick-fix when they see it and are called to speak up. Here are some alternatives to offer:

  1. Planning and design. Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless but planning is everything” – meaning that contingencies can’t possibly be known beforehand but they can all be considered beforehand. An obvious and usually required phase of any project, but overlooked or partially done for quick-fix, the need to to brainstorm, write down and bat around the details of how the desired goals will be met is indispensable. The battle for doing planning/design is a hill to die on, truly.
  2. Do it right – quickly. Are there ways to correctly accomplish the task that get you and those waiting for you to the goal faster than traditional means. Nine women can’t have a baby in a month, but they can have nine babies in nine months. And that’s just citing parallel labor (intentional pun). A solid antidote to quick-fix is innovative process. Tools and technique, all that.
  3. Do it right – in phases. Software, even that in the Cloud, has the notion of releases or versions. For sure there is a bare minimum of what is viable – call that Release 1, which is never very useful. So you do need something that is standing, even on crutches, which meets impatient demands. But after that, amendments and replacements are less noticed but vital. You can even correct go-faster mistakes. Caveat – this does require buy-in from the powers that be who will be tempted to declare “all done” and move you on to other things before you are really “all done” – to their own discredit and at their own cost.
  4. Patience. When people cite their goals in their field of endeavor there is an implicit time line. And there is inherent impatience with the project not meeting the time goals. Therefore, impatience is highly valued trait in leadership. Now, the time aspect is not imagined – it’s very real. Whether I am working with people, machines or markets, there are such a things as “late”, “very late” and “too late”. That said, the virtue of “early”, “under budget” or even “on time” is often overblown. It is the folly of quick-fix leaders to blow that trumpet only and never consider – or be called to account – for the long-term effects of what they have produced. It’s a ploy, and one that sacrifices value for appearance. So, a balance needs to be struck here and doing a job right needs to be tempered by doing it quickly.

This is not a call for sloth or unionized slowdowns or overarching process. And sometimes quick-fix is the way to go; it’s important to be real about that.

But the time to oppose and suggest alternatives to a quick-fix approach is earlier than later. Citing the past and asking hard questions.

It’s a good fight to have.