Archive for July, 2012

Thinking — A Paradox

 

You’re only doing what you’re really thinking when you aren’t thinking about what you’re doing.

 

It’s a funny sounding paradox, but if we were to nail down the semantics of words like thinking, feeling, instincts, etc. we’d likely find that the statement doesn’t hold water. Nevertheless the sentiment it conveys is meaningful. It’s possible to think yourself into inaction, which has been discussed here before. It’s also possible, with the right emotional backdrop, to think yourself all the way to action that doesn’t represent you, or that you will later regret.

Yes, sometimes it is better to simply trust your instincts. But when? World class athletes and legitimately successful business people have a lot to teach us here.

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Testing to Failure

Testing machinery versus testing people

15 years ago audio and video production was in the throws of an exciting, if sometimes painful, transition from proprietary and expensive purpose built hardware systems to software/computer based systems. The advantages offered by these software systems were compelling enough to seduce many early adopters to risk trying them. There were a lot of problems: crashes, lost data, and ultimately a lot of lost time and aggravation.

At that time I was managing a technical aspect of the business I work for, and as such one of our jobs was to configure and test such systems prior to them being sent to customers in the field. I learned very quickly that there are two fundamentally different approaches people take in the testing process.

  1. Testing to Pass — These systems were often so cantankerous, and we had so many to do, the overwhelming temptation was to get everything working (not easy) and then send it on. Once the system can go through all of the basic functions and not have an error it would be said to be “functional.”
  2. Testing to Failure — When you worked these systems hard for a period of time, continually pushing their limits, such as creating a file with thousands of edits and trying to play through them, or engaging and disengaging different aspects under different conditions, the systems would eventually reach their tolerance and crash.

Knowing the actions that tended to cause the systems to fail told us a lot more than the ones they would pass. This enabled me to develop a set of procedures and benchmarks to objectively determine the solidity of a system before signing off on it. In my view this was the only responsible way to let them enter the field, where users were counting on them for their jobs.

That’s machinery.

Testing people is a whole different universe. Where, at what point, under what circumstances and in what capacity will someone fail us? What are the boundaries? What can we count on? We understandably want to know this before we put our eggs in that basket. People will always fail in one way or another. Testing a person to failure is not that hard to do, especially if you know likely weak spots. But, finding out is damaging and even cruel in a way. While it may seem necessary as part of some type of a vetting process it isn’t productive. In addition to the damage, it doesn’t even establish a reliable failure point that can be used later because it’s inherently a moving target. We, to use the technical/lab terminology, are already in the field, with many forces acting on us dynamically. We aren’t always reliable and we don’t always react predictably, especially when under stress from other things going on in our lives.

People need to be built up, and when we are the things we can achieve are significantly greater than when under duress. Rather than pushing and testing our failure points it’s much more productive (and humane) to find our passing points and build upon those.

It’s okay to push people at times. Discomfort, urgency, and other stressors are not always bad for us, and we’ll often respond well. We can usually raise our performance level in some domain, and when we pass those tests we can move on to new heights that often make us better or more fulfilled. But it can take a toll. Small cracks can begin to form if we push too far, and if they go unnoticed and untreated weakness is revealed, sometimes dramatically.

Emotional stress is the most dangerous because it’s inherently not rational. It’s very difficult to manage our emotions and the actions associated with them even under the best of circumstances. Pretty much everything has an emotional component to it so it’s a good idea to be cautious at all times.

Be sensitive to putting someone under stress. You may need to in order to get a job done, to move a relationship off center, or get something else you want in life, but the responsible person should have an ethic of taking care of the concerns of others. Carefully weigh the value/benefit of what you want or are trying to accomplish against the potential damage of putting another person through the ringer to get there. Are you being selfish or insecure, or is it really necessary? There is something to be said for leaving well enough alone.

Likewise, if you find yourself under stress it’s prudent to consider the upsides. Some people avoid any kind of stress in their lives, and as a result often don’t reach their potential. It’s okay to be under stress at times. It’s important to recognize the value of rising to the challenge at hand. You can accomplish a lot in your personal and professional life if you are willing to take some risks and endure some pain. But if the stress is too great, or if the value isn’t there, then stop. Pushing yourself to the breaking point is not good for you, or for anyone in your sphere of influence because this is where it gets highly emotional, which means judgement gets clouded, and that’s usually where bad things start to happen. Step back, gather yourself, and take some time to evaluate what you need to do.

I don’t advocate running away, but when you have to I think there are ways to gracefully disengage that keep yourself in tact and do relatively little damage to others. In fact, when enough skill is applied others often won’t even know you’ve disengaged, which can also have the benefit of taking care of their dignity, not to mention avoiding excessive damage to them or a relationship.

The point is…failure is readily attainable with people just as it is with machines. While you can foster conditions that make you or others prone to failure, it doesn’t really tell you all that much, and all involved are generally better off if instead you work toward conditions that promote success. Unlike machines, which always wear down, people get stronger and more reliable under positive conditions. It’s harder. It requires a lot of emotional maturity, wisdom and skill. But it makes a better outcome for everyone.

MODERATION!!!

“MODERATION”

In politics we continually are subjected to the screamers on the far right and left. Rarely has this been more the case than with the highly publicized Supreme Court ruling on “ObamaCare.” The blogosphere, twitter, and Facebook have all gone crazy with references to “unconstitutional” (including images of the constitution being burned), all the way to references to Hitler! First, regardless of whether the outcome is constitutional there can be little doubt that the process that led to it was, so anyone who doesn’t like that outcome is free to cast a vote at the appropriate time.

Still it’s difficult to listen to all the rhetoric, from both sides. The most vocal participants tend to be the most biased. When was the last time anyone stood up and screamed, “MODERATION!?” The moderate, reasonable, and well grounded views are swallowed up and drowned in a sea of hyperbole and screaming.

And we wonder why young people aren’t more engaged.

Mayberry

Andy Griffith 1926 – 2012

The Andy Griffith show is one of the more beloved shows from of an era where television took the role of giving us relief from what was happening in the world. It was idealistic, not realistic. Yet, today, we look at a show like that (or Leave it to Beaver, et al) and actually start to believe that these are somehow portrayals of the way things were in days gone by. At times we are so desperate for certain aspects of life as conveyed in those shows that we begin to convince ourselves that we don’t need or want our DVR’s, laptops, ATM’s, e-mail, satellite TV, and worst of all….those danged smart phones that keep us on a tether.

Of course we don’t need any of those things. Life did go on without any of our modern appliances.  Life was slower and people seemed to have more time then. Though some activities took longer to do, like hand writing a letter (most communication happened over postal mail), there were far fewer things we were expected to keep up with. And so we had more time for ourselves and each other.

Or did we? That’s how we remember it. That’s how it has been portrayed (marketed) to us. That’s even how our grandparents perceived it. But then, as now, people who had to really work for a living didn’t have much extra time. Families were neglected then, as they sometimes are now. Maybe we have replaced a little bit of work with having our faces stuck in our smart phones looking at Facebook, but one way or the other, now as then, we manage to find ways to not be engaged with ourselves and those around us. The vehicles are different, but I speculate the underlying attitudes come from the same place.

Best we accept responsibility for it and stop blaming it all on “this fast paced world” we live in, or our jobs, or… Maybe it’s time to risk being accountable for what you spend your time doing.

Further, while we may recognize that we could give up modern conveniences to go back to a Mayberry type scenario, let’s not lose track of the fact that things weren’t so great then. People didn’t worry about global warming, bullying, lead paint, oil prices, acid rain, PCBs, bedbugs, fluorinated water, or restless legs. So those issues didn’t exist? Sure they did. And what about medical treatments? Clearly examples of how far we’ve advanced aren’t needed there. What about automobiles? How often do you have to take your car to the shop for repairs? How often has it broken down and left you stranded on the side of the road? Back in those days that was a regular occurrence.

Finally, the Andy Griffith show itself overlapped the early days of the Vietnam War. Perhaps if citizens were a little more connected to reality, to the world, we could have minimized the damage caused by that debacle. I suppose that’s a naive fantasy from some other universe, but maybe…

Time to run. Gilligan’s Island is coming on…

Manipulation

Those WERE the droids we were looking for.

We all find ourselves in the role of manipulator and manipulatie from time to time. People are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being manipulated. We recoil at the prospect of being controlled by someone/something other than ourselves. When we think of manipulation we often focus on the underhanded side of it. The very definition of manipulation paints it in a negative light.

Yet we often are manipulated in ways that are good for us. Consider…

  • A doctor who uses strong language and fear to get you to take certain actions on your own behalf
  • A good sales person who persuades you to move off center on something you really want to do (you know this happened when you thank them for it later)
  • A performer who has a calculated way of bringing a crowd to a frenzy so they have the most fun and memorable experience (all of the good ones do)
  • A religion that promotes actions that have a high probability of strengthening or spreading the faith (virtually all of the Christian religions use this)
  • A boss that uses techniques to lead employees to actions that help make them successful
  • Using compliments to build the self-esteem of a friend or partner so that she may gain the confidence to step outside of a comfort zone and move forward…to grow

The truth is we are manipulated all the time, often unintentionally, and in many cases we benefit from it. Manipulation can help us get out of our own way and do what we really want or need to do. It’s certainly not always good. The religion example above is pretty questionable in the minds of many. There are plenty of horrifying stories of manipulations out there. Still, it can be just as good as it can be bad.

But it’s a fine line. Once we become aware of being manipulated it backfires. Not only do we then not take the action we are being directed towards — even if it’s potentially in our best interest, we now feel alienated, and resentment toward the perceived source of the manipulation.

Effective manipulation is a very high-level skill — one that most of us fail at as often as we succeed. It’s risky. The manipulator presumes to know what is in our best interest as much or more than we do. On the occasions one is right it can be a great benefit, however, that can be a pretty bold, arrogant presumption.

If you discover you are being or have been manipulated it is wise to resist getting swept up in recoiling from the act. Take the time to figure out and consider the intentions of the manipulator before passing judgement. Good people trying to do good things can make mistakes that may seem worse than they really are once the full intentions are known. (Again, consider the religion example above.)

If you find yourself in the role of manipulator, however unintentionally you may have arrived there, it is wise to take a step back and carefully consider all of the implications and possible outcomes before proceeding. Remember, we are governed by emotions, which are inherently irrational. When it backfires it can be pretty ugly. The negative consequences of the performer manipulating you aren’t that great (although I have seen performers inadvertently trigger crowds to harm each other), but when it gets to life changing areas the responsibility for taking care is paramount.

Step with care. It’s the ethical, moral thing to do.

Double Standard

A group of Mormons recently quit the church in a mass resignation ceremony. One of the sited reasons is doctrinal teachings that conflict with scientific findings. I understand what they are getting at. Many religions seem to ask members to ignore certain widely accepted scientific concepts.

The problem with this is…much of the basis of religion flies in the face of our scientific understandings in the first place. The origins of the LDS Church are no exception.  To call out certain doctrines in particular, when the whole religion in and of itself doesn’t hold up to scientific process is a subjective assessment people can make, however illogical it may appear to be.

If you’re going with faith as a way to decide what to believe and how to live your life then how does one decide which religion is worthy of that leap? Most of them have fantastic stories that ignore at least a few commonly agreed upon scientific understandings. Ultimately our chosen religion is a reflection of ourselves, and this is especially true in the way we practice it. Certain doctrines are conveniently ignored or modified to fit with our interpretation of how we want to live. When those doctrines fly in the face of what we “feel” is really right it produces a very real conflict that can be ignored or reconciled.

One way to reconcile it is to leave the church. But then what?



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