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Thinking Positively

Working in IT, especially infrastructure, I’m always having to think about the worst case scenario. After all, part of infrastructure’s responsibilities is to “keep the lights on.” The problem with always thinking this way is it can lead to some dark places if I don’t also consider the positives. When I’m pressed for time, which IT often is, I don’t take that second step.

Therefore, I’m now forcing myself to pause and think about the positives. What opportunities are there in this bad situation? What can be learned? What can be improved? What ramifications of the situation cause a positive result? How can I drive towards those positives?

A bad situation is a bad situation. But a bad situation doesn’t have to be one where nothing positive results. By requiring myself to consider the positives, I prepare the possibility for the positives. That’s important. Life, after all, isn’t fair. So when a bad situation happens, what can I make of it? (within ethical and moral boundaries, of course)

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Having two sons in college, I’ve kept a close eye on the costs of higher education. Just about everything seems like it’s twice as costly as it was 20 years ago. I recently read an article that looked at the fact that textbooks cost 191% (or almost 2x) what they back in 1998. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell the whole picture.

Many textbooks now require a code for online content. Or a slight change was made between editions so you can’t buy a used copy of an old edition. As a result, students are having to buy new editions because the old editions can’t be used.

Then there are additional fees that weren’t charged 20 years ago. Student activity fees, athletic fees, etc. Going to college has become increasingly more expensive. Needless to say, that means folks are having to go more and more in debt to be able to get a college degree.

Several prominent people like Mike Rowe who have spoken out about this college or bust mentality that we have in the US as well as the increasing cost to get there. The reality is we should want more affordable opportunities for education available to more and more people. And while we need folks for jobs that don’t require a college education, critical jobs, if someone decides to tackle more education, it should be affordable. However, I don’t see us getting there fast.

One of the things we can do to offset the costs is to take advantage of free or low cost methods of learning. One of the greatest resources in our communities is a resource a lot of folks are starting to say is unneeded. That’s the library. However, as educational costs continue to increase, having the ability to check out books for free that we couldn’t afford to get out hands on otherwise seems to me a more and more important investment for our communities. If anything, we should be pushing libraries more, not less.

Then there are online communities. I’m not just talking about online education sites like Coursera or EdX. I mean communities on Facebook, Twitter, and other forums. My main technical area is around Microsoft SQL Server. We talk a lot about #SQLFamily and how we’re out to help each other. There’s even a popular twitter tag, #SQLHelp, for folks to ask questions and others in the community try to respond with advice and next steps.

Libraries, online communities, and other methods of free or low cost learning are critical as educational costs continue to increase. Even if educational costs weren’t increasing, these sources are still important. Rather that saying they’re dead, we should be championing them more.

We like to be right. Some folks are naturally inclined to help everyone get along, to find ways for folks to compromise as they all work towards a common goal. Then there are others, like me, who are staunchly and stubbornly independent and who strongly stand by the positions and plans they come to..

“When working with other people and dynamic situations and relationships and deals, a person, especially a leader, must compromise.” – Jocko Willink, Disciple Equals Freedom Field Manual

Jocko Willink is right. He’s not the first to say this and he certainly won’t be the last. We know intuitively that this is the way we must operate most of the time. However, if you’re like me, your personality gets in the way. You’ve done your due diligence. You absolutely know the best path to proceed. And someone wants to do things a little differently. That person may even want to do it a lot differently. That’s illogical! Wrong. We’re looking at the problem incorrectly.

Herein lies the issue: if we stick to our positions, then we make no forward progress. It doesn’t matter how perfect we think our solution to be, we don’t go forward. This is why we have to learn how to work with others, to compromise when it will move us forward. Obviously we don’t compromise when it moves us the other direction. But if we have built up goodwill by being able to work with others, then when we are not willing to budge, likely folks who know us and have worked with us will take a second look. They’ll ask the deeper questions as to why we aren’t willing to compromise in this particular case.

This is what I’m working on. A plan doesn’t have to be perfect to move forward. But if there’s no plan or no willingness as a team to move forward on any plan, then we make no progress.

My first major purchase as a new second lieutenant was a Gemeinhardt flute. In my world, it was the same as getting that fancy new sports car. It had a solid silver head joint, French hole (open hole) keys, and the B-natural foot attachment. If you don’t know what any of that means, it’s okay. It means I went beyond your normal student instrument. Gemeinhardt classifies this flute as an “intermediate” instrument. It was an expensive purchase at the time. 

I made that decision because my flute has always been a centering influence on me. I play and all that matters is the music. The flute I had, purchased when I was in 7th grade, basically fell apart my junior year at The Citadel and I had to play a borrowed flute for the rest of my time there. Therefore, I invested what I could for a new flute. I wanted one that would last much, much longer. 

Last night I broke it back out. It had been a while since I had played it. I realized something was “off.” And I thought about why that was. It was the lack of playing. So I played. It hurt. My embouchure is weak from lack of practice. My diaphragm isn’t used to sustaining a steady air pressure any more. And my lung capacity is down. That’s always been an area I’ve struggled. I’ve had to do specific exercises to improve my breathing and my ability to play longer between breaths. But it was a good kind of hurt. The calming influence was back. The satisfaction of that exertion felt wonderful. 

Sometimes, in the midst of our stressful lives, we have to go back. We have to return to what calms us, what helps us find balance. Simple routines or pleasures often do this for us. For me, it’s playing my flute. I had forgotten about it. It’s a wonder to me how that is even possible. Yet, it is. But I have my flute out again. And I’m good once more. 

I picked up Terry Crews’ book Manhood: How to Be a Better Man – or Just Live with One after listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast with Mr. Crews. In the podcast, Tim Ferriss was referring back to the book as he interviewed Terry Crews. There were a lot of questions about overcoming the past, learning from his mistakes, and trying to heal past hurts. As a result, I wanted to give it a read. I wasn’t disappointed.

Son of an Alcoholic

As I read through Terry’s account of dealing with his alcoholic father, of trying to please him yet being afraid of him, I thought back to my own childhood. I experienced much the same thing. I’ve never been good at putting it into words. Terry does a great job explaining what that situation was like. If you’re close to someone who has come from a similar background, then this may be eye-opening for you.

Taught the Wrong Image of Masculinity

I love how Mr. Crews covers what he was taught was the image of a man. Most of the behavior he was taught we would label immaturity, selfishness, an inability to admit mistakes, and a complete unwillingness to be vulnerable. Many of us have grown up with this as the image of masculinity. It all comes to a head after Terry admits to his wife about a sexual encounter he had about 10 years before. She knew something was wrong. She finally forced the confrontation about it. The truth came out. At that point, Crews realized how much hurt he had inflicted upon his wife and how foolish it was to hide it. However, he was confronted about it by another male and here’s how the conversation went:

“What are you doing, man?” He said. “Why did you tell your wife?”

“Dude, I had to be honest. I had to be real.”

“Man, never,” he said. What is your problem? That’s man code, brother. You don’t tell.”

“Well, if that’s man code, I’m not a man, then, because I’m not living that way anymore,” I said. “I can’t do it. How could I be a man if I lived that way?”

Starting Over

At the end of Mr. Crews’ NFL career, his family’s financial state was a wreck. It continued to worsen even as a former teammate tried to help out. Then it reached a point where his teammate couldn’t help any longer. That was when Terry came to the realization that he basically had to swallow his pride, take what work he could find, and put in the hours. We see Terry Crews the TV/movie star and Old Spice model. However, what we don’t realize is the struggle he and his family went through to get there. In Terry’s own words, that pain was self-inflicted. He didn’t just have to start over with regards to employment. He also had to start over with respect to his understanding of what was important. In other words, he had to reboot on what really mattered.

It’s Raw

Terry doesn’t come out of this autobiography looking like a hero or action star. That’s the public image of him. Rather, he is raw in his description of his life. He talks about the issues with his parents. He shows us a moment when the physical violence of his dad came to a boiling part and Crews finally gave in and got physical back. Rather than being a moment of triumph for Terry, he reveals how empty he felt, how defeated giving in left him. He holds himself accountable for the mistakes he made. He explains his thinking and how flawed it was and how he couldn’t see it at the time. The whole book is this way with regards to his life and the mistakes he has made.

An Encouragement

Despite that rawness, there’s a message of encouragement throughout the book. Here’s a guy who talks about the fact that he’s still trying to heal past wounds with folks. But we see cases where things have been restored, if only partially. We are given a glimpse of how personal triumphs have come from the depths of failure. And we are constantly reminded that even a man we see as a star is very much a flawed human who is working hard to improve himself, that he needs to improve himself, and that though it is hard, he’s making progress. And he’s making progress not because he’s a star, but because he is working hard to do so.

A Recommended Read

I definitely recommend this book if any of those above points have hit you. If you’re looking for a gossip book or a book talking about the high points of Terry Crews’ life, this isn’t it. He talks about high points, but they are in context with his failures. With respect to gossip, there are cases where he talks about other individuals, especially his struggles with particular folks, but those are in context with his failures, too. It was definitely an encouragement to me. It has caused me to think hard about some aspects of my life which need improving. And that’s the point of the book. It says it right there in the title.

Failing Fast

When I talk about education and the best teachers I have ever had, I always talk about Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams taught Honors Algebra II / Trigonometry and our class was a mixture of 10th and 11th graders. Despite it being a math class, and an honors one at that, we almost never had homework. Yet when it came time for the tests, we all did well. Compared to previous honors mathematics classes, it appeared that we did better in that class than in the others I took.

In IT, especially when we’re working under a Lean approach, the idea is to fail quickly. Failure results in more information. If we’re not going along the right path, we want to know that as soon as we can so we can garner knowledge and start again with the benefit of that knowledge. In thinking about Mrs. Williams’ class, I realize that’s what she was doing. Here’s why I say that.

Traditionally, a teacher would lecture for most of the class period and work a few sample problems on the board. Then there would be a homework assignment when we tried to remember what we had been taught hours earlier and we were then on our own. The problem with this approach is that most students don’t know if they are failing at the concepts and techniques until they turn their homework in, it gets graded, and then returned to them. This may take several days or even as long as a couple of weeks. The problem with this approach is that they are building upon faulty knowledge. They may think they understand the techniques and concepts but they don’t. And as a result, they likely need to “tear down and rebuild.” The exception, of course, is the kid who looks at the homework and realizes he or she doesn’t have any idea about how to proceed. However, the feedback to the teacher is much slower than it needs to be. It will take at least 24 hours from the time the concept was taught before the teacher is made aware that the student has an issue.

What Mrs. Williams did was have a short lecture. She took 10-15 minutes of the class period. The rest of the class was spent working problems on the board, 3-4 at a time. We would take turns going up and working the problems. Then we’d look at the problems and correct mistakes as a class. In other words, we failed fast. We failed at the board. But we failed in a supportive, team environment where failure was expected and not used to judge but to gain knowledge which could then be immediately applied. We did this every day. Well, Monday-Thursday. We progressed at such a rapid rate that Fridays in her class were usually free days. Not only did we grasp what we needed to know, we did it faster than the traditional method.

This is the huge advantage with failing fast. However, failing fast has to be paired with the idea that failure isn’t a negative but an opportunity to learn. Failing isn’t seen as a black mark but rather another measurement point. It doesn’t just apply to IT, as my example shows. Failing fast is good, when used correctly.

Life Principles

“Many principles are universal.” – Sebastian Marshall, Gateless

This got me thinking of a simple question I ask myself periodically: what are the principles by which I live my life? At first, this seems easy. However, what do I really live by? When I’m facing extreme hardship, what principles come to the fore? After all, these are the true principles by which I live my life. Anyone can play nice when everything is going well. But what kind of person am I when things aren’t so rosy?

“Yet others are intangible, unintuitive, and elusive.” – Sebastian Marshall, Gateless

It’s not just that some principles are elusive. The circumstances when we apply those principles are also elusive. One of the lessons I learned from my first year at The Citadel is that the person I’d like to think of myself as and the person I actually am are not the same. Put into the crucible that is the fourth-class system, I learned quickly my idealized self was far from my actual one. 

The good news is that I learned I had goals to aim for as I attempted to better myself. The hardship of a plebe year, actually the next three as well, gave me an idea of how far away I was from most of those goals. The reality is that I’m still a good ways away from some of them. That’s okay: I can continue to move forward every day (an idea from the Hagakure). 

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself the question I asked myself again: what are the principles by which I live my life? And have you paused to think about which principles show themselves when you find yourself stressed, tired, and/or in trouble? How far are you from your ideal you? And how do you get from the person you are to the person you imagine yourself to be?