Blame or learn?

man wearing a suit jacket and stripe necktie
Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

A lot of folks in my homeowners’ association’s Facebook group are angry. Their electric bills have gone up, and they think they know the culprit — and it’s not the excessive heat wave. No, it’s the new meters our electric company has installed. The new meters make their bills higher. The new meters shorted out their air conditioners. Someone needs to pay damages. Should we consider a class action lawsuit?

Maybe my neighbors are correct, and the new meters are a problem. I don’t know. What the incident made me think about was blame. Anytime something goes wrong, we’re so quick to blame someone. Some are even quick to blame themselves, whether justified or not.

I once gave a presentation on Agile methodologies and Scrum to a group of not software developers. When I was finished and opened the floor to questions, the very first question was from an executive who asked, “What do you do when a squad doesn’t meet their commitment?” His tone made me feel his real question was, “When a squad doesn’t meet their commitment, how are they punished?”

Blame in Complex Systems
I’ve been reading The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, and John Willis. “DevOps” is a software engineering culture in which the people who write the code and the people who run the servers work closely together instead of being siloed into separate divisions.

The authors make some insightful points regarding complex systems, which are defined in part as a system that “defies any single person’s ability to see the system as a whole and understand how all the pieces fit together.” Examples include many major software projects, automobile manufacturing, or, heck, daily life.

Despite all best efforts, things go wrong in complex systems. Accidents occur in factories. Twitter goes down. Peter fails to fill out his TPS reports correctly. Stuff happens. And after it happens, we point the finger, and we blame someone.

What if there was a better way?

An Opportunity for Learning
The authors of The DevOps Handbook write that in a DevOps culture, “When failures and accidents occur, we treat them as opportunities for learning, as opposed to a cause for punishment and blame.”

Opportunities for learning. Not causes for punishment and blame.

The DevOps Handbook is about software engineering culture, and I can think of a lot of times in my career when I wish I’d have worked more in a culture of learning instead of a culture of blame.

But think bigger. Remember: daily life is a complex system.

What if we all stopped pointing the finger? What if we all stopped assigning blame? What if we all started asking, “What can we learn from this?”

We’d all be a lot less afraid to make mistakes. Don’t we idolize folks who fearlessly pursued and attained lofty goals despite a high risk of failure? Wouldn’t society benefit from more of those kinds of people?

We’d learn a lot more about how to prevent future failures if the people responsible had no reason to feel ashamed, and therefore no reason to hide or obfuscate their actions. Instead, they openly shared what happened — successful or not — in the interest of knowledge sharing, knowing their admissions weren’t going to be used against them.

And above all, it’s kind
There are certainly times when punishment is necessary. No one needs me to list them. But there are far more failures in life that should be treated as opportunities for learning than should be treated as causes for punishment and blame.

A great man once put it this way:

“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.”

Satisfaction of the Soul

Today’s Friday morning video combines the words of Bill Watterson with some artwork inspired by his to make something special.

If you’re not spending your life doing exactly what you most feel called to do, try spending some time this weekend thinking about how you could.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZUMonLNbQw]

Mad-Eye Moody’s Advice for Writers, Part 2

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Illustration by Mary GrandPré

This two-part series is about Mad-Eye Moody’s advice to Harry Potter on how to successfully pass the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament. Part one covered play to your strengths.

Bring What You Need
For Harry, this meant using a summoning charm to bring him his Quidditch broom. For the writer, this means making sure you have all of the tools you need.

Unless you write everything longhand, your most valuable tool is likely your keyboard. Are you able to type well on yours? Do your fingers hurt after sprinting out a couple thousand words? Are the keys so close together that you regularly make fat-finger typos? Software engineer Scott Hanselman likes to say, “There are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die.” If your keyboard doesn’t feel like an extension of your fingers, rip it out and get a new one. Do you use a laptop that has a bad keyboard? Get a new laptop, or just get a good new USB keyboard, or get a docking station with which you can use a new keyboard. When you sit down to write, bring what you need.

What software are you using to compose and save your hard work? Is Microsoft Word working out OK for you? Do you wish you could use something more powerful, something more geared for professional writers like Scrivener? What are you waiting for? Bring what you need.

Do you like what you’ve written but wish you could get another opinion? Bring what you need and find yourself a writing critique group. Do you wish you had a paper notebook to carry with you wherever you go to jot down ideas as they come to you? Go to the nearest office supply store and get what you need. Do you really wish you had a more powerful grammar checker? Subscribe to Grammarly and bring what you need.

This is your writing. This is what is likely one of the most important things in your world. Why on Earth would you not equip yourself with tools to help you do it to the best of your ability? Bring what you need. If there is some physical or bit-based or human resource that you need, buy or find or hire that tool. And do it yesterday.

And yes, I get it that sometimes the best tools cost the money you need to pay the rent and put Ramen on the table. I’m not saying you should become a starving artist (though I do like to support starving artists when I can). All I’m saying is if writing is a must and not a should to you, the tools that will best let you do it are necessities, not luxuries.

Treating yourself well is like casting a summoning charm: accio success!

Mad-Eye Moody’s Advice for Writers, Part 1

HP04_CH013
Illustration by Mary GrandPré

One of my favorite scenes in the Harry Potter series is the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which Mad-Eye Moody gave Harry advice. To steal an egg from a dragon for the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, Moody suggested that Harry play to his strengths and bring what he needed. For Harry, this meant using a summoning charm to retrieve his Firebolt so that he could utilize his Quidditch skills in the execution of the task. The result was the moment where Harry shouted, “Accio Firebolt!” and his Quidditch broom soared from the castle and came to his side, and it was awesome.

Moody’s advice is exceptional not just for a boy wizard, but also for writers.

Play to your strengths
Especially if your writing isn’t currently paying your rent, you’re probably writing because you just need to. “A writer always writes,” said Rachel Balducci. “And not because of the need to produce as much as the need to just exhale. Verbally/mentally/emotionally speaking.”

If that’s the case, you’d better not be wasting your time writing anything other than exactly what you want to write.

For example, a standard piece of advice for writers is: practice your craft on short stories, make a few sales, get a few published credits, and then attempt a novel. And that is good advice. It worked pretty well for Stephen King, among many others. But what if you don’t want to write short stories? What if you just want to be a novelist? In that case, Mad-Eye Moody growls, “Think now. What are you best at? Play to your strengths.

It also happens that a writer comes up with a great story and tells it very well, but it gets rejected by agent after agent and publisher after publisher because it doesn’t fit neatly into preconceived genres. If that happens to you, should you rewrite the story to neatly fit expectations? No, not unless you want Moody’s magic eye to swivel in your direction. Play to your strengths. After all, children’s books weren’t supposed to be about babies from murdered families who grew up among vampires and werewolves until Neil Gaiman won the Newberry Medal for The Graveyard Book.

This advice applies to a writer in so many more ways. How does it apply to you? Think about what you’re best at and what you love the most. Are you in some way applying that to your writing? Why not? Play to your strengths. They’re uniquely yours, and the world is waiting to see the fruits of them.

(Continued in Part 2: Bring What You Need.)

You are Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of the bestselling, most talented, and most loved creators of our time. And you are him!

Well, you’re not literally him. Unless he’s somehow reading this. (If so: hi! I met you once, a long time ago. It was cool.) But you have something in common with him and you must never forget it.

There is a ton of great advice from Gaiman in this video: “You Learn By Finishing Things.” But this might be the most important piece:

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. … Start telling the stories that only you can tell. Because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you. … But you are the only you. … There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better, there’s all of those kinds of things.

But there’s nobody who can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.

That right there. That’s how you are Neil Gaiman.

There is nobody who can write a [YOUR NAME HERE] story like you can.

Surround yourself with the best people

I can’t say enough good things about Lauren Sapala’s article “To Create Your Best Art, Surround Yourself With The Best People.”

So much of the time we assume that we have to power through damaging criticism from people and keep on taking it, or grin and bear it whenever we’re around someone who makes us feel badly about ourselves. This is simply not true. Whenever possible, we need to exercise our freedom to move away from these people and situations. The people probably won’t like it, and the situation may valiantly attempt to suck you right back in, but it can be done. You can find new people who want to ride with you through this magical journey of life, and will take turns with you as you cheerlead each other the entire way.

Read the whole thing. Better yet, just subscribe to Lauren’s blog!