Wednesday, October 7, 2015

When to admit defeat

In the realm of engineering it is frequently wise to admit defeat.

As I've become more mature as an engineer, I've learned that there are a few signals I need to regard which tell me it's time to give up. They are:

  1. I'm not feeling patient. If I find myself moving forward with a design with little or no critical thought, I'm at serious risk of making a mistake and wasting time. 
  2. I've been trying the same approach for too long. I learned this lesson in a graphics course in college. I worked on a project for days and days, hacking at the same chunk of code. Ultimately, I didn't get it working correctly until I threw the code away and started from scratch. Starting from scratch let me use what I'd learned while working on my original solution without being burdened by it. 
  3. I can't remember why I'm trying something.  Last week I was trying to fix a bug in a project's build configuration. Toward the end of the week I found myself changing settings, running tests, then forgetting why I changed a setting in the first place.  This was a clear signal that I needed to stop, step back, and make sure I really understood the problem before proceeding. 
I can't remember any engineering problem I've faced where I found the solution by pushing through fatigue. The solutions always come when I realize it's time to step back, check my understanding of the problem, then proceed patiently. 

How to get people to think that you like them

This is a seven minute talk I gave at a barcamp about 18 months ago.

I picked the wording of this title carefully. It doesn’t matter whether you actually like these people. Some people you genuinely like might not know that you like them, and most of the time it’s better if people you don’t like think that you do.

I’m going to tell you five rules for making people think that you like them. This wasn’t an exhaustively researched study, these are just the things that work for me.

  1. Use people’s names. Every. single. day.
  2. When you’re listening, show that you’re listening.
  3. Ask for help
  4. Doubt your assumptions
  5. Don’t email angry

Starting from the top. Use people’s names. It will take some extra effort to learn names, but it definitely pays off. People love to hear their own name. It makes them feel unique and valued. In “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Dale Carnagie claims that a person’s own name is their favorite word in the world.

I had a boss who’d never say “hi Tyler” when we passed each other in the hall. Apparently he thought I was a great employee, but I was never convinced he genuinely liked me. Why? He never acknowledged me as an individual. Use people’s names.

Now let’s talk about listening. Listening is a whole body activity. Most of us are facing computers most of the day.  When talking to someone, turn away from the computer toward them. Use your whole body to show that you’re listening. Don’t just turn your head, turn your shoulders and arms. This demonstrates that your full attention is on them and that in turn makes them feel like you value them.

On to number three: ask for help. This one is a bit counter-intuitive. People, in general, like helping you. For example, a couple of weeks ago Ray sent me a message asking me to talk at this barcamp. I immediately thought to myself: Hey, Ray thinks I’m a smart guy and a good speaker. I didn’t think “ugh, I’ve been inconvenienced”. I thought: I feel valued.

There’s another cool part of this approach. It’s called cognitive dissonance. I may or may not like Ray, but here I am, presenting like he asked me to. Now, I’m going to tell myself: Tyler, you’re not a stupid person. You aren’t dumb enough to go talk in front of a bunch of people for someone you don’t like. You must like Ray. Yes. You must.

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far:  Use people’s names. Listen with your whole body. Ask for help. Two two go!

This next one’s tougher to pull off. Doubt your assumptions about people. Engineers tend to be judgmental people. I’m willing to bet everyone in this room could rattle off a couple names of people they think are morons. Who do you work with that you think is a moron? <pause> The way you think of them will affect how you act around them, and will (despite your best attempts) show through in your interactions with them.

The people may be bad at their jobs, or they may not. But, every now and then ask yourself: What if they missed the deadline because their spouse is sick? What if they need help but aren’t sure how to ask for it? What if they’re not actually morons?

Here’s the last one, it’s pretty simple: If you’re frustrated, don’t email about it. Nobody has ever been convinced that they were wrong by an angry email. If you have an issue with someone, call them. Walk to their office. Write a letter and throw it away. Anything but email. If you are angry, do not email.

There you go. Use people’s names. Listen with your body. Ask for help. Doubt your assumptions. Don’t email angry.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

If I wasn’t already a Christian, what would convince me to give it a try?

Recently I’ve been thinking about this question:

If I wasn’t already a Christian, what would convince me to give it a try?

Many people and churches take the easy route: Fear.

“What will happen to you when you die?”
“Do you want to go to heaven or hell?”

This is a terrible strategy. The bible rarely mentions hell. Jesus constantly talks about ‘His Father’s kingdom’ but never resorts to threats of damnation. This approach exploits the fears and anxieties we all have about death and morality and is unlikely to win over critical thinkers.

If we leave out the "fear of hell" angle, there’s a rational, objective approach: 

We exist. The universe appears to have a discrete ‘beginning’ (the big bang). It is plausible that there is some extra-observable entity which brought about our existence. 

That’s nice, but taken alone this only gets me as far as a loose, flying-spaghetti-monster level agnosticism. There might be a God. Where is God now? I have no idea. Why can’t we objectively demonstrate that God exists? I don’t know.

Instead, the best reason to consider Christian faith is its central message:

We're all broken and we're all loved.

It's important to state this a couple of ways:

Those people you don't really like - They're broken. They're loved.

The man asking for change on the street - He's broken. He's loved.

The celebrity it's easy to make fun of - She's broken. She's loved.

You're broken. You've loved.

This message provides groundwork for interpersonal empathy in a unique way. You cannot become 'better' than anyone else. Nothing you do can make you "successful".  No amount of hard work can make you "good enough". You'll never do enough, and that's OK; stop trying.

Think about the goals you have in life. I imagine talking to a six year old:

I want to publish a paper in a major academic journal.


So I can get name recognition in my field.


So I can feel proud of myself.


So I can be happy.

Try this exercise with a few different goals. Where do you end up? Mine frequently end up at "I want to accomplish XYZ because I want to be happy".

This thinking puts me in a cycle of work --> reward --> work --> reward. I find brief moments of satisfaction, then I dive into the next task.

This cycle works fine until something breaks.

Sooner or later I fall short at work. I have an argument with my wife. A friend dies young. My pursuit of happiness ends in a feeling of brokenness. From this broken place I have two options. I can work, strain, and search search until I find something else to bring back happiness, or I can break the cycle:

I am broken. I am loved. 

The compelling message of Christianity is that everybody is intrinsically valuable. This mean I can love myself even when I fail. It also means I can love others when they fail. It doesn't mean I will always be happy. It doesn't mean I don't need to work hard. It just means that I can stop striving to be enough.

I can't objectively demonstrate the validity of the story of Jesus, but I can argue that Christianity provides the best basis for a moral framework through which to view myself and interact with the world. I can't prove that experiences I believe to be spiritually driven were the effect of supernatural intervention, but I can show the positive changes which have come about in my life as a result of my faith.

There's far more to faith than what I've written here, but this is why I think it's worth giving it a try.

Thoughts on the Supreme Court Gay Marriage Ruling

There aren't many issues I'll get up on a soap box for, but here are my two cents on the past week of supreme court rulings:
The United States is not a Christian nation.
The laws and structure of the United States will never perfectly embody God's kingdom. It attempts to accommodate the failings we all share. Capitalism strives to shape our innate greed into a reasonably functional economy. Free speech attempts to wrangle our capacity for saying really stupid things. Freedom of religion acknowledges that we all think we're right about the issues we care about. Our legal system attempts to do damage control for the most visible or impactful sinners.
Here's the problem: The United States governs from the top down. The federal government is a huge top-down structure, from federal, to state, to county, to city, to distinct, we're governed from the top down.
When Jesus arrived, everyone expected him to be a top-down leader. They expected him to conquer the Romans and establish a worldwide top-down Christian nation.
He didn't do that.
He could have, but he didn't.
He started at the absolute bottom: cleaning the feet of prostitutes and eating with the rejects of Jewish society. This wasn't a grass roots movement that ended with him leading a revolution. He started at the bottom and he ended there, dying as a criminal.
The United States is an awesome place. It has done an incredible job of building a top-down system to handle the sins we all share. Jesus didn't call his followers to take control of governments to enforce Christian doctrine by decree. He calls us to love everyone around us unconditionally, to sacrifice ourselves for those around us.
I don't know whether gay marriage is right or wrong.
The bible is a huge, beautiful, and complex document. I do what I can to interpret it and apply it to my life. I believe in a living God and I do my best to communicate with Him as I walk through life. I have a tough enough time making judgements in my own life and I'm thankful that I don't have to make judgements on others'.
The role of the United States isn't to enforce Christianity by decree. Nor is its role to enforce Judaism by decree. Or Islam. Or Atheism.
The role of the United States is to do its best to accommodate three hundred million people who all think they know what's right.
The role of Christians is to build God's kingdom from the bottom up. God's kingdom isn't built up or torn down by supreme court rulings. It's built up by people working from the bottom up. It's not torn down.
For these reasons, my political opinions are necessarily separated from my opinions on issues of faith. My stance on political issues is driven by the question: will this further the United States' top-down goal of accommodating everyone? My stance on personal issues facing me hinges on asking: will this further God's plan for me to build His kingdom from the bottom up?
Understanding the supreme court's ruling on gay marriage to fall into the political category, I believe it furthers the United States' top-down goal of accommodating everyone and therefore support it.

Thoughts on Ideas

Let's talk about ideas.
It's nearly impossible to win an argument. Think about the last political argument you saw take place between sparring Facebook commenters. Were any positions changed? Was any progress made? If you're experience is anything like mine, the answer is no.
We're all emotionally invested in our ideas. When I'm discussing my position on an issue, it's more than just a position. It's my position. It's a little bit of me.
It's hard to distance yourself from your ideas, to step back and observe them objectively. It takes time and care to separate your beliefs from your identity.
When you're trying to "win" an argument, you're trying to reach across the table and rip apart the ideas and identity of your opponent.
This will not work.
When you try to force someone to dismantle their identity, they inevitably do the opposite, pulling their ideas and identity together even tighter than before.
Instead of trying to tear apart your adversary, simply plant the seed of your idea in their mind. Trust that in their own time they will slowly and gently separate their ideas from their identity and consider yours instead.
They key is that you present your ideas in a manner that allows them to take root. Don't throw them around tied to harsh words or accusations. Don't pollute them with arrogance. Don't use a firehose when a sprinkle will suffice.
It will probably take years for your idea to take hold, and that's OK. It may take generations, and that's OK too.

Thoughts on the Black Lives Matter Movement

This post is a bit harsh, but bear with me.
Imagine you're watching the news and you see a report that a mosquito was killed today. Would you care? What is the report said a mouse was killed today? What about a kitten? What about the baby boy?
If you are anything like me, your emotional reaction increased dramatically as the subject got closer and closer to human. By default I empathize more with things that are similar to me. I started with an extreme example, but this applies to different types of people too. I feel it in my stomach when an American soldier is killed in Iraq, but hardly notice when I hear about a mosque being bombed.
An American soldier is much more like me. We speak the same language, look the same, and share the same cultural customs. It's *easy* for me to relate to people like me, and I naturally feel a stronger emotional reaction when someone like me is hurt.
When I hear about a poor black man killed by police, my default emotional reaction as an affluent white man is muted compared to what it would be if an affluent white man was killed.
This is not a good thing. It's a horrible thing. This is a facet of my fallen, sinful human nature. I find Matthew 5:43-47 particularly relevant:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
To rephrase slightly:
43 You have heard it said "Love your neighbor and ignore strangers." 44 But I tell you, love those you don't understand and pray for those who don't look like you. 45 God loves everybody equally. 46 If you love those who are just like you, what reward will you get? Even the Nazis did that. 47 And if you greet only people from the same socioeconomic background, what are you doing more than others? Even ISIS does that.
Jesus' point was that we need to put *effort* into loving people that are not like us. This doesn't happen easily. It takes work. It takes a conscious effort to mentally put yourself into the shoes of someone totally different from you. When you do this, you start to empathize with them. When you empathize with them, their pain starts to matter to you. You start to feel it in your gut.
This is why the slogan "Black Lives Matter" is important to me. I needed to be told, need to be told, and will need to be told, to care about those who are not like me. To care about the black men and women whose backgrounds are wildly different from mine. To force myself to put myself in their shoes so that when I hear about black men dying, I feel it like a punch to my stomach.
Is this limited to black lives? Of course not. White lives matter, asian lives matter, hispanic lives matter. The point of "Black Lives Matter" is to acknowledge that the backgrounds and stories of black people in America have been marginalized and trivialized to the point that much of the country has little or no empathy for them.
Jesus didn't tone down his rhetoric to a safe statement like "love everybody" or "all lives matter". He knew his audience, and he spoke directly to them. He pointed out the people who were absolutely different from them, and said "Love them. They matter."