Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cautionary Pearl: Don’t let arrogance inhibit you from absorbing an important lesson.

When I was a young chemist beginning my career in the Kodak Research Laboratories, I once put myself in a dangerous situation and arrogantly dismissed the helpful advice of someone I should have listened to. Fortunately, no harm was done. On the plus side, I did take away the message that it’s worth listening to people with more experience, no matter how strongly you might believe that you already know it all.

My work as a photographic research scientist involved developing experimental films in my darkroom. The developer came in heavy, one-gallon glass jugs. Photographic developers are caustic solutions; they aren’t good for you. One day I had to transport two jugs of developer from one floor of the building to another. For safety purposes, we were supposed to use big padded bags with handles to carry such chemicals around. That day, I foolishly neglected to use those bags, electing to carry the jugs by the loops in their necks, one jug in each hand.

As I walked carefully in the stairwell, I encountered an older scientist named Dan. Dan paused and looked at me. He said, “You know, a man was very badly injured a few years ago doing what you’re doing.” I had heard about that accident. The man was carrying jugs of solution similar to mine in the stairwell when he slipped and fell. The bottles smashed, cutting him badly and splashing the caustic chemicals all over him and into his wounds. I blew off Dan’s observation with some wise-ass reply. “That doesn’t impress you?” he asked. “Nope,” I replied flippantly, and I continued on my mission.

What an idiot I was being! Of course, I was taking a stupid chance by violating the safety procedures in the first place. They’re established for good reasons. And then I was just a jerk for failing to respect Dan for pointing out my mistake in a gentle and thoughtful fashion. My only excuse is that I was young and foolish. It’s no surprise that those words are often used together.

After I reached my lab safely, I thought about what Dan had said. Of course, he was right. In retrospect, I appreciated him taking the time to call me on my actions. Dan’s question—“That doesn’t impress you?”—has sometimes come to mind over the years when I found myself tempted to neglect sensible advice I should be following. At times this recollection has saved my butt.

Dan, wherever you are, thank you for showing me the error of my ways in a gentle and constructive fashion. Although it was over thirty years ago, I remember that conversation, the expression on your face, and the tone of your voice as vividly as though it were yesterday. I appreciate your attempt to save me from my own stupid arrogance, and I apologize for not being more respectful toward you at the time. You were absolutely right, and I was completely wrong.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cautionary Pearl: Let go of the rock before you throw it in the water.

One of my earliest memories is from Loring Air Force Base in northern Maine. I was four or five years old. I was walking along the edge of a reservoir with my parents and my three-year-old brother. Bruce picked up a big rock and threw it in the reservoir. Unfortunately, he forgot to let go of the rock. Bruce plunged right into the reservoir along with the rock. My father quickly fished out a soaked and scared little boy, removed his wet clothes, and wrapped Bruce in Daddy's big jacket to keep him warm. Everyone was fine after the initial fright. This experience offered a simple but valuable lesson: let go of the rock before you throw it in the water.

It occurs to me that we have all sorts of rocks that drag us down in life. If we can throw some of those rocks away, doing our best to let go completely, we’ll be happier for it. One of my biggest rocks is guilt. I carry guilty feelings about words and actions from my past far longer than is sensible, but I haven’t figured out how to throw them away. If I could, I'm sure it would bring me more peace of mind.

What kind of rocks do you carry around with you? Patterns of interactions among family members are a common source of such rocks. Family dynamics can affect children for decades, but at some point it’s best to try to get over them (perhaps with the help of a therapist) and move on. Even in the absence of genuine verbal or physical abuse, the emotional and psychological behaviors of certain family members can impose a lasting burden on the others. Spoiled children can grow up to be self-centered adults who expect everyone in the world to treat them as being special. Children who receive less attention from parents than a sibling gets can have deeply ingrained self-esteem issues for decades. If you can find a way to drop these mental rocks that are impairing your happiness, you’ll be glad you did.

Destructive personal behaviors are another class of rocks that hold us back and, in extreme cases, can sink us to the bottom. Addictive behaviors of all kinds fit into this category: alcohol, drugs, gambling, dangerous adrenaline-driven activities, sex, and so forth. Eating disorders and other psychological conditions that lead us to harm ourselves, such as cutting or other deliberate infliction of injuries, carry a heavy price. Such behaviors are often symptoms of underlying causes that often can be addressed only through therapy or medication. Sometimes you just can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps—you need some help.

Hatred certainly takes a toll on our health and well-being. In this category I’m including intense racism and ethnic bigotry, homophobia, religious intolerance, and the like. Many people find that discarding the burden of practicing such hatred is liberating, allowing them to both tolerate and enjoy more of the people and life around them. Actively hating consumes a lot of emotional energy. Perhaps there’s a more constructive way to spend that energy if you can discard those burdensome rocks and get past your own biases.

The people you choose to associate with can constitute yet another type of rock that drags you down. Do you have friends who are more trouble than they are worth? Do they fail to give you the emotional support you need when you have a problem, yet expect you to be there for them? Are they takers instead of givers? Do they influence your thoughts, actions, or feelings in ways that don’t make you feel good about yourself? Maybe you don’t need friends like that.

I have a close friend who suffers from a traumatic brain injury. He has had to learn to ration his time and energy carefully because he has so few hours of effective functioning in each day. My friend has chosen not to continue associations with certain individuals who he refers to as “energy suckers.” These are people who take more than they give, who demand more from him than he can now provide without offering him enough in return. My friend has consciously chosen to drop some of those relationships because they weren’t making enough of a positive contribution to his life.

We all have rocks that we carry around. Think about what yours are. If you can share any stories about how you have learned to drop those rocks, I’d love to hear them. We’ll all be a little happier if we focus on moving forward and upward, even if that means releasing some of the ballast that holds us down.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Interpersonal Pearl: Say “thank you” before it’s too late.

Perhaps you have heard about—or even experienced—having someone close to you die before you have the opportunity to apologize for a past transgression or to heal an old wound in the relationship. This missed opportunity can lead to a lifetime of guilt, of wishing that you had found the time to put things right. The same applies when you miss the chance to thank people who have been influential in your life before they are no longer around to hear your appreciation. Since then, I’ve tried to keep this valuable lesson in mind.

Like many other students, I took a history of Western civilization class when I was a sophomore in college. I was not looking forward to this class. My previous history class had been American history during my junior year of high school. It was terrible. The teacher simply flipped through the pages of the book, paraphrasing the portions he had highlighted in advance. Consequently, I developed a real distaste for history. I went into the college Western civilization class with a bad attitude.

I was in for a wonderful surprise. The professor, John Seward, was terrific. Instead of simply relating dates and events, he made history come alive. He talked about the people, their interactions, their decisions, and how they influenced their world and the world we live in today. I loved the course, I did very well in it, and history became one of my lifelong interests. My mother had attended the same college, graduating just one year before I did. She had also had Mr. Seward for the same class and had enjoyed his teaching very much.

The other benefit I got from this class was that I learned something about how to write. We had to write one term paper, which I based on a suggestion that Mr. Seward had offered during an office consultation. When he returned the paper, it was completely covered with red editing markup. It looked like someone had hemorrhaged all over the pages. There also was a big red “A” on the top of the first page. I was perplexed. How could he have given me an A if he had made so many corrections? I asked Mr. Seward about this dichotomy after class. He replied, “Oh, your paper was very good. I just gave you a few suggestions about how to improve your writing.” I studied the revisions he made and learned from them.

Time passed. I graduated from college, headed off to graduate school, and received a PhD in organic chemistry. I had begun writing magazine articles when I was in graduate school, reviews and analyses of board wargames I was playing with a fellow student, as well as a few scientific papers about my chemistry research. Then I began my career as a research scientist, transitioning into software development after a few years. I started writing articles about computing and software development. After publishing several dozen articles, I wrote my first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, which was published in 1996.

As I reflected on my book, I tried to figure out how I had learned to write. I’d never taken a writing class in college and hadn’t learned anything formally about writing since English in my junior year of high school. I realized that a lot of my writing knowledge had come from studying the feedback from professors like John Seward and a few others who provided detailed comments on papers I had written. I was deeply grateful to Mr. Seward both for helping me learn how to become a writer and for inspiring a love of history in me.

Shortly after my first book appeared, I happened to be back in my home town visiting my parents. I wanted to share my enthusiasm about my new book and my appreciation for all he had done for me with Mr. Seward. I looked up his phone number in the book and dialed. An older woman answered the phone. “Is this the home of John Seward, who used to teach at Boise State?” I asked. She replied that it was. I asked if I might speak to him. She paused a moment, and then told me that John had died a few years earlier.

When I told Mrs. Seward who I was, I was absolutely astonished that she recognized my name. “Didn’t your mother also take a course from John?” she asked. Apparently, John had been sufficiently struck by the performance of my mother and myself in his classes that he’d mentioned us to his wife, who remembered us twenty-five years later. I explained to her why was calling and expressed my regret that I had not thought to thank him earlier for the influence he had had on my life. I still feel bad that I missed that opportunity and wish that I could have passed along my gratitude for him to hear and enjoy. This might have helped him reap the prime reward of being a teacher, knowing that you have helped shape the lives of students in a constructive and lasting fashion.

I remembered this lesson-of-missed-opportunity some years later. My mother had just moved into a retirement home in Boise. One of her fellow residents happened to be my high school mathematics teacher, Helen, then 94 years old. Helen was a terrific math teacher. She had been a great help to me as I switched from the basic math track to an accelerated track, generously tutoring me after school one semester in trigonometry, which I had missed in the classroom when I switched tracks. Nearly forty years after the fact, I did finally have a chance to thank her for taking a special interest in my math education.

Do you have teachers, relatives, coaches, or mentors who helped shape your life and might not even know it? If so, find an opportunity to tell them thank you. People will not live forever, so you have to pass along your appreciation in a timely way. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that other people value the part you played in helping them succeed. Do it today. They might not be here tomorrow to hear your thanks.