Sunday, October 02, 2011

On my consciousness

My own ego is a blessing. It's wonderful when someone gets angry at me, I can think to myself, "I'm not a bad person, I'm worthwhile". I usually get past my impulse to brush the person aside and invalidate him. Instead, I try to listen to what's underlying his criticism - am I doing something unkind? Is he having a bad day? Is there a misunderstanding? Can I do something to turn this bad interaction to a positive one for both of us?

My ego is also a terrible force. In high school, my course work came easily. I had great teachers, I grokked the lessons, and I never had to push myself to study or learn. The first week in college, I started struggling. The material was hard. The concepts weren't as intuitive. I didn't know how to push through, I didn't know how to dig deep, and my ego told me that office hours and tutoring were for other people. My ego told me my grades were more important than my learning, and so I half learned things by just scraping by on some assignments. For exams, sometimes I learned what kind of questions would appear and how to answer those questions instead of learning for the love of learning. I understood some things for long enough to hand in the assignment. I no longer took the content and made it part of myself in a deep, self-altering way.

My short term, short-sighted focus on the deliverable recurs in some aspects of my work and my life. I have consistently worked with people at or above my intelligence level. Intellectually, some people will get some topics faster than I do, and I'll get some topics faster than others. But when I don't understand a design, an algorithm, or solution at work I struggle to ask for clarification and I didn't do the work on my own to figure it out later. My ego says "Don't admit to them, or yourself, that you don't get it." And I skated by, not growing myself as I could have.

This probably sounds like I haven't learned or that I haven't grown in the past decade. That's not true - I rocked some courses, I have put in great work on some projects. However, I have grokked things more slowly than I could have. I've wasted days of work trying to understand solutions before understanding the components of the solution. For example, I have participated in team design discussions suggesting the details of the MapReduces we'd use before reading the Wiki page on MapReduce and writing a few. Time and again I've tried to solve the problem before understanding and internalizing the components of a solution. Each time, I've done myself, and my team, a disservice.

So how do I grow myself? First, I get the ego out of the way. I admit to myself, and to others, that I don't know or don't understand. Quoting Penn Jilette talking about one of the best minds of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman:
My friend Richard Feynman said, "I don't know." I heard him say it several times. He said it just like Harold, the mentally handicapped dishwasher I worked with when I was a young man making minimum wage at Famous Bill's Restaurant in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

"I don't know" is not an apology. There's no shame. It's a simple statement of fact. When Richard Feynman didn't know, he often worked harder than anyone else to find out, but while he didn't know, he said, "I don't know."

I like to think I fit in somewhere between my friends Harold and Richard. I don't know. I try to remember to say "I don't know" just the way they both did, as a simple statement of fact. It doesn't always work, but I try.

Second, I start slower. I learn the material. I never start on a poor foundation. I don't let deadlines cause me to try to create a solution without the necessary comprehension.

Third, and the most important, is growing my consciousness. I get tunnel visioned - and my higher, self-reflective brain takes a vacation. That's the part that can actually change these habits and break the cycle. To be more self-reflective, I need to slow down - I should stop typing code when I should be thinking, asking more assertively when I don't understand. In my most panicked times, I'm doing my team a disservice by trying to fix problems before I understand the problem and the solution.

I have a few things I'm going to attempt to grow my consciousness:
  • Do one thing at a time. Be present for it.
  • Make sure each day contains one non-work thing I'm present for and do without the nagging guilt of "you should be doing something else". Cycling, yoga, weight lifting, driving the coupe, reading for an hour - anything that absorbs me completely.
  • Learn. Ask. Quiet the ego and say, "I don't understand. Would you explain that again?"
  • Slow down. Recognize that if I slow down I'm more likely to make deadlines, and if I miss a deadline I might as well learn something.
What do you think? I've checked my ego, is there something I can do to be better? Do you suffer the same?

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