The Agilist’s Bookshelf

Patterson, Kerry, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2012.

The authors identify “crucial conversations” as emotionally-laden, high-stakes differences of opinion. Noting that most people lack the skill to deal with such topics, the authors write, “We often back away from them because we fear we’ll make matters worse.” Avoiding these conversations can mean a strategy of silence (any kind of retreat from the conversation), or of violence (verbal attacks on the opposing party). The book contains a quiz that allows readers to identify their own “Style Under Stress,” so that they can determine the best strategy for improving their communication skills.

A flaw of many self-help books is that examples seem contrived, but each chapter of this book provides well-written scenarios that feel true-to-life. In some chapters, the authors present examples that they invite readers to think about before they continue reading, providing an element of role-play practice. A summary at the end of each chapter lists key points to remember and provides an easy way for readers to revisit the material from time to time as they work to incorporate the various techniques into their repertoire. 

Agile practitioners will find Crucial Conversations very valuable not only as a personal guide to better communication, but as a way to recognize the danger signs of broken communication on Agile teams, and mitigate against them. Agile practices require innumerable conversations around contentious topics where stakes are high. Handling these conversations safely and respectfully is key to delivering high-value solutions in happy, healthy working environments.

The Agilist’s Bookshelf

Langer, Ellen J., Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition. Da Capo Press, 2014.

In the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Mindfulness, Ellen Langer writes, “Mindlessness is pervasive. In fact I believe virtually all our problems…either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness.” If that is true, this book offers insight into both the source of our problems and the potential to overcome them.

In Part One, Langer defines and examines “mindlessness”— a state of rigid over-reliance on outdated, incomplete, and therefore false mental models. She identifies multiple sources of mindless behavior, including erroneous beliefs in constraints, an education system that values outcome over process, and the power of context to determine our behavior and expectations. Mindlessness leads to narrow self-image, inability to adapt, and stunts our potential.

Part Two defines mindfulness as a life-affirming practice that contributes to good mental and physical health. Mindfulness means the ability to create new mental categories and adjust old categorizations, openness to new information and multiple points of view, and having a process orientation rather than a results-oriented outlook. Chapters cover mindful aging, creativity, mindfulness on the job, decreasing prejudice, and the confluence of mindfulness and physical health.

Agile Coaches may find its insights valuable to deepen their understanding of why Agile principles and practices work. Although Langer cites dozens of academic resources and studies, Mindfulness is written for the layperson. Summaries of experiments are clear and concise, and where data are inconclusive, Langer identifies the shortcomings and possible alternative interpretations. However, it is not a recipe book for mindfulness. The reader will find no instructions on how to be more mindful here; and will have to take a mindful approach to applying its lessons.

The 30 Day Optimism Challenge

My peculiar brain chemistry makes me prone to depression, and toward the end of last year a variety of triggers, internal and external, damaged my equilibrium. Setbacks weighed on me more than they should. Every day felt like a chain of uniformly unpleasant events. When I realized last month what was going on, I knew I needed to change my thinking. The trouble with depression is that it drains your ability to take action, so I chose two simple tasks that I could do each day to change my outlook. I called it the “Thirty Day Optimism Challenge.”

In the morning, I would name one thing to look forward to. It didn’t have to be anything major. Some days, it was as simple as, “I look forward to coming home tonight.” And it didn’t have to be something that would happen that day. One day, I named a weekend trip to Saint Augustine that my wife and I were planning. The idea was to remind myself that no matter what was going on right then, something positive was on the way.

At night, I identified one good thing about that day. It was usually something simple: watching pelicans dive for fish during my morning commute, reading a good essay, or meeting a friend for coffee. It wasn’t about ignoring bad things, but about not focusing on those things exclusively.

I recorded the answers in my pocket diary. Writing them down made them concrete, and my mood began to improve by the second week. I began to make a game of finding something good—how early could I spot something I could use that night? Eventually, I started noticing so many good things each day that I had trouble selecting just one! And in the morning, if I couldn’t think of something to look forward to, I’d make a plan: tonight I will call my best friend. This weekend, I will visit the bookstore. I always had something to look forward to on any given day—whether it was something that night, the next week, or in a few months.

Yesterday was Day 30. The challenge worked. I feel more optimistic, and I’ve decided to keep up both exercises indefinitely. Depression will still surface from time to time, but I hope those incidents will be fewer, rarer, and weaker if I remember to keep my eyes open for the positive things in life.

The Bright Side of 2016

This year, according to popular imagination, has been a particularly bad one. Zika. Celebrity deaths. Brexit. ISIL. And, of course, the horror that was the U.S. Presidential election. An annus horribilis, to be sure. And yet, it is a mistake to view the year solely through that lens.

Dwelling solely on these negative events leads to tunnel vision, so that we don’t see what is good in the world and in our lives. For me, it was a very good year:

  • I completed the first draft of Target Striker faster and with higher quality than any novel I’ve written previously.
  • I got to travel, making trips to San Diego, Santa Clara, Atlanta, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and Estonia.
  • In Puerto Rico, I fulfilled a long-time dream of visiting the Arecibo Observatory.
  • I experienced professional successes, including teaching well-received workshops on Scrum, attending the Agile Alliance 2016 conference, facilitating meetings of the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild, and finding a new job.
  • I got to attend four Copa America Centenario games, including the final match.

In addition to the major items, the year was filled with smaller joys: good books, evenings spent with Carolyn, and board games with friends, to name only a few.

Was everything in 2016 good? Of course not. But it is too easy to dwell on the negatives, and give in to despair.

2017 promises to be a year full of challenges. Among other things, the United States will install an authoritarian, white-nationalist government against the will of the majority, and good people will have to find the strength to resist it. It’s important not to lose sight of all that is good in our lives, so that we can draw strength from those experiences and memories.

The Social Media Sabbatical

On October 10, I started a one-week social media sabbatical. I logged out of Facebook and both of my Twitter accounts on all of my devices, then deleted the passwords from my password manager. I felt that participation in social media in general, and Facebook in particular, was detrimental to my mental health and cognitive abilities. A week away from it all would do me good.

On the first day, I had frequent urges to log back in and post about the fact that I wouldn’t be posting. I took these urges as evidence that I had made the right decision. The urges diminished after the second day, and over the next week, I was amazed to discover how much free time I had. The stack of magazines on the coffee table? I read them all. I had time to de-clutter the garage. I wrote more. I picked up my guitar for the first time in at least six months. And I often had time left over at the end of the day.

More importantly, my ability to focus returned. I began studying a new programming language. I retained more of what I read, and comprehended it more easily. When I wrote, my prose was clearer and better.

I also felt more relaxed without the constant barrage of political memes and manufactured outrage.

When the seven days expired, I was reluctant to give up these gains, and I didn’t log in for several more days. I used the @dreadpiraterowdie Twitter account for Rowdies games, then logged back out when they ended. I’ve been back on Facebook for a few minutes each weekend. I’m not going to say that social media is all bad, but I’m happier with it taking up less of my head space. Meanwhile, planning for my new novel is coming along rapidly, and I recently wrote a 750 word piece of flash fiction off the top of my head. I haven’t done that in years, and it’s much more satisfying than reading yet another political meme.

A Room of My Own

I have a recurring dream of finding new rooms in my house. The broad details vary. Sometimes I’m in the house I live in now, sometimes in a former apartment, and sometimes in an entirely unique place. And the new rooms I discover vary from as small as a walk-in closet to a space twice the size of the original place. (In one such dream, during grad school, I dreamed I was living in a 250 square foot studio apartment and discovered a spiral staircase leading to a 1,500 square foot arboretum.)

Last night, I dreamed that I found a sunroom, in the house where I currently live, just off the spare bedroom that currently serves as my library (also as a repository for items with no fixed location). The sun room contained half a dozen or so boxes that we had put there when we moved there in 2002, still sealed. I remembered that Carolyn had planned to use it as a sewing room, but since she had given up sewing, I wondered if I could use it as my writing room. I even thought, “This is like one of those dreams where I find a forgotten room, except this time it really happened.”

I’ve learned that this type of recurring dream is common. Freud thought that houses represented bodies, and I guess the new rooms would represent new physical capabilities. Carolyn suggested that the new room represents the discovery of new opportunities, and maybe my subconscious is encouraging me to look for options in my life that I don’t realize I have.

Or maybe it just means I have more stuff than places to store it.