Maybe mediocre is good enough

Recently, I did a bit of home handyman work. My wife had asked me to fix the door to a built-in cabinet. The door really wasn’t the problem; the frame it was hung from had rotted away. Somewhere in our house’s checkered past, water must have gotten in, or something. I rebuilt the frame and re-installed the door. I did, by any objective measure, a crappy job. But it was good enough. The cabinet is usable. I could move on.

Compare that attitude with my perspective on writing. I agonize over every sentence. I am certain that every page is terrible. It pains me to show my work to my critique group. I grind away at stories until I’m sick of them, hate them, hate what I’m doing, and make myself depressed.

Why do I find it difficult to write something that’s “good enough?” Why can I not be satisfied with that standard? 

Recently, one of my coworkers said, “You’re kind of a perfectionist, aren’t you?” I admitted that it was true. But clearly, as the cabinet example shows, not in everything. Pretty much every home repair or woodworking job I’ve ever done has been mediocre at best (there is one notable exception). Why am I willing to accept that, while I beat myself up for falling short of perfection in writing?

I think it’s because I’m supposed to be good at writing, but I’ve never had any expectation that I was good at handyman stuff. When I set out to do any kind of home repair, I expect that mediocre is the best I can do. With writing, I know that I have talent and skill, so I demand too much of myself.

Maybe it’s time I scaled back my expectations for my writing.

Sustainable Development: Meditation on an Agile Principle

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

  • Anyone who has ever worked in a non-Agile software development environment can tell at least one horror story about late-night-and-weekend death marches to get product shipped. I’ve known developers who worked eighty hour weeks—except when they took vacation. Then they only had to work about forty. (Go ahead and enjoy the theme park with your grandparents, kids! I’ll be here working in the hotel room until you get back!) I’ve worked places where I couldn’t make evening or weekend plans because schedules were so unpredictable. No wonder this principle appealed to me the first time I saw it. It means that Agile environments understand the importance of so-called “work/life balance”—vacations, weekends, and reasonable working hours.
  • On the other hand, it says “promote sustainable development,” not require it. I can see how the principle might be defenestrated if it becomes inconvenient—say near the end of a project, when there is incredible pressure to get the product shipped and revenue on the books. After all, if “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through the early and continuous delivery of valuable software,” it means that all other principles take a back seat to it.
  • I suppose that if sustainable development is more of an aspiration than a fact, then the process isn’t really “promoting” sustainable development, is it? Promoting sustainable development in that environment would bring another principle into play: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” figure out why things broke down. Identify a way to keep that from happening in the future.
  • What does it mean for sponsors to maintain a constant pace? In my experience, sponsors are usually the ones trying to drive a crazy pace, by refusing to compromise on either scope or target dates.
  • It’s easier to understand what it means for users to maintain a constant pace. Ever work in an environment where IT routinely dropped hotfixes without adequately testing—or warning anyone that the change was coming? I have, and it frequently resulted in increased workloads for those of us using the system. If Agile is all about delivering valuable software rapidly, it can’t mean that we deliver more problems than solutions.
  • “Indefinitely.” As long as the project lasts, right? That means making sure that the team has enough people. Not just “all the skills necessary” but “all the skills necessary even if someone comes down with the flu and can’t work for a week.”

Agile is the most humane philosophy of work I’ve ever encountered. This principle is one reason why: Agility recognizes that people have limitations, and needs beyond work. When we value “Individuals and Interactions” highly, we create safe, enjoyable working environments that allow everyone to thrive.

These are a few of my thoughts on the topic. I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Neither free nor brave

I watched the international friendly between USA and Serbia yesterday on television. Of course, before the match, they played the national anthems of the two countries. Of course, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” got a self-congratulatory roar from the home crowd in San Diego. I shook my head.

All over the country, people are being denied their freedom. Bigotry based on fear-mongering is now the basis of immigration law. If all are not free, none are free. And the only people in this country who have the right to call themselves brave are at airports, protesting hatred and bigotry.

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.

Sorry, Charlie

On the day Charlie Crist was sworn in as a member of Congress, I saw a video clip of him saying he was eager to work with Republicans in the House. Crist ought to know better.

Crist left the Republican Party in 2010 when it was clear that he would lose the primary race for United States Senate to Tea Party darling Marco Rubio. In 2012, a few months before formally joining the Democratic Party, he said that he left the GOP because it had moved “so far to the extreme right … that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people.”

What has changed in the intervening four years? Only that the Republicans have become even more extreme than the party Crist left. The GOP agenda seeks to destroy Social Security, dismantle Medicaid, and defenestrate the ACA. On which of these issues does Crist think he can find common ground with Republicans?

Or perhaps it is one of the many other items on the Republican wish list—crippling environmental protection, wiping out protection for workers, and reverting decades of civil rights progress. Are any of these issues that Crist feels he can “work with” Republicans on?

There are no “moderate” Republicans in the halls of Congress. There are only extremists determined to enshrine one-party rule for the sole benefit of the economic elite. You can’t work with them. This is not the time for accommodation. This is a time for resistance.

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.