Humility is a good thing

Do you know the definition of humility?  I ask because it’s a word that I don’t hear used much any more.  Humility refers to having a low or modest sense of one’s own worth or value.  It’s sort of the opposite of pride.

Humility is a good thing.

A friend of mine once told me that a representative from HR (in the company that he and I worked for at the time) had given a talk in the branch office one day and made a point of telling those at the meeting that the company was looking to promote people who were good, who knew they were good, and who didn’t mind telling other people they were good.

We were both surprised by that.  And unsettled.  It’s easy to tell people how good you are – even when you aren’t.  It feels like bragging.  That’s not something either of us was comfortable with.

What a strange criterion.

On the other hand, neither of us got the promotions we wanted.

But, as I say, humility is a good thing and an occasional humbling experience is good for you.  It keeps you grounded.  I had a humbling experience just this week.  It was timely indeed!  I’m thankful.

A Systems Philosopher?

It’s that time of the year when I think about what’s next.  What do I want to accomplish in 2018 and what do I need to accomplish?  What are my interests?  What are my priorities?

Do you ever find that your interests and your priorities don’t align very well?  I guess we all do.  That’s certainly my situation at the moment.  It’s one of the challenges of life, of course.  You have to make choices – trade-offs – and that’s not always easy.

I don’t have the answers, yet.  I know that I’d like to have more time to dig deeper and deeper into complexity and chaos.  Yes, I’m serious.  I suppose I’m more metaphysician than anything else.  If I could have made a living as a philosopher, that’s what I would be doing.

I’d also like to experiment with AI, just for some personal applications.  And, in general, I wish I could get back to doing more programming.  It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.

I’d also like to have time to do some writing, especially on professional development and consulting.  And I’d like to bring out a new version of my Effective Speaking book.

The desire to learn, apply, and teach is part of my nature.  Teaching is one of my question marks, though.  I have always enjoyed teaching, but, honestly, I seem to enjoy it less now.  Maybe it’s because I simply need to teach new things.  Or maybe it’s that, to me, technology has depersonalized teaching in the same way it seems to depersonalize everything else.

Then, there’s my profession – systems engineering.  It pays most of the bills and keeps me at the center of complexity (and always on the edge chaos).  It’s also “who I am” and “what I do.”  I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

How do I bring these disparate things together into a meaningful whole?

If only I could be a systems philosopher.

If all you have is a hammer…

… everything looks like a nail.  And if all you have is an algorithm, everything (and everybody) looks like a data set.  I assign limited value to analytics when it comes to things of great importance – like making decisions that directly affect people’s lives and careers.  Wisdom and compassion matter more to me.  I’ve seen what “machine insights” can lead to.  I’ve seen too many people get filtered out of a future where they could have succeeded.  I’d rather invest time understanding people and helping them find a path to success.

Quick Ways to Structure a Talk

What could be more enjoyable than being called on to speak with no advance warning?  If you’re like me, the answer is probably anything.  But sometimes you do get called on, so what can you do?

The good news is that, normally, in situations like that, you’re given the topic.  Your challenge is simply to work out a way to approach that topic.

One approach that always helps me is to quickly break the topic down into a set of structured elements, either a 2-point structure or a 3-point structure. Here are some examples:

Two Point Structures:

  • Pros and cons.
  • Thesis and antithesis.
  • What I know and what I don’t know.
  • Opposite poles (or opposite extremes).

Three Point Structures:

  • Past, present, and future.
  • Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
  • What I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew.
  • Two extremes and the golden mean.

The beauty is that these structures are familiar to us because we use them in our everyday lives. I’m sure you’ve often considered something in terms of, say, its pros and cons.  So, if a topic lends itself to that approach, you already know how to develop it. The structure challenge is solved. Now, focus on content. The talk practically writes itself.

I’ll give you some examples.  Let’s start with a two point example.

“Good morning. I’m going to spend a few minutes with you this morning considering the issue of whether we should paint all of the houses in our neighborhood the same color. I’ll begin by suggesting some obvious advantages of doing so and then we’ll look at some potential disadvantages. So, what are the advantages? I see three…”

Pros and cons, right?

Here is a three point example.

“Good evening. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you this evening about something vitally important to all of us: the future direction of our organization. As you all know, we face a number of challenges. I have some thoughts on how we might move forward. But, to be sure we’re all on the same page, let me briefly review where we are today and how we got here…”

Past, present, and future!

It’s like a game to me. Give me a topic and a structure and let me see if I can quickly meld them together into a coherent message.

I’ll add one final comment. If you find yourself in one of these situations, and you can’t quite settle in on a structure, I suggest using “What I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew” as the default. It’s simple and it’s easy to remember.

Very Thankful

It’s the day after Thanksgiving.  Yesterday was a wonderful day spent with my amazing wife and my amazing sons.  I cannot express how thankful I am for my family… or maybe I can and just did.  Fair enough.

Life is not an easy journey, is it?  Trials and tribulations.  Heartaches and disappointments.  But also joy.   I get joy from my family.  For that I am very, very thankful.

New Directions?

I took a bit of a self-imposed sabbatical to think about the future.  What are my priorities?  Do I like what I’m doing?  Is it, perhaps, time to focus on something different or try something new?  Everything has a life-cycle, whether it’s teaching classes or designing systems or whatever, and you can sense it when it’s time for a change.

Also, reality itself gets a vote.  You encounter circumstances that force tough choices.

As I always say, everything is infinitely complex.  Ultimately, the decisions we make are guesses.

I do, however, have a few ideas in mind.

A Futurist Looks Back

Extrapolation is second nature to me.  It’s how I’m wired.  I look at how things are and I make an instantaneous projection of how they will be in the future.  Maybe it’s intuition; maybe it’s analysis functioning at a cognitive level that I cannot quite discern.  Maybe those two possibilities are actually the same thing.

Either way, it’s a part of my nature and it has fueled a lifelong passion for futuristic thinking.

At the same time, there is much to be learned by looking back, and I indulged myself a bit recently as I thought back to what the information technology industry looked like when I first entered it.  Here are a few recollections:

  1. It wasn’t called IT, it was called DP (Data Processing).
  2. I programmed by typing lines of code onto 80-column cards using a keypunch machine – one line at a time.  (When I was done, I put a rubber band around my card deck in case I were to drop it.)
  3. To compile my program, I ran the card deck through a card reader.  (Then I printed off the compiler output on an impact printer to see if it had compiled cleanly.)
  4. My first programming language was FORTRAN.  (My second was COBOL.  My third was IBM S/370 Assembler Language.  My fourth was C. My fifth was MS Visual Basic.)
  5. One of my first tasks when I installed a new computer was to assemble the Supervisor (e.g., operating system).
  6. Virtual storage was a relatively new concept.
  7. Bisync was the dominant communications protocol.
  8. Few of my customers could afford a 9600 bps phone line for data communications.
  9. Online transaction processing was capturing the imagination of the industry.
  10. 1MB of real memory was usually enough.

The main observation I make, retrospectively, is that nearly everything changed at a rate and to a scale beyond anything I imagined possible back then.  I take that lesson forward now, yet I suspect the future will still be beyond what I can imagine today.