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Emergence

If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?

I've had that line from Fight Club (the book) banging around my head all evening. (The line from Fight Club (the movie) isn't so bad either.) Around and around in circles. Bouncing from one side to the other, back and back again. What does it mean?

Caterpillars spin a cocoon when they're about to go into their pupal stage. They stay in their cocoon then emerge, eventually, as something entirely different—something they were not, but something they were supposed to be.

It's one of a thousand overwrought metaphors we can rely on as we get to the end of the pandemic.

That first line, though—back and forth, like a clapper striking the side of a bell.

So much talk about getting back to normal, but I don't know about that. Normal is broken. Anyway, when I emerge from the cocoon, I want to be better than normal. I want to be like the narrator in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions—Vonnegut, himself—metaphorically throwing things over his shoulder.

I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there — the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes — there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.

"Every day is a new day" is a nice thing to say. I believe it, I just don't believe it. Some of the baggage we carry around we can throw out, but some of the baggage we carry isn't baggage—it is us, ourselves. Every day we wake up and we carry ourselves around. It's inevitable, really. I'm not sure what the alternative is.

Emergence, though, is a transformation. Waking up as something different than when you went to sleep. Waking up as something different than when you spun your cocoon. There are many constraints in the world, and also many choices. The choices are constrained and the constraints are uncertain. You can't wake up as a different person every day. But some days you can. You have free will, just not a lot of it. When we emerge, let's see how much we've got.

A crank theory about technical reviews

In aerospace we have technical reviews for anything worth producing and showing to other people: requirements, technical drawings, test plans, integrated designs, etc. We work with things too complicated for a single person to understand how it all works when it's put together. So we get groups of people together to find the problems,

The problem is that many people who approach the reviews as the producer of the content to be reviewed really hate that role. It is an uncomfortable role. Your literal job is to hold up things you've spent blood, sweat, and tears working on so that other people can hit them with baseball bats. (OK, maybe there's a better word than "literal", but we'll go with it.)

So what you often get is one of two things: (1) People who don't produce a review package that is easy to understand for reviewers; (2) people who host reviews for the sole purpose of having the review being considered done. Both are a problem for everyone.

The first is a problem because it makes the reviewer's job harder. Now a reviewer has to burn more time and effort to come to the minimum level possible to begin contributing to the review—actually having to work to get to level zero to start. The second is a problem because it subverts the purpose of the review. The purpose is not to check some box labeled "have review", the purpose is to find problems so that they can be fixed.

That's my crank theory: make it easy for your reviewers to find problems.

You have to produce a review package in addition to the thing being reviewed. Bringing a technical spec up for review? You should have something else that explains the tough parts, explains how the spec relates to other specs and products—things that aren't being reviewed themselves, but are related to the integrated whole. Make it absolutely, 100% as easy as you can for your reviewers to contribute. It's not about holding their hand (the pejorative usually lodged against helping people understand things), it's about setting them up in the best possible situation to do good work.

You have to point out the things that you think will be problems, and promote those things so that reviewers will see them, consider them, smash them, and ultimately help solve them. Aerospace is no place for letting problems slide. Everyone knows that when they make something that it has problems—it's a complicated field. Spray paint those things orange and get to work collecting issues against them.

It's an uncomfortable place to stand in front of people for the purpose of being told you're wrong. It also results in the best work. You have to choose discomfort to win.

A race to the bottom, in a cart full of people

My favorite series of Seth Godin riffs is about the "race to the bottom". There are several good variations. pick your own favorite. For me, the best ones contain a variation of: "The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win. Even worse, you might come in second."

I was thinking about that in term of the relentless pursuit of metrics. Sorry: capital-M Metrics. People metrics. Job metrics. Financial metrics. Development metrics. Testing metrics. Et cetera.

With apologies to George Box: all metrics are wrong, but some are useful.

The best kind of metrics—or analytics or data visualization or whatever your kink is—support your people. Metrics can help get the job done. If you're running a marathon and you have a goal in mind, you want to know how far you've gone and how fast, and then you'll also know how far to go and how much time you have to get there. This kind of goal for this kind of person is helpful. It is well-applied, pertinent, meaningful. Some metrics are... not.

How many rocks did Person A pick up? Seven. Person B? Forty. Give Person B a raise, fire Person A. On day 2 of the job, discover that Person A's rocks were twenty times bigger than Person B's rocks. No matter. The metrics have spoken. With any luck—and a little soft-shoeing and a lot of manipulation—no one who matters will even know until it's too late, and then it's too late.

These are all analogies, and not particularly good ones. All I wanted to say is: mindless obeisance to numerical evaluation is a race to the bottom. The System—whatever your System might be, and no one capitalizes System without a little bit of venom—demands numbers, tables, charts, plans, etc. Those can be provided. You want a metric? I can get you a metric, believe me. There are ways, Dude.

Like many things in the world, this is all good until it becomes a proxy for The Truth. Metrics are a great Guide. The Truth? Depends. I want my thermocouples and pressure transducers to tell me the truth, sure. Measuring the number of spreadsheets Person C cranked out this week versus the planned number of spreadsheets? I don't know. Sounds like a guide to me. But it's easy to forget that it's a guide. Something can be a guide for a while, and then it gets mistaken for a truth, and then it can't be untruthed. Accumulate enough of those unnecessary mistaken truths and you can almost hear the whoooosh that you make as you tumble off a cliff, hellbent for the bottom, at the toppest top speed you can measure, trying desperately until the last moment to understand why—how—the metrics did you wrong.

Atoms and house fires

Every once in a while when I'm filling up a perfectly good silence with words—something I was recently advised that I shouldn't do, yet here we are again—I come up with a reasonably good string of words. I'm not saying they're the best words (believe me), but good ones, and in a good order.

I was just trying to explain my approach to a particular problem, but it goes for everything I do. The way I solve problems is extremely bimodal: all the way this way, or all the way that way. Extremely fast and with light detail, or extremely detailed and with low speed. Extremely thorough, or extremely cursory. Extremely sensitive, or extremely direct. And so on and so on.

In between the extremes—I don't know. I don't spend much time there. I don't know that there's a reason for it. In my mind, I assume that the fast, shallow touch is a compensation for the detailed, maddeningly thorough mode that I can lock into. You can't spend all your time in that second mode. You'd never get anything done, and if you did, no one would be around to receive the thing you made because it would have been excruciating to wait for, and the details would be so overspec as to be a work of art, not a work of utility. I don't know that that's the reason, or if there is a reason, and I'm not even very interested in the reason because I'm aware of the two modes and I just try to apply them at the right times, or to unapply them when they're engaged at the wrong times—mostly the second one, because it's just such a bother to be a victim of yourself.

Today's analogy for this bimodality: I either see things as a house fire and we have to pick things up and run and get out now; or I see a house as a collection of atoms, each of which can be identified and arranged exactly where I want them. I don't know. I can't account for it. Choose the madness that makes you whole, and keep moving, onward.

Plan flex

For project management class this week, we had to do a small group online simulation of setting up a mining project—a stakeholder management exercise. It was all about understanding how the different people who we had to work with—activists, officials, shareholders, etc.—felt about the project, how they felt about each other, how they felt about their treatment, etc. There was a total sim time of a few weeks, and a day went by every 90 seconds or so. So whatever plan you went in with was probably the one that you were going to execute once the click started ticktocking away.

Unexpectedly, our group came out with the top score, which was mostly some mixture of stakeholder opinions—meaning you could come out of the thing with the most profits, but not the highest score. I was surprised by the outcome because I know there are some smart people in the class. I wouldn't have bet my money on me. In the debrief in this evening's class, some of the other people explained their plans, and they sounded like well-reasoned plans that I felt were better than ours—at least until I saw the outcome.

I didn't really understand how we did it until one of my teammates said something that made sense to me. His explanation: we were flexible and willing to change the plan when we discovered things were working or not working in our favor.

That is easily the most obvious thing to do—and if you've worked for anyone else or yourself you know that it is something that is not done often enough. But you can't just hear that explanation and believe it. We—whoever we is here, I'm not sure, just go with it—believe in things like "stay the course" or "plan the work, work the plan" and deviation from the plan is seen as a weakness, not a strength. Deviation from a plan can be a weakness if it's done flippantly. If you just don't want to do whatever work is up next, and you don't, well... good luck. But if your plan leads you straight into something that your instincts tell you is wrong, that your experience tells you is wrong, that your advisors tell you is wrong... your plan might be wrong—if not fully wrong, then partially wrong, and you should have the courage to adjust your plan and meet the challenge on better footing.

Lack of flexibility is a weakness, not a strength.

Beautiful feedback

Here's where I start this story by saying, "I love getting feedback from other people because it helps me improve myself". I know that's the Right Answer when talking about critical feedback and—wink wink—we only say and do the Right Things here on kirkkittell.com. That's our Brand.

I hate critical feedback. Everyone hates it, I think. I think it's useful, and I ask for it and take it, but I cringe hard enough I'm in danger of pulling something at my advanced age. Please, sir, just tell me I made it to the top of the mountain and that there isn't anything left to climb.

Nah. Life's not like that. It would be boring if it was like that, although a good deal more relaxed.

As part of the closeout for the once-dreaded negotiations class, our final team of four had to give each other positive and negative individual feedback about our performance. I would have guessed, going into this exercise, that it was going to be only a pro forma exercise. Yes, you did this and that, and, oh, I did this and that, fascinating. Thanks. Bye. Nothing substantial, just get it done.

But there was something to that all-day final negotiation activity that acted like a kind of fast-setting glue. It was a stressful day, and it was a kind of hard work to do the negotiation, even if it was just a game. It took on a life of its own within the simulation. The feedback that came out of it, surprisingly to me, had Meaning. I felt like I had meaningful things to say about teammates' performances as well because they made an impression on me during those few hours. Even though receiving the negative bits of feedback had all the same armrest clenching autonomic responses that I get from feedback in the real world, it was somewhat easier to relax and listen—even though we had our own bond in that short time, it was easier to detach from it because it was so short and hear the negative bits without judgment, without reservation, without reaction. It was less charged, less loaded. It was easier to corroborate with all of the things I witness about myself in my own head. It was beautiful to hear—although hearing feedback and doing something about it are substantially far apart.

The long windup

The long windup earns me a lot of grief at home and at work. It seems other people don't prepare the same way I do. I assumed it was common.

Basically: I make a huge mess followed by a series of other messes and then—hey presto—the thing in its final form emerges.

Case in point: the ongoing—and seemingly never-ending—wall and steps construction in the backyard. For a long time it was just a trench and piles of rocks and blocks and dirt. Then it was a trench with some rocks and blocks in it, surrounded by rocks and blocks and dirt. It seemed like it was in this state for an unnaturally long time, even though blocks were being added to the wall, but it just never looked more done—still surrounded by rocks and blocks and dirt. Then, in one weekend, the dirt pile moved and the ground got flattened and some of the rock and blocks piles got depleted and the whole thing started to look finished. (Even though it is very much not finished.)

I get why my approach drives people nuts. The situation looks bad—until it doesn't. For me it's mise en place. I know the pieces are ready. I know it's coming together. I can see the parts in motion, in time and space. Patience—enjoy the product, enjoy the process.


The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself—the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent—all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.

—George Plimpton. Paper Lion (1966).

The squeaky wheel

The squeaky wheel gets trashed. Amazon can bring a new one tomorrow. Ain't nobody got time for maintenance.

Wheels are three for a dollar. Maintenance is so hard.

Back in my day the squeaky wheel got the grease. You kids these days have it so

Variety pack. Three sizes. Big wheel small wheel medium wheel. $5. Free shipping on orders over

The squeaky wheel gets the

Ain't nobody got time for

The squeaky wheel

Ain't nobody got

The grease

Squeak


On one hand: the squeaky wheel is everywhere. You don't have to look for it. It's on Facebook. It's on Twitter. It's probably on TV. I don't know. It's going to get the grease. From someone. For someone. Did you hear about the? Yes, it's tragic. I can't believe about the. What a shame. Won't somebody do something about.

On the other hand: replacement is so cheap. And a wheel is going to squeak anyway. Buy a cheap wheel and it squeaks. Throw it away. But ten cheap wheels, seven squeak, throw them away—still got three wheels. We don't even need to pretend that we've wasted seven wheels—still got three wheels. It's not a waste if you never wanted it. It's not maintenance if you don't do it. It makes sense if you don't think about it.

Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus (1990): "Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."

2021: Everybody wants to buy and nobody wants to do maintenance.

2021, the next day: Squeak.

New Q, new U

For a week or two here I've been mentioning, off and on, how I was waiting for this quarter to end to unburden myself of some of the commitments I had last quarter. Today is April 1, the start of the new quarter, and I'm here to tell you: I woke up, the sun was shining, and I felt so, so much better.

All that threatened to derail when I turned on my work computer to log in to work, and the computer had one of its semi-regular fits and I had to restart it—a 15-minute ordeal to restart, on top of the 15-minute ordeal to start it the first time. I suppose that wouldn't be such a bad thing, but that second start ran right through an 8:00 meeting, and I was really stressed until I remembered... I hate meetings. What a gift. This new quarter was looking out for me and it would be a shame to waste it. After work I cooked dinner, and I moved dirt around the yard with a shovel and a coffee mug of Old No. 7, and I stared at my tomato seedlings in the basement, and I decided to be utterly unfuckwithable.

There are many flavors of the phrase "I don't care". Some are lazy. Some are mean. Some are wild. Some are flippant. For me, now, "I don't care" means: don't let the bastards get you down. Even with the bastard is yourself. Especially when the bastard is yourself.

Listen: I'm half-complaining and half-joking and half-serious about what a grind 2021 has been. I signed up for the things I signed up for based on what the outlook was like, and then the outlook changed underneath me—what was once a free quarter became a definitely-not-free quarter, but with all the filler I added into it hung around my neck like an albatross. Which is a long way of saying it's my own damned fault.

But hey—wake up in a different quarter, at a different time, wake up as a different person.

Fiction

The more I contemplate the spectacle of the world and the ever-changing state of things, the more profoundly I’m convinced of the inherent fiction of everything, of the false importance exhibited by all realities. And in this contemplation (which has occurred to all thinking souls at one time or another), the colourful parade of customs and fashions, the complex path of civilizations and progress, the grandiose commotion of empires and cultures – all of this strikes me as a myth and a fiction, dreamed among shadows and ruins.

—Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet.

I've been looking at this one from the front the sides, the back, trying to find an angle from which to disagree with it. I can't. I don't.

Myself, I don't think it's all a fiction. No. It's right there. But a dream? A shadow? Sure. The world as an image in a distorted mirror. All of the things that we see, from a certain point of view, processed through our own understanding and bias. But that's the fiction of seeing, not of being.

There's the fiction of acting or projecting. Hmm. If enough of us do that—outright making things up or just putting on a face—then the real is eroded, replaced by a brace of fictions. Maybe that's the meaning. Every day a new composite of not real this and not real that—every day forever and ever.