From Techie to Manager: Lessons From My Journey

Introduction

Some time several years ago, someone asked me if I would ever consider leaving a technical role and moving into more of a management or leadership position. At the time, I thought the idea crazy; why would I give up the kind of deep, intriguing technical work I so richly enjoyed for a job that would involve at least some level of administrative overhead? I loved working through tough technical challenges, solving problems, and, as a side gig even, writing about what I learned. I felt comfortable where I was, and I had no intention to try anything else.

Then, as often happens, an opportunity arose. A new group was being formed within my organization, one that would face some unique challenges. I realized that I had a choice: I could either apply for, and possibly end up leading the new team, or I could do nothing and would almost certainly find myself as a member of it. After some consideration, I chose the former option, and, gratefully, was given the opportunity to lead the group.

While I knew of the challenges I would face from the perspective of the unique situation the team would be in, I had no idea of the hurdles I would face personally as I transitioned from the role of an individual contributor to that of a leader. I had held a low level management role prior to this, but in retrospect it had very little in comparison to my current role (the prior one was in retail management, a very different situation than managing a technical team). Now, a year and change removed from that shift in responsibility, I thought it would be useful to look back and try and glean some wisdom from what was, without a doubt, the toughest year of my professional career. Partly, that difficulty was due to the technical and logistical challenges the team faced; however it was absolutely made tougher by the personal and mental barriers I met (many of which were at least partially of my own doing). Managing people requires an entirely different set of skills and mindset shift from that of an individual contributor, a lesson I learned, quite frankly, the hard way.

I put this here, not only for my own good, but because I sincerely hope that others who are facing similar transitions in their own career might learn from my own experience. I don’t regret the choice I made in any way, and have ultimately found the job to be incredibly rewarding. Here’s hoping my top three lessons learned helps others achieve the same transition with far less suffering than I did.

Managing People Isn’t Like Managing Computers

I’ve managed large environments throughout my career in technology, so when I say I know that managing computers can be challenging I mean it. But as a leader, we aren’t paid to manage computers, or even technology for that matter; we’re paid to manage people. And managing people is an entirely different test than managing even the toughest, most demanding of technologies.

When it comes down to it, computers will, all things being equal, do exactly what you tell them to. No more, no less. Sure, we sometimes may tell them to do the wrong things, or the program that we use may not correctly carry out the thing we ask it to do, but ultimately technology is just muscle that we leverage to get our work done. When it doesn’t work, we can strong-arm our way through it, be it by getting the people who wrote the software to help us, by using the power of the Internet to locate answers to our questions, or even by purchasing new technology to replace the one that isn’t working.

When it comes to people problems, things aren’t so easy. People are flawed, messy, and difficult. They will have trouble understanding what you are asking them to do, they will ask a thousand questions, and they will sometimes flat out refuse to carry out what you are telling them to do. Sure, you can be a tyrant and order folks around, but that’s going to cost you in the long term, both in terms of your own health and the health of your team. Unlike technology, you can’t simply rip out a piece of a person’s personality because it doesn’t fit with what you need from them; instead, you have to work with them to improve themselves, and learn to leverage their individual strengths to best execute the mission of the team. This takes patience, deliberate action, and a whole lot of listening; three skills that are often times lacking in a typical engineer type.

If we’re going to be successful as leaders, we have to learn how to work with people in ways that we never needed to before, rather than trying to treat them like the computers we’re so used to dealing with.

Action Steps

  1. Make it a deliberate practice to learn how to listen more effectively. This can be broken down into small, practical skills, such as:
  • Do not speak over someone. Wait until they have stopped speaking, count to three, then begin speaking.
  • Before giving your own opinion, make sure you understand what the other person has said by repeating it back to them in your own words. Repeat until they agree you’ve heard them properly.
  • For Heaven’s sake, do not use any kind of technology while someone is talking to you. Nothing kills a conversation faster than someone seeing you pull out your phone and start looking at Twitter while they are talking to you.
  1. Read books on how to influence and lead people, such as the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Extreme Ownership, or The Five Dysfuntions of a Team.
  2. Go to this section of the Manager Tools website, go to the “Management Basics” section, and listen to each and every episode listed there. Seriously, do it now. This podcast has been one of the key reasons why I’ve been reasonably successful in my transition from a technical role into a manager. They do an amazing job of breaking down the required skills into discrete measurable actions.

Your Technical Skills WILL Fade, and That’s Okay

If you’ve been promoted to a leadership / managerial role, chances are that you excelled in your previous technical position. A large part of that was likely because you took extreme pride in keeping up your skills and staying abreast of industry trends and new technologies. You probably spent hours working through various scenarios, constructed elaborate lab setups, and maybe even wrote some technical articles. And if you’re at all like me, you enjoyed it all very much!

Here’s the bad news: as a leader, you’re technical skills have to take a back seat to those of your team and the skills required to lead them. Managers and leaders are not paid to produce on an individual basis, but to ensure that their teams produce as a whole. As such, your priority has to be giving your team the tools they need to succeed and coaching them through challenges. This does not mean that when things get hard, you roll up your sleeves and take over! As someone who is a natural problem solver, this is an automatic tendency for me. When I see my team struggling, or someone isn’t moving a task along as fast as I’d like, my instinct is to push them out of the way and get it done myself. The thing is, that’s bad for two important reasons: first, no matter what your directs say, it will give them the impression that you don’t trust them to handle problems on their own; second, it stunts the growth of our directs’ skills, because they aren’t given a chance to struggle and learn new things. When we give in to our inner micro-manager and take over in challenging situations, it may lessen our inner angst in the short term, but in the long term it will only lead to the team becoming too dependent on us. Take it from someone who has struggled mightily with this, take the tough road now and your future self will thank you when you are able to disconnect and relax on vacation.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean we should be completely lackadaisical or hands off either. When things hit the fan, and our team is struggling to keep their heads above water, what they require from us is **leadership. We must provide a calm voice, asking probing questions to get to the root of the issues at hand, while gently guiding the team towards resolution. When in doubt, I’ve found that the best approach is actually quite simple: ask the team how you can best help them. Sometimes that might mean ordering food and making sure the basic needs are taken care of. Other times, it might mean shielding them from other incoming requests, so they can focus solely on the most pressing issue in front of them with complete concentration. It might even mean that they need your technical experience or specialized skill set, but let them make that request rather than assuming up front that the only way to resolve a tricky situation is for you to start getting your hands dirty.

Action Steps

  1. Make a list of the scenarios in which you feel that you will need to intervene due to things like skill gaps on your team. For example, as a former DBA, I am going to have a strong inclination to get into the details when it comes to managing SQL Server.
  2. Make a series of “If / Then” plans on how you will handle these various scenarios in advance. Research has shown that this is an extremely effective way to enable behavior change in people. If you’re going to break old habits around getting into the trenches, you’re going to need every tool you can get.
  3. Keep track of times when you truly had to intervene at the request of your team, so that you can learn from them and help your team to grow to the point where you can truly focus on leadership skills.
  4. If keeping your technical skills at least somewhat up to date is truly important to you, consider blocking out some time on your calendar each week to brush up. It’s fine to do this, so long as you don’t let your leadership duties and skills take a back seat.

Be Willing to LET GO

If you are coming from the position of a highly skilled technical resource, chances are that you have very strong opinions about how work should be carried out. Speaking personally, I had exacting standards around every aspect of how my SQL Server instances were managed, right down to how the work should be carried out. This was a good thing when it was my work to do, because it ensured consistent results.

At the same time, as a leader, forcing my team to do things the exact way I would have done it is inviting conflict. Think about it: if your boss came to do, asked you to do something, then proceeded to insist that you do it only in the precise way they would do it, how are you likely to feel? You’d likely get frustrated, discouraged (because it’s obvious that your boss doesn’t trust you to get the job done), and micro-managed. All of these will lead to poor team chemistry and lessened productivity.

I get it: you are a meticulous person and one of the reasons why you are in this position is likely because of that and the resulting quality of work you produced. When we see people doing things in a way different from how we’d like, even if we know the results are going to be the same (but especially where that isn’t entirely clear), anxiety arising is a natural result. But just as in the previous scenario, simply because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we should jump in and enforce our own views.

A good leader sets the target for their team, makes sure they clearly understand where they need to be, then steps back and lets the team figure out how to get there. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t provide input, especially when asked. Rather, again as mentioned previously, let your team come to you, rather than prematurely pushing your own opinions down. Like it or not, even if you don’t intend this to be the result, simply speaking your mind carries far more weight when you wield the power to affect people’s paychecks.

Action Steps

  1. Instead of focusing on process, focus primarily on outcome. Set the targets that you want your people to hit, but let them decide how to do it.
  2. When you see potential issues arising with the approach taken by your team, rather than immediately overrule them, ask them pointed questions that illustrate your areas of concern, and see how they respond. With this approach, one of several things will happen: either (a) they will already have thought of your concerns and have solutions in mind, (b) they will be able to work through your concerns and propose solutions, or (c) they may ask for your help in determining how best to handle the problems you’ve raised. Either way, it’s a win for the team and your concerns get addressed.

Conclusion

Shifting from the role of an individual contributor to that of a leader and manager is not an easy transition to make. All one needs to do to realize this is search the Internet for stories of failed promotions, and more than ample examples will be easily found. Many who are incredible in a technical role are thrust into leadership positions because of their success in producing high quality work, but without careful consideration and planning, such moves are at a high risk of failure. I learned the lessons I laid out here over a year of struggle and difficulty, and truthfully I still have a long way to go in my journey as a leader of a technical team.

Before closing, there is one point which I believe needs to be explicitly stated: there is no shame in deciding, after a time in a leadership role, that you would prefer to step down and return to a role more focused on individual production. For some, even if we are capable of learning the skills of leadership (and I believe that most everyone is), we may simply not enjoy the necessary work, and that’s okay. Some may say to give up a promotion is a foolish act; I say, if it makes you happy, or you find that the stress of adapting to the new role is taking a toll on you, then there is certainly nothing wrong with taking that path. And despite our fears, in most cases a supportive leader will understand such a request and work with you to make accommodations, especially if your value to the organization is well recognized. This doesn’t mean the decision should be made lightly, and I do believe one should give the opportunity to move into a leadership role a thorough and full trial before choosing to walk away. It will be hard, and there will be difficulty, but when you see the results of your hard work in a well performing team, and those who report to you show gratitude for your leadership, you may well find that the role of a leader is far more meaningful than you ever thought possible.

Empathy is the only way forward as a nation – here’s how we can gain more of it

Authors note: I originally wrote this not long after the election of November 2016, and for whatever reason, never published it. Having found it languishing in my draft folder, and still very relevant today, I decided I would publish it.

In the weeks leading up to the election of 2016, I held out hope that once the day had passed, regardless of the result, we might come together as a nation and move forward. After all, our republic stands on the basis of shared acceptance of election results, even when those results do not follow our desires. And while it’s perfectly fine to grumble or complain if our chosen candidate should lose, we pick up and move on. Perhaps we are motivated to take action, be it writing our representatives, or deciding to participate more fully in our political system, but ultimately there is a respect for the system that has maintained our nation for so long, and an understanding that while we may disagree, we are all still Americans.

This time, something is different. Not only has the level of spiteful rhetoric and anger not decreased, it has, at least in my experience, increased noticeably.

On the one hand, I see friends who supported the candidacy of Hillary Clinton declaring that any who dared vote for President-elect Trump are racists, xenophobes, and wholly rotten people. They openly brag about un-friending anyone who does not follow their own view, proudly proclaiming that they have cleansed themselves of any ties to those “deplorable” people.

On the other hand, I have friends who supported Mr. Trump, who gleefully express schadenfreude at the expression of utter dismay from the liberal half of our nation’s population. Any attempt to question their loyalty is met with scorn and derision. Those on the left are “sissies” and “crybabies” for expressing emotional distress at the election of someone whom they consider a danger to society as we know it (a claim met with more ridicule).

In both cases, there is something sorely lacking, something which, if we are going to heal and move forward as a nation, we must build more of into our hearts. That thing is empathy.

Why is this the case? Why have we lost our ability to feel compassion for our neighbors? I would argue that this empathy gap exists for two reasons. First, our brains are hard-wired to divide those around us into two camps: those on our side, and those who are not. Second, we as a nation are more polarized in our political views than we ever have been, a fact which exacerbates this built-in tendency towards hive-mind thinking.

Our Groupish Minds

The idea of group-centric behavior as an evolutionary mechanism can be seen as far back as the works of Charles Darwin. In his work The Descent of Man, Darwin said the following:

When two tribes of primeval men, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed and conquer the other.

When we think about it, this idea makes sense. Groups that tend to naturally band together to combine resources and fight opposing groups will tend to win out over those more fractured and individualistic groups.

In his 2012 work The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes at length about the groupish nature of humans (the book is in fact where I found the earlier quote from Darwin). Haidt goes on to give other examples of how this kind of tendency has served us well as humans became the dominant species on the planet. For example, he writes this about the idea of shared intentionality:

The Rubicon crossing that let out ancestors function so well in their groups was the emergence of the uniquely human ability to share intentions and other moral representations. This ability enabled early humans to collaborate, divide labor, and develop shared norms for judging each other’s behavior.

Humans are, as Haidt describes it, “90% chimpanzee and 10% bee”. We are highly individual creatures, but we possess in our neurological makeup a kind of “hive switch”, which when activated, binds us together in shared cooperation.

Think about this: what happens before nearly every sporting event across the nation? A song is played, and tens of thousands of people all simultaneously cease conversation, remove any hats, and place their hands reverently over their hearts. Recent deviation notwithstanding, this is an excellent example of how shared experience can bind us together as groups.

While this is, as we’ve discussed, a largely positive aspect of our makeup, it can result in the fracturing of social relations when this same tendency is invoked across populations within the nation. And that is exactly what is happening now.

The two Americas

Source: https://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

Over the past decade or so, the Pew Research Center has conducted a number of large surveys of Americans to determine, among other things, their views on a number of divisive political issues. They use this data to chart a representation of the distribution of political perspectives across and within party lines. The result is that we can clearly see how in the last decade, America’s population has become sharply divided.

In 2004, the median Republican and Democrat were not so far from each other. According to Pew, 30% of identified Republicans were actually more liberal than the median Democrat, and 32% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. This meant that both sides had folks who could effectively speak to the other party, fostering cooperation and consensus building. But since then, both sides have moved markedly to the edge of their corners of the ideological spectrum; in 2014, a mere 8% of Republicans and 6% of Democrats were more liberal and conservative (respectfully) than the median member of the opposing party.

In addition, people’s opinions on the other side have worsened. In 2004, 29% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans held unfavorable views about the opposing party. A decade later, those numbers rose to 38% and 43%, with more than third on average (27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans) believing that the other party was “a threat to the Nation’s well being.”1

This is the new America: a country so sharply divided that those on both sides feel that the other is a danger to the core of their country’s values.

Think about this: if you truly believe that an organization is a threat to the very way of life that you enjoy, would you want to work with them? Or would you oppose them at every turn, perhaps even justifying your actions with the use of labeling, name-calling, or other means to de-humanize or downplay the humanity of your opponent?

If this appears to be a very bleak picture, perhaps there is some light that we can see if we look closely. Amidst this polarization of the body politic, a number of researchers have shown that there are ways to bridge gaps in viewpoints and to bring people closer together by softening their views.

The power of listening

In the April of 2016 issue of the magazine Science, authors Joshua Kalla and David Broockman published a study showing that by using a technique they called “Deep Canvassing”, voters’ views could be changed reliably on matters as divisive as transgender rights. They found that “these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012”, and that these changes were maintained after a three month waiting period.2

So what exactly is this magical technique? To a large extent, it consists of one thing: listening.

One organization which was heavily involved in the research for the article mentioned above is The Leadership Lab, a group dedicated to reducing prejudice against LGBT individuals. In a paper authored by members of the organization, they note that skills critical to the success of their efforts included “confident and friendly communication; asking for the voter’s point of view in an open way that made them comfortable being candid with us; listening to them as they shared their point of view; and focusing on their and our real, lived experiences rather than on their intellectual opinion or entrenched stance on the issue.” They further noted that “our success depended on canvassers knowing how to listen; how to focus on each voter’s real, lived experience; how to follow up by digging into whatever the voter says that seems to carry some emotional weight; how to ask open-ended questions; and how to do all of this in a non-judgmental way, so each voter is comfortable being candid with us.”3

This is the way to the heart: through careful and patient listening, asking questions, and as author and productivity guru Steven Covey once wrote, “seek[ing] first to understand, then to be understood.”

If we have empathy for others, we are more likely to engage in socially cooperative behavior. Studies by Professor Paul Van Lange (now at Oxford University) have shown that empathy boosts altruistic motivation4 and that cultivating empathy can result in more cooperative behavior, even in the face of confusing or ambiguous behavior from another individual5.

After listening to, and hopefully understanding, the other side, only then should we attempt to engage in discussion. But to do that, we must effectively speak the language of the other side, which is, in fact, more difficult than we might imagine.

How we think is more like how we feel

We see ourselves as rational, calculating, reasoning beings. We look at facts, we make comparative judgments and form informed opinions. But in fact, we are less Vulcan-like than we imagine. As it turns out, even at the genetic level, our opinions and views of the world may have less to do with facts, and more with built-in sensitivities and biases.

In The Righteous Mind (there’s that book again, you really should just go read it), Haidt discusses several studies that show this. For example, one showed that when people were exposed to a noxious smell, they were harsher in their moral judgments6. In another, it was found that “a threat to one’s moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself”7. All these support the core idea that we are emotional creatures first and foremost, and reasoning creatures secondarily.

This being true, we have to construct our arguments in line with what matters to our audience. Haidt’s work is helpful here as well, as he identifies what he terms six moral foundations: Care / harm, Fairness / cheating, Authority / subversion, Loyalty / betrayal, Sanctity / degradation, and Liberty / Oppression. In essence, these six axes define how we view the world in terms of morality, and since politics is a deeply moral subject, often how we vote.

Take, for example, the Fairness / Cheating axis. Liberals tend to fall very much towards the Fairness side; they find it incredibly important that everyone gets an equal share, hence their support of broader social welfare programs and things like higher taxes on the wealthy. On the other hand, conservatives fall towards the Cheating side; they are sensitive towards people taking advantage of the system or the goodwill of others (remember how effective Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” tactic was?).

With this in mind, it makes complete sense why those on the left would have little luck trying to convince conservatives of the moral justification for programs like Medicare, food stamps, or the like. Their arguments often center around the idea that without these programs, people would suffer needlessly, but conservatives do not see things that way. Instead, they see these programs as opportunities for people to take advantage of the system and will cling desperately to any stories supporting this narrative.

On the opposite side, consider the Authority / Subversion axis. Conservatives consistently rank higher on this than do liberals, which may explain things such as the pervasiveness of religion or strict obedience to cultural norms in conservative populations. But liberals don’t understand this; they may see religion as “merely an accident of history”, and as a “[demonstration] of mental illness to believe that [God] is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.”8

Is it any wonder it seems like when we talk to our conservative or liberal friends, we’re speaking in tongues?

There is good news in all this, however: with practice, we can learn to speak in ways that those on the opposite side of the political spectrum can understand. Research by Stanford Professor Robb Willer has shown that “reframing pro-environmental rhetoric in terms of purity, a moral value resonating primarily among conservatives, largely eliminated the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes”9. In an episode of the (excellent) You Are Not So Smart podcast, Willer noted just how difficult formulating these arguments from a moral framework outside his own was.

But with effort and persistence, we can put forth arguments that will help bring each other closer together. We might invoke conservatives’ love of country by arguing that social programs such as Medicare benefit older Americans, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Or we might show liberals how religion positively affects things like drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence10, thereby preventing harm to vulnerable populations such as children.

In conclusion, if America as a nation is to heal and move forward as a whole, we must focus on two core principles: first to listen to and understand others, and second to speak to what is important to those we seek to persuade, not ourselves. We are a polarized nation, perhaps more so than at any point in our history, so these principles are more important now than ever before.

When the last shots of the American Revolution were fired, a great consensus emerged, one hammered out in the dimly lit corridors of the new capital, based on shared values and a belief in the natural rights of all humans. We have persevered through great trial and peril, from war to economic strife and all manner of hardship. We have done so because, despite our differences, we have believed this core truth: we are all, every one of us, Americans. If our great political experiment is to survive, we must return to cultivating that belief, and not give in to partisan bickering and allow the bonds that bind us to be split asunder.


  1. http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-2-growing-partisan-antipathy/pp-2014-06-12-polarization-2-03/ 
  2. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6282/220 
  3. http://www.leadership-lab.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Miami-Report-Final-v4.pdf 
  4. Van Lange, P. (2008). Does Empathy Trigger Only Altruistic Motivation? How About Selflessness or Justice?. Emotion, 8(6), 766 
  5. Rumble, A., Van Lange, P., & Parks, C. (2010). The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemmas. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(5), 856-866. 
  6. Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G., & Jordan, A. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1096 
  7. Zhong, C., & Liljenquist, K. (2006, September 8). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science. 
  8. These are quotes from the book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by noted atheist Sam Harris. 
  9. https://sociology.stanford.edu/publications/moral-roots-environmental-attitudes 
  10. ELLISON, C., BARTKOWSKI, J., & ANDERSON, K. (1999). Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?. Journal of Family Issues, 20(1), 87-113. 

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

How Social Media and E-Mail Hook You and Keep You

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while. – Henry David Thoreau

I found this passage in William Powers’s excellent book Hamlet’s Blackberry(aff link). I struggle quite a bit with the near addiction I have to checking e-mail and social media (mostly Facebook). It’s become an almost automatic response to being on any kind of digital device. I’m connected, therefore I check (email | Facebook | Twitter | Feedly). My fingers tap across the screen without any conscious thought, and before I know it I’m looking at the latest updates or seeing another work e-mail that will ruin my quiet evening.

It makes sense why things like e-mail or Facebook can create these kinds of behavior, and why in Thoreau’s day we could say the same thing about going to the post office. In the behavioral model of psychology, a “reinforcement schedule” is a concept defining how and when a subject is rewarded for behavior. For example, in a simple fixed schedule model, subjects are rewarded every time they produce the desired behavior (every time your dog obeys your command, you give him a treat). But research has shown that over time constant reinforcement tends to produce a leveling effect. The frequency of the behavior slows, and even stops as the reinforcement loses effectiveness. In contrast, if rewards are delivered on a varying basis the behavior continues and is highly resistant to extinction (i.e. it is very hard to stop). This is especially true of so-called “variable ratio” reward schedules, in which subjects are given a reward after a randomized number of times they show the desired behavior.

Think for a moment about that. When rewards are given after randomized counts of behavior, we see the fastest rate of the behavior and the most resistance to change. Now, think about how Facebook works: you check it constantly, and from time to time you see a particularly interesting post, or that someone has left a comment on one of your previous posts. That little glowing red globe symbol is like a tiny shot of dopamine to your brain, and just like a rat in a cage who receives food at random for pressing a lever, you’re hooked.

The same is true of Thoreau’s “poor fellow”. Every time he goes to the post office, there’s a chance he’ll find a letter from a friend or lover. Thus begins the cycle of seeking out the reward, never knowing whether or not this time will be a lucky one.

Lately I’ve worked hard to break this habit as much as possible, with some success. First, it’s best to make getting to Facebook or e-mail as hard as possible; I log out of Facebook once my designated time is done, and turn off my e-mail on my phone. At times I go so far as to turn my expensive smart phone into nothing more than a dumb telephone, at least in the sense of connectivity (for the record, the recipe is to turn off wifi, then disable cellular data. At first it was downright painful, but as time went on, it’s become more and more pleasurable, these brief interludes of silence.

Try it yourself. Today, turn off all your devices and go for a walk. You might be amazed at the things you notice.

The Power of the Little Writing Habit

I love writing. It’s a chance for a little creative output, to clear my head and express what’s on my mind. But life intervenes, and lately I’d largely stopped writing on a regular basis. There were always more pressing things: lines sitting on my to-do list clamoring for attention, small children demanding attention, the siren call of a warm and cozy bed. I gave in to these, letting my writing habit slip away. At first it was easy, and I felt like it was entirely rational. After all, these things were important; spending time with my family and being productive are two incredibly large parts of who I am.

But, so is being a writer.

As time went on I missed my time with my words more and more. I felt stifled, repressed. The words and ideas lay on my mind’s proverbial back burner, simmering away, until that simmer became a rolling boil that I could no longer ignore.

So, I decided I had to find a way to keep writing, no matter what life might throw at me.

At first I tried to set aside large blocks of time on the weekend to write, or set larger goals of finishing an article, writing a short story, or finishing the next section of my science fiction book. It seemed to work at first, but increasingly it felt inadequate. My creative mind sat largely idle for most of the week, building up pressure until it was unleashed. And more often than not, life intervened and I missed most or all of my writing time due to pressing family concerns or more “urgent” work that came up, which would cause that pressure to build even further.
I realized after only a short time that my strategy wasn’t working, and I think there’s one major reason.

Big goals are, by their nature, fragile and inflexible. If I set the bar so high (2-3 hours of sustained writing on a Sunday afternoon), it’s far too easy for things to get in the way and throw me off course. And if I don’t meet my criteria for success, I’m going to feel discouraged, that little inner voice of mine kicking in with it’s negative thoughts of “Give it up, you’ll never be a writer.” And you know what? The voice is right. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If I didn’t find a way to keep writing, then my identity as a writer would be lost.

Fortunately, I think the answer comes in the rest of that same quote from our ancient Greek friend: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I had to make writing a habit.

But how? I’d already established that it was difficult to reliably get large swaths of time on the weekend. But then I remembered something I read in bestselling author Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better Than Before (aff link), which was (to paraphrase): “The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself.” What she means is that the act of doing the habit, or some rough approximation thereof, is far more important than completing the full measure of the act itself.

I would be better of writing a single word, each and every day, than I would be trying to write in large chunks of time. This was where I got the idea of my little writing habit.

The next morning, I woke up a mere 15 minutes before I usually do. I rolled out of bed, stretched, drank a glass of water, then walked into my office and sat down at the computer. At first, the words didn’t flow easily; I’m by no means a morning person, after all. But as time when on, it felt good. It felt really good. The words came easier, and I quickly got into a rythm. Before I knew what had happened, the little bar in Scrivener turned green, and I had hit my writing goal. I even went a little beyond that, before calling it good for the day. I still managed to get ready and out the door on time, and I found that for the rest of the day I felt strangely free. Is this what it feels like when I get even that little bit of time to clear out my creative juices? I don’t know, but I liked it.
So the next morning, I did the same thing. And the day after that, and so on. As it stands I’ve done this four days in a row, with nearly three thousand words written out. I’ve finished another short story, completed an article for one of the technical publications I write for, and even finished another chapter in my book. And now, I’m writing this very post.

This is the power of little habits.

There will be days when I only hit my minimum word count. And there will probably be days where I can’t write at all. But you can be sure I am going to keep up this ritual. Get up, sit at the computer, and write. Because, as Stephen King writes in his wonderful work On Writing (aff link):

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.

I’ve found my muse again. And it feels wonderful.

Words of Wisdom From a Ray Bradbury Character

“We’re all fools,” said Clemens, “all the time. It’s just we’re a different kind each day. We think, I’m not a fool today. I’ve learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact that we’re not perfect and live accordingly.”

Ray Bradbury, “The Illustrated Man”

This quote struck a chord with me immediately upon reading it. I’ve remarked several times on this blog (and oh so many times in conversations) about just how irrational and (more dangerously) ignorant we humans are. We believe we knew what was coming all along, seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, and dismiss or discount information which challenges them.

I’m certainly no exception. Despite my awareness of these things, I often find myself falling into their traps. Just the other day, for example, I fell prey to a clever use of the default effect while attempting to unsubscribe myself from a mailing list. After clicking the “unsubscribe” link in the e-mail, I was brought to a page where there was some text along with a series of check boxes. In many cases, one checks the items one wants to unsubscribe from, and submits the form. Since I saw the boxes were already selected, I hurriedly clicked the submit button and went on my way. Naturally I was shocked to find more e-mail from the sender in my inbox the next day. Upon returning and closer inspection of the opt-out form, I found that in fact I needed to un-check the boxes for the lists I no longer wanted to receive. Read the fabulous… oh you get the idea.

I’m fond of saying “I’m just as much of an idiot as everyone else, I just readily admit it.” Even with this awareness, however, my ability to invoke reason and logic is limited. And so, as Bradbury’s character suggests, I live accordingly. Or, at least I try. I keep sweets from easy access in the cupboards, I make it a point to listen to the opinions of those I heartily disagree with, and I try and limit the decisions I make on a daily basis. I frequently get “sanity checks” from those around me and, despite the uncomfortable feeling it brings on, welcome challenges to my thinking.

If we are going to overcome our shortcomings as humans, the first step is awareness. That’s one of the main reasons I write about things like cognitive biases or how preconceived notions can hurt us in our daily lives. Writing about these things helps keep them in the front of my mind, while helping me to connect related information together. Keeping the our emotional irrational nature in check is a difficult task, but one we must engage in every day, and do so intentionally.

Every day, look youself in the mirror, and remind yourself (in the words of author David McRaney(aff link)), “You are not so smart.”

We Must Let Our Children Fail If We Want Them To Succeed

In trying to protect too much, kind people can inflict great cruelty.
-Eric Greitens

The quote above is from the Greitens’s book Resilience, which I’m in the process of reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach my children the best skills for success. I’ve long been a believer that while a parent’s job is to guide and help their children on their path, it’s not for us to make sure the path is without obstacles. We learn best through hard work, and by turning our mistakes and setbacks into well valued experience.

All too often today I see signs that people are treating their children like delicate dolls, rather than what they are, merely small adults. Parents refusing to let their children ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, or even worse, getting in trouble with the law for letting kids walk themselves home from school. Kids now receive trophies even when they place dead last in tournaments. But it doesn’t even stop at children or teenagers; in fact I recently read an article by none other than one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind, detailing how “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”

Greitens hits this one square on, writing:

Not everyone gets a trophy, because not every performance merits celebration. If we want out children to have a shot at resilience, they must learn what failure means. If they don’t learn that lesson from loving parents and coaches and teachers, life will teach it to them in a far harsher way.

Some time ago, I read the book Raising Resilient Children, by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein. It made quite an impression on me, and has stuck with me ever since. The authors mainly focus on fostering a mindset of problem solving and creativity in children, so that they can navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises life will hand them. Ever since then, I’ve tried to always step back and let my children work themselves through things, rather than leap in and correct things as quickly as possible.

Is this hard? You bet. Any parent with any degree of compassion (and I’d hope most do) will find it downright painful to see their child struggle. Whether it be in school or when playing with friends, we always want to see our children happy. But truthfully, we do them more harm by making things easy and swatting things from their path, rather than teaching them the skills to handle it themselves.

When I was in college I remember seeing a fellow freshman student struggle mightily with the task of doing her own laundry. Had I not intervened, I think she would have readily poured bleach all over her (rather expensive looking) clothes. It made me think, “If she can’t even handle doing the laundry, how is she going to handle all the far more adverse challenges college life will contain?”

We may well have the best of intentions when we intervene constantly in our children’s lives. It’s only natural to want them to be content and enjoy life. But we must consider the long term consequences of our actions. Just as our muscles grow stronger only by stretching beyond comfort, so too must we expand our children’s resilience only through the occasional pain of failure.

How Bright Lines Make Life Easier

I’ve been focusing as of late on simplifying my life. I have a lot going on, between a full time job, raising two young children, trying to be a good husband, fulfilling my desire to write, and starting a business. There are plenty of times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the minutia of managing this on a day to day basis. So, I do what I have always done when I feel dissatisfied with something in my life: I try changing things up to see if it improves things (because more change is exactly what I need, right?).

One of the things I’ve focused on as of late is the idea of using “bright lines” to reduce the number of decisions I make on a daily basis. I heard about this concept in Roy Baumeister’s excellent work Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength(aff link). He writes:

“You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. Because the transition is so gradual and your mind is so adept at overlooking your own peccadilloes, you may fail to notice when you’ve gone too far. So you can’t be sure you’re always going to follow the rule to drink moderately. In contrast, zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime.

The idea is this: bright lines are clear and simple rules for how you go about your day. There’s no room for interpretation, no space for arguing over ambiguity. The choice you face is clear: either you follow the rule or you don’t.

While Baumeister mainly talks about applying this to abstaining from bad behaviors (like drinking), I also find it useful in defining daily routines and rituals. If I decide the night before exactly what I’m doing in the morning prior to heading off to work, it eliminates the expenditure of energy in choosing between various paths (do I have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?). This includes not only what I do, but in what order I do it (do I make my coffee first or do my meditation breathing?). Sometimes things go awry based on the interruption by certain small children, but it’s helpful nonetheless.

I also find this useful in defining how I work during the day. I might create a bright line around my use of social media: I only check Facebook after lunch and before heading to the gym. Or I might limit when I check e-mail: I check e-mail once per hour at the fifty minute mark after a forty five minute work session. I can define how I administer my systems: there will be no changes made between 9AM and 5PM EST that have any chance of being disruptive (I wonder on that last bit, do we always know what changes will be “disruptive”? Anyway, I digress.).

Some might argue this is rigid and doesn’t allow for spontaneity. That’s absolutely true, but it’s also the point of so-called bright lines; they take away from flexibility in areas of my life where I don’t need it, so that I reserve my energy for parts where I do. Do I really want to expend energy deciding whether to wear a polo or a t-shirt? Or would I rather keep that energy in reserve, so that I am a more patient parent, or a calm and collected problem solver in the face of an emergency at work?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider implementing a few of these bright lines into your life. You just may find that you free up your energy for far more productive things. Share what you did and if it worked in the comments!

Can Racists Be Reasoned With?

I’m fortunate to have a lot of pretty smart friends, who give me plenty of material for thought (and thus eventually for writing, since that’s how I generally try to organize my thinking). Just yesterday, a friend of mine posted this article, which argues rather convincingly that the cause of many of America’s current ailments is what the author describes as “an abandonment of reason”. He gives numerous examples of this, from climate change denial to sex education. And while I find the argument a good one, I think that there is little cause for optimism of the triumph of reason in this or just about any other case.

In his excellent book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt shows how reason is consistently subjugated by emotion. He uses the very descriptive metaphor of an elephant and a rider, where reason is the rider and emotion / intuition the elephant. The rider can try and guide the elephant, but in case of conflict, the elephant is going to win. Our cognitions, our very deeply held beliefs, are largely the result of post-hoc reasoning rather than sound logistical deduction. We experience a feeling in reaction to something, and our minds come up with a seemingly rational explanation for why we felt that way.

Because of this, I would say that focusing on reason alone is a poor approach to work towards solving problems such as racism. Certainly, racist beliefs generally cannot stand up to the lens of logic, but for someone who holds them this matters little. As he was engaged in his murderous rampage, the suspect reportedly stated “…you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over our country.” This sounds exactly like an appeal to two of Haidt’s six moral foundations, namely those of “Sanctity” and “Authority”. To a racist, those of different racial backgrounds are corrupting the very moral fiber of their nation, threatening the orderly boundaries of society. I have not searched for studies on the matter but I would surmise that these come from deeply seated intuitions, some of which may even be genetically based. As such, anything trying to contradict them is likely to be summarily dismissed.

So is all hope lost? Is there no way to affect change in the minds of racist individuals? There may be a glimmer of possibility, which we glimpse in another friend’s thoughts on the matter:

How do we change their thinking from a young age? Unfortunately most have parents with warped views who are their driving influence, but can we as a community step-up and be just as influential? Would arranging for greater exposure at a young age to those children seemingly different from themselves, in race, religion, etc. be the most effective? Providing the opportunity to internalize the commonality of all humanity by having these relationships when young seems about right to me.

Much like the character of Derek in American History X, organic exposure to other cultures and ideas may be the best hope. Even so, I don’t know that any top-down effort to accomplish this would be effective. Rather, it would only be seen as yet another invasion of culture. Combine this with the media’s continual efforts to polemicize their constituents for the sake of ratings, and sadly I remain rather pessimistic of any kind of large scale resolution to this problem.

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