Keeping up — revisited


(Source: dilbert.com)

At SQL Saturday #615, I had the pleasure of sitting through a session by Eugene Meidinger titled “Drinking From the Firehose: a Guide to Keeping Up with Technology.”  His presentation brought to mind my earlier ‘blog article about struggling to keep up with technology, and he also mentioned a few things that didn’t occur to me.  I won’t rehash his presentation — I didn’t ask him for permission to use it, and I don’t want to step on his toes — but I do want to mention a few points he brought up.  (I was actually hoping he would have an article on this topic to which I could link, but I wasn’t able to find one on his ‘blog.)

The first point he makes is that keeping up with technology is impossible.  He points out that “keeping up is ill-defined.”  What, exactly, does it mean to keep up with technology?  It’s such a vague, gray area.  He mentions that you are never “done,” and keeping up is more an emotional issue than a goal.  He also mentions that the rate of change is accelerating.  How can you keep pace with something that is always getting faster?  It can’t be done.

Eugene talks about what he calls “the contradiction of learning.”  To add value, we need to specialize, but to avoid being irrelevant, we need to generalize.  Personally, I’ve based my career on being a jack-of-all-trades, but I’ve also discovered that employers are looking for experts in a single area.  That is difficult in and of itself.  If you specialize in an area, who is to say that it will be relevant down the line?  When I was in college, COBOL was a big deal, and many employers were looking for people who were well-versed in COBOL.  When was the last time you saw a job listing for a COBOL programmer?  On the other hand, SQL has been around for quite some time, and there seems to be no shortage of SQL positions.  So how do you know which technology should warrant your focus?  It’s hard to predict.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into Eugene’s presentation; it’s his presentation, not mine, and I don’t want to take too much away from him.  (His presentation slides are available at the link to his SQL Saturday presentation above, if you want to read more.)  If you ever have an opportunity to catch his presentation, I encourage you to do so.

Free agency

Well, after posting an article only a month ago about losing a job, I am now in that position myself.  I was officially dismissed from my position this afternoon.

Yes, I am, admittedly, a little down, but at the same time, I also feel a measure of freedom — the type where I feel like I can spread my wings and fly.  I feel good about my prospects, and I’m sure that I will be landing on my feet soon.

So, time for me to practice what I preach.

Don’t be afraid to screw up

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never gonna keep me down…”
— Chumbawamba

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

“It’s not how we fall.  It’s how we get back up again.”
— Patrick Ness

It’s been said that (baseball) pitchers need to have short memories.  Whenever a pitcher makes a mistake — say, gives up a home run — he needs to shake it off — forget about it and move on to the next batter.

That being said, he needs to remember it as well.  He needs to figure out what he did wrong (e.g. “okay, he likes the fastball down and away”) and remember not to make that same mistake the next time that batter comes up to hit.  In other words, he learns from his mistake.

This pretty much happens to all of us.  We’re human.  We’re not perfect.  We’re going to make mistakes.  The issue is when we become afraid of those mistakes.  We become so afraid of mistakes that it discourages us from doing things.

Let me make one thing clear.  I’m not talking about people who willfully make mistakes, don’t care, or strive for mediocrity (which, by the way, is a huge pet peeve of mine, and one that I do not tolerate.  That’s another ‘blog post for another time).  I’m talking about people who genuinely care about what they’re doing, who want to do a good job or get better, and are putting in an effort to reach that goal.

As a part-time musician who holds a leadership position, this particularly troubles me when it comes to making music.  Someone doesn’t want to play something because he or she is afraid of screwing up.  Why?  Music is an area where it makes the most sense to make mistakes.  The time spent practicing or rehearsing music is when making mistakes makes the most sense.  It’s called practice for a reason.  It’s time spent to address areas that need to be improved — hence, why it’s important to make mistakes.  Mistakes tell us what needs work or what needs to be addressed.  Mistakes are why we rehearse.  We don’t — and shouldn’t — practice what we’re doing right; we need to practice what we’re doing wrong.

When it comes to music, I attribute part of it to stage fright.  People don’t want to make mistakes in front of other people.  I say, who cares?  So what if you make a mistake?  What’s going to happen?  Are people going to think less of you?  In all likelihood, probably not.  For what it’s worth, I’ve heard — and even seen — professional musicians make mistakes during concerts or live performances.  More often than not, they’ll keep going as if nothing happened.  No big deal.  It’s funny, but I lost my fear of performing (or speaking) in front of groups a long time ago.  I attribute it to realizing that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world.

The same holds true on the job.  Many of us are afraid to make mistakes at work.  Why?  Are we going to get fired?  Unless the mistake is either (1) very large, or (2) numerous, it’s unlikely.  How many of you have had bad days at work?  It happens sometimes.  How many of you have lost your job because of them?  I suspect, not many.

The thing is, we always want to be better at something.  Getting better means getting out of our comfort zone.  When that happens, we’re going to make mistakes.  I’ve often said that “perfection as a goal is okay.  Perfection as a standard is not.”  We’re not built for perfection.  That’s what being human is all about.  Someone once said that “one of the worst quotes ever coined is ‘get it right the first time.’  It’s stupid, because almost nobody ever gets it right the first time.”

Well, someone might say, “what about a profession where you can’t afford to make mistakes, where making a mistake can cost lives, such as doctors and airline pilots?”

For this, I point out a couple of things.  First, there’s a reason why jobs like that require extensive training and practice.  Pilots practice in simulators.  Doctors practice on cadavers and dummies.  In both cases (and probably others as well), students are closely supervised.  These days, virtual reality contributes to these practice scenarios as well.  And even then, mistakes will be made during practice.  Second, professions such as these are becoming increasingly reliant on checklists.  Checklists decrease the probability of mistakes, and are becoming increasingly prevalent in numerous professions.  (I have an idea for a presentation and a ‘blog article about checklists; hopefully, this will be coming soon.)

The ability to make mistakes is important.  We learn from them.  We get better because of them.  They make us stronger.  And once you can address them, overcome them, learn how to recover from them, or eliminate them, chances are that people will say that you’re the master at your craft, whatever that craft may be.

My 2017 SQL Saturday Schedule (so far)

My 2017 SQL Saturday schedule is slowly taking shape!  For those of you who are interested, here’s where I’ll be (so far)!

Come on out to a SQL Saturday near you!  The events are free (although there is usually a nominal fee for lunch), there are lots of networking opportunities, and you might just learn something new!

And as an added bonus, you might even get to hear me speak! 😉

Be the best you you can be

Ho-Jon: “How can I ever thank you?”
Hawkeye Pierce: “You just go and be the best you you can be.”

“Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned?  I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…”
— Supertramp, “The Logical Song”

“Who are you?  Who, who, who, who?”
— The Who

At my CrossFit gym last night, we had a tearful good-bye to a friend (one of our members) who was moving out to the western part of the state, along with her husband and children, for a new life.  One thing she said struck me: “I’m not the same person I was when I walked into this place.  How is this new person going to be able to adapt to a new place?  Am I going to be able to find another Ray, or another [name], or another [another name]…?”

I said to her, “all you can do is be you.”

I said that, and I believe that.  But what, exactly, does that mean?

I could probably write an entire book about that (and some people have), but I’ll spare you the gory details.  Besides, I’m no psychologist, and what I say might be worth about as much as a politician’s alt-facts (don’t get me started).  But, since this is a ‘blog article, and I write what I think, well…

For starters, you’re the one person whom you’ll get to know the best.  You know your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your tastes, your interests, and so on, better than anyone else.  You’re the one person over whom you have complete, 100% control (disclaimer: I am not talking clinically; that is another discussion about which I know nearly nothing).   If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t take stock of who you are, you’ll start having issues.

Knowing yourself leads you to something else: having confidence and faith in yourself.  If you know yourself, you know, for the most part, what you’re capable of doing.  I’m not always sure as to what I’m capable of handling, but I do know myself enough to know what I can do.

This bring me to another thought: being you also means testing your limits.  Testing your limits means stepping outside your comfort zone.  Are you capable of doing more?  Often, you won’t know until you try.  And once you do try, how does it make you feel?  Proud?  Accomplished?  Can you do even better the next time you try?  The point is, you will always be you, but you are never static.  We are always changing.  Who you are now is probably not the same you from years ago.  And who you will be in several years won’t be the same you that you are now.

The world is a scary place.  It is human nature to fear what we don’t know.  But the world around us often defines who we are.  Who we are depends on what kind of cards we’re dealt.  We are often shaped by the changes we face.  And in the end, the way you deal with change is to continue being the same, ever-changing you that you’ve always been.

The checklist manifesto

Some time ago, I came up with a new presentation idea that I tentatively titled “The magic of checklists.”  The idea is to demonstrate how checklists can improve tasks in any organization.  I have a number of ideas regarding this presentation, and I’ll expand upon them in a future ‘blog article.

As preparation for this idea, I assigned myself some homework.  My friend, Greg Moore, recommended a book to read: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.  I borrowed a copy from the local library and started reading.

The book (which I’m still reading) is turning out to be an excellent read: so much so that I’m considering purchasing my own copy, instead of just relying on the one I borrowed from the library.  (This way, I can use a highlighter and scribble my own notes in the book.). Yes, it reinforces my ideas about using a checklist to improve upon workplace tasks.  But I’m also discovering that there is so much more.  Reading this book has enlightened me on numerous ideas that had never occurred to me.

The book hits upon numerous concepts, each of which is worth an entire presentation in their own right.  Among them: the importance of communication, organizational structure, teamwork, crew/team resource management, keeping an open mind, empowering a team, following instructions, making adjustments, and doing the right thing.  (Since I’m not yet finished with the book, there are likely a number of other concepts I haven’t mentioned that I haven’t yet come across.). When I first picked up the book, my initial thought was, “how much can there be about a simple checklist?”  I’ve since learned that a checklist — any checklist, no matter how small — is not simple.  And while a checklist is an important tool, it is also a big part of an even bigger process.  All the ideas I listed several sentences ago are all part of that process.

I’d like to relay a story I came upon in the book.  David Lee Roth of Van Halen was famously known for canceling concerts if his instructions for leaving a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed in the dressing room were not followed.  Many people — myself included — decried him for these seemingly cockamamie instructions.  However, there was a method to his madness.  It turned out that this was a test.  If that instruction hadn’t been followed, then it was possible that another critical instruction — like, say, installing bracing to ensure the stage didn’t collapse — had not been followed.  (And before you think instructions like these can’t be missed, they can, and they have — sometimes, with disastrous consequences.) It goes to show that there is always more to the story.

Once I finish reading this book and can organize my thoughts, I’ll put out another article and another presentation (hopefully, coming soon to a SQL Saturday near you).  In the meantime, I highly recommend this book.  Maybe it’ll change your perspective the way it has changed mine.