Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 26, 2020
This column is running eight days before Election Day. Like many of you, I have a dog in the fight, and emotions across the country are running at peak RPMs. So, I thought this would be an ideal time to pause — to reflect.
To do that I turned to a new book, “Step Back: How to Bring Back the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life,” by Joseph Badaracco. You might think that all it takes to reflect is time to sit on the porch and contemplate your place in the universe. Not so easy, pal.
Badaracco interviewed 100 managers, CEOs to line workers, in 15 countries, and he studied the works of Marcus Aurelius, Ignatius Loyola, Michel de Montaigne and others. What he found was that busy people “practice the art of reflection in the cracks and crevices of their everyday lives,” not in long periods of solitude.
If that is the way the world works today, then your trip to the top of the mountain to ask the guru will have to be delayed (COVID, of course), and all of us are going to have to settle for finding more crevices. To that end, Badaracco lays out four design principles for reflection.
“Aim for good enough.” This idea originated in 1770 with the famous French philosopher, Voltaire, who said “perfect is the enemy of good.” This theme comes up all the time in software development. Just give me V1.0 and we will fix the bugs later. Badaracco quotes one manager, “I hate the feeling of not doing anything that I don’t think is productive.” I think this perception has grown more pernicious over the last several decades. God forbid, downtime, whatever will I do with it and if I waste those minutes, I will never get them back, and even worse, my parents will think I am goofing off. Tell me true, readers, does that sentence echo anywhere in your psyche?
Badaracco believes that we do not have to impose ironclad discipline (I will turn my phone off for 12 hours), but rather we should aim for small steps. He says, “thoughtful reflection is worth doing, even if we fall short of our ideal.” It comes in all sizes — being alone, talking to a friend, walking on the beach, driving (turn off the damn radio) — each of us can find a space in which to noodle.
“Downshift occasionally.” This takes many forms. For example, one manager makes a point of walking very slowly to the next meeting. A physical change can trigger and elevate an emotional change. Badaracco suggests that even simply looking at the plant on your desk can be a time to reflect. The key is that it changes the pace of the day. (It might need water).
“Ponder your hard issues.” OK, but pondering is not something you can do for hours on end. We know that pounding on the same nail for a couple of hours leads to either bending the nail or breaking the hammer. After a few intense swings, take a break. That wood isn’t going anywhere. You can come back and grapple with the problem, but make sure to rest your arm periodically.
“Pause and measure up.” This is relevant when you are about to make an important decision. My own style is to make the ruling — and then a few minutes later, come back to it and try to punch holes in it from a different perspective. It makes me bite into the same sandwich twice — and make sure it still tastes good.
Badaracco tells the following story of a famous venture capitalist who says to one of his founders, “If I ever come into your office and find you looking out the window with your feet up on the desk, I’m going to double your salary.” The start-up world is pressured, fluid and complex, and everything is driven by data. The problem for many of us is not a shortage of data, but rather not enough time to develop any real sense of the data. It is in the reflection on the primary data set itself, rather than on the ostensible data-driven conclusion being presented, where real insight might occur. It was an early IBM programmer who coined the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Rule No. 682
“The Thinker” by August Rodin