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Sunday
Feb122017

Persistence

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to DeveloperTown in December 2016. 

Last week I finally had a chance to read (listen to) The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It's a highly acclaimed book - especially in professional sports. I'd classify it as a modern (almost pop-y?) look at stoic philosophy. It was a good read.

There was a particular quote that jumped out at me while listening. It's from the chapter titled "The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage:"
"It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life - that’s persistence.” ― Ryan Holiday
I'm a quitter

Before DeveloperTown, my longest job out of college was two years. That was at Liberty Mutual working with Julie. Before working with Julie, my average time with a client/employer was probably five months. Now, in my defense, I was mostly a consultant. So I'd jump in, work to solve a problem, and then jump out. But I was good at what I did. Many companies asked me to stay longer. Why did I always leave?

Because it was always easier to find a new gig than it was to figure out how to change the culture of the team I was on. Changing culture is hard. Arguably one of the most difficult things you can do in an organization. Someone on the team who acts like a jerk? Cool. I'm only here for two more weeks. Management keeps failing to communicate why seemingly arbitrary deadlines are set? Cool. I've already committed to start that new project in Chicago next month. Stories getting delivered where quality was so poor I couldn't even exercise the basics of the feature? Cool. I'm going to work with CompanyA/CompanyB/CompanyC in two weeks. They will be better, right? (Wrong.)

I'd quit. I didn't leave after I had changed the thing that was bugging me. I left before even attempting to. This has resulted in a critical problem for me - lack of experience.

Over the last seven years, I have been figuring out how to really influence others for the first time. I acted like a child in early partner disagreements. I had never really had to argue with someone for something I wanted. I don't really know the right ways to hold someone who reports to me accountable and how to coach them to higher performance. Coming into DT, I really only had four years of management experience. I still struggle to detach myself from a situation and look at it objectively. Something you have to learn to do if you really want to identify systemic issues so you can pull the right levers to influence sustained change. 


"...to plant your feet and keep inching closer..."

I've decided to plant my feet here at DeveloperTown. I'm learning a lot, but it's still hard. So how does one develop persistence? Some un-researched ideas:

  • I think stoic philosophy is a good place to start. I have a dog named Seneca for a reason. Maybe I'll name next year's pigs Marcus and Aurelius. Is that wrong? If you want to give stoic philosophy a shot, I'd recommend either Gates of Fire (a super fun read, with some deep meaning hidden in the story) or On the Shortness of Life (my first read in stoic philosophy, hugely impactful).
  • I also think you need role-models around you. People whom you see persist in the face of adversity. For me, that's many of my peers here at DeveloperTown. I'll resist naming some of them, because all of them have at one point or another shown me persistence in the face of adversity. I also see persistence in many of our clients. Sometimes I may think that persistence might be wasted on a particular product - but it doesn't negate how inspirational it is. To see someone pushing their idea/business/goal forward in the face of overwhelming odds is simply awesome.
  • Practice persistence in smaller ways by doing other things in your life that are hard, but not quite as hard as what you're trying to do at work. I've wanted to quit aikido a couple of times now. Early on it was because of the pain from my back injury. And later it was because of frustration with slow development of technique. There were two times I drove away from the dojo thinking I was done - never going back. Both times I ended simply deciding I wouldn't let myself quit. Not for those reasons. Once I have my blackbelt, if I want to quit then - I'll let myself. For you, it might be the book you've been working on. It might be a personal fitness or health goal. It might be a broken relationship in your family or past friendship you've been putting of mending.
  • Find someone you can talk to about the challenge you're facing. I still want to quit DeveloperTown when it's hard. Michael - almost annually - has to talk me off the ledge. I know that sucks for him. I'm sure a third of those gray hairs on his head are from me. Even though I know it's difficult for him, when I need that annual pep talk it's critical for me. He provides a perspective I often forget. He reminds me of why I want to gut it out. That's immensely helpful. When you have someone to talk to, you're not alone.
  • Breakup the journey into smaller victories. We will likely never finish "changing DeveloperTown's culture." That's an impossible goal. Because our culture is an amorphous thing that changes over time and is impossible to fully understand and measure. However, I can affect it (hopefully for better) to move in a specific direction for a period of time. I'd love to see us get better at giving each other feedback. (reminder: When you do X, I notice Y, going forward can you Z?) I might win a small victory by beating that drum over the next year, but while I'm focused on feedback, I'm not focused on other aspects of culture. I need to focus on that small victory. As Holiday puts it, that's "inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress" of company culture. Win the inch. Over time, you'll win the fortress.
Why talk about persistence?

As we grow, I'm sure we all see things that we'd like to change, we wish things were different, or we hit a wall on a specific project, team, or relationship. The easiest response is to get frustrated and checkout. Even if you don't move on right away, you can be checked out for months. Sometimes that instinct might be the right answer for a very short period of time (calm down, detach from the situation, reflect on your own behavior in the situation), but you need to check back in at some point. When you do, how will you respond? Will you keep inching closer to the outcome you want? Or move on?

I hope you inch closer. I plan to.

Feedback welcome. (See what I did there?)

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