Focus on Process, not Results
Have you ever been in the water?
Not like a bathtub. I mean like a large body of water. A river, lake, or ocean, for example. Something that’s got enough water that you can’t touch the bottom even if you dive to find it.
If you’ve ever been in a body of water like that, you were either doing one of two things:
The difference between whether you are swimming or drowning is whether or not you know how to swim and are currently executing the swimming process. Otherwise, you are drowning. You may be thrashing around quite vigorously, but that’s not going to help you unless you coordinate your movements in a way which affects swimming.
I’m nearing the end of my apprenticeship at 8th Light. Soon I will go off to face a final pairing tour with the members of my board of review, and then be sent off on my own to face a gauntlet of challenges. Or so I imagine. They keep this part of the apprenticeship a secret.
Point is there is a lot of fear floating around in my head. Fear I won’t complete the apprenticeship in time. Fear I won’t pass the challenges. Fear of what the consequences would be if I was not offered a crafter position.
There’s also a lot of desire. Desire to cement my role here, desire to be validated, desire for that sweet sweet paycheck.
That’s a lot of focus on a result: the completion of the apprenticeship. And in order to complete the apprenticeship, I need to complete this reactive asynchronous server I’m working on. That’s the immediate desired result: get the server working.
Here’s something you might not know about me: Before I taught myself enough software to be awarded this apprenticeship, I studied Taoist philosophy for ten years under a master. I’ve done a lot of things, but when I mention that one, usually some eyebrows raise.
In any case, the master taught something significant, but obvious: To make a thing, you start with an ideal, carry it through with a process, which produces a result. Everything that is made is made in this way.
But what if you just want the result and ignore the rest? In that case, you spend all of your time trapped in a vicious cycle. There will be fear that you won’t get the result on one side, and desire to have the result on the other. And since you are ignoring ideals and process, you cannot create the result you both fear and desire. When you do that, you are like a starving person with a massive appetite and no mouth to satisfy your hunger. Buddhists call this a “hungry ghost”.
Buddhists aren’t Taoist. True. It was a holistic approach to Taoism. But Tao is in everything. So we studied everything. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” We even studied Quantum Physics.
Back to the point, my master would say the first process is how an engineer, an artist, or the universe at large makes things. The second is delusion, and the source of all suffering. The first is achieved by following principles which inform a process. The second is achieved by focusing on the results, which then decay into a cycle of fear and desire, which finally accomplishes nothing except to cause a lot of pain.
For example, swimming is done by applying the principles of physics. A process is used which is informed by physics, the butterfly or the backstroke or the freestyle for example. The result is the body sustains itself while propelling through water.
Drowning is affected by focusing on the result of being safe. That decays into fear of dying and the desire to breathe. No ideal or process is considered at all.
Near the end of my software apprenticeship, I focused on results. I thought just this once, I’ll pull out the stops and go for the prize. But that was a mistake.
I could see the other shore. I desired it so much. I feared losing it so much that I forgot where I was and I stopped swimming. And If I’m not swimming, I’m drowning.
“Swimming” in software is done by applying Agile Principles through processes like Extreme Programming, Test-Driven-Development, Iterative Design, and Software Craftsmanship. These are a developer’s butterflies, her backstrokes, her freestyles. It may seem obvious what would happen in hindsight, but at the time I didn’t realize what I had dropped. I was focused on the result. In the back of my mind I felt something was off, but couldn’t tell what it was.
I had forgotten the value of the process. I had forgotten that it was by that process that I had taught myself to code, that I had built my first tic-tac-toe app, that I had navigated my apprenticeship, and I had recovered from a demoralizing job and an abusive home life. The process of software was a joy to execute, but now I was worrying about a result.
I spent days building piece after piece of my server without tests. I struggled with whiteboarding the various parts, trying to hold the result in my mind all at once. And finally after getting all the pieces to compile without errors, it was time for the big bang. Which was not. It didn’t work. And now I had the problem of trying to find the needle(s) in the haystack that caused it to fail.
So I spent a week “debugging” and still I had no server to show for it.
It was at that point I went for a walk and realized my mistake. I had let fear and desire convince me that I should focus on results rather than on my process. Since results were more important, I abandoned my process.
But that is a lie. Results are not more important if you are the one creating them. Results are what occurs after your process is done with them. Results are what is left behind in the wake of the process. They are not interesting to a creator. Results are only interesting to others, like clients. Clients are interested in results. But for me, I can’t focus on them and create them. The only thing that should concern me is my process and the principles that inform that process. That means 8th Light’s Values, Agile Development, Extreme Programming, Software Craftsmanship, and my own joy of discovery. I am either focused on that process, and swimming, or I am focused on results and drowning. Ironically, if I focus on the results, I’m drowning and I’m not getting results.
Next week is going to be different. I am abandoning results. I am abandoning the fear of failure and the desire for success. I am only focusing on where I am right now, and what I am doing. I am focusing on process. I already feel better and I haven’t even started. And I am certain it’s going to make for better results.