During my visit to a library in my neighbourhood, I usually see two contrasting groups. One is a group of retired men mostly in their 60’s and 70’s and other is a group of college students. The contrast is not in the age but the life in the togetherness of these people. The retired men’s group is lively, people are chatting and arguing, cracking jokes at each other. The student’s group on the other hand was too silent with sporadic comments like ‘Hey check what I have just shared’. The student’s group was hanging out in the virtual world in texts and memes.

We always seek joy, we will always find ways to remain happy but we give more weightage to frivolous joy than momentous ones. Short term goals or immediate gratification gives joy because of the reward cycle of our brain; we are trained to get satisfaction by being busy and believe we can get great output just by rote activity, just a vestige of industrial revolution practices.

I read this story somewhere sometime ago — A poet who has not produced much in the recent times took a boat and rowed to the middle of a lake. He thought the distance from the people and quiet atmosphere will lead him to good train of thoughts. It was nightfall so he lit a candle, pulled out his notebook to write but no thoughts occurred to him. He was flipping between his old poems for inspiration and also closed his eyes tyring too hard to concentrate. Hours went by and nothing happened, he thought reading some book will help him and started to read, but it got windy and he had a hard time to keep the candle from getting out. After several minutes of struggle to keep the candle burning, he gave up in frustration and the wind blew the candle out.

moon-165487_640Until the candle was burning bright, he was missing a beautiful sight of the full moon which gracefully illuminated the entire lake, the valley and the surrounding hills. That whole evening he had been waiting for an inspiration to write and it was just lying in front of him. The wind by blowing out the candle, did the trick; the sight in front of him was so spectacular that it inspired the poet to produce one of his greatest works.

 ‘I am not producing anything creative, so why ask me not to browse and consume information always? I enjoy this more than our conversations’ — This is a common retort when you remind people to be present in a situation and not fiddling with their gadgets. It is gadget to be very specific as books are not very destructively distracting, books cannot cater to a short attention span and can not provide on demand entertainment.

A study was done on rats for addictive behaviour, a lever was provided in a cage which provided a dose of cocaine when pulled. On discovering this, the rats kept pulling the lever for more and more doses of cocaine until it killed them. Our neural pathways for reward is not very different from that of rats, we would soon get hooked on to joyful behaviour even though it will cause us harm in the long run. The only way to get away from this is to consciously avoid the ‘pull to refresh’ hooks in the gadgets and set some quality time for leisure. Fortunately delayed gratification is an acquired skill, there are enough studies like ‘The standford marshmallow’ experiment suggest that people disciplined enough are way more successful.

Leisure is one of the best rewards, it is very hard earned and should be spent wisely. There was once a time when people predicted that the world will be with so many machines that people can accomplish their work within few hours of work everyday and pursue their hobbies; fast forward to the digital revolution, the work and leisure no longer has boundaries, in fact there are no boundaries and distances at all.

If socializing & leisure is forgotten due to blurred boundaries then the only reward we have is to keep ourselves busy. We reach out to our pockets to consume information to gratify the need to have a sense of usefulness. That leads us nowhere, it is just being busy for the sake of busyness, some sense of self worth.

It is okay to say that we have free time, of all the years I spent when I look back; the only thing in memories are those mindless chats, sports, games, hobbies etc. None of the memories like going through social feeds for hours together is so memorable, those seem like a blip when looking back compared to the memorable ones however small in duration they were, seems very vivid. By being deliberately busy we are just passing time, not living.

I was having a chat with an old time ThoughtWorks developer, the topic was trending towards voluminous work and long days at work. I interjected with the point that the developers should not be willing to work long and hard hours, instead they should be lazy so that there are better tools and automations coming out of them, rather than checking boxes on long todo lists for the day.

He thought for a while and then replied “You are right, the CruiseControl continuous integration tool was born out of laziness”. He went on to explain that one of the developers felt that it was too annoying to walk up to a computer, pull code out and run the build & tests. So the person put a build loop on that machine to do that task. Someone else put a web interface to it and there a new tool was born. It left a lasting legacy in the continuous integration space. (Cruise control home page).

Why do people relate long working hours to prosperity?

The industrial revolution required a good deal of unskilled labourers who were given instructions and repetitive tasks to be done. The more they do, the more money the company makes. So overtime was rewarded with more money and people tend to stay longer to get paid overtime. The invention part of automating the repetitive tasks were left to someone else, the thought of hard and long work is rewarding stayed on even though there was a chance of a new invention that could take this entire category of job away.

After many decades of advancements in the industrial space, automations have taken a majority of space. The place where the automation as of now is not able to get into are creative spaces or knowledge work. If a job requires more than few simple steps then it is beyond the mechanical skills and involves cognitive skills. The moment when even rudimentary cognitive skills are involved, then no longer any of those incentives and hour based pay work. It is explained well in the video created from the work of Dan Pink, the author of the book Drive.

Wisdom gets passed on through generations, bosses and workers alike, people were conditioned from the childhood that hard and long work is the only way prosper. When that person becomes the boss, demands the hours and when that person is the worker, obliges to it.

Programming is a step further, it involves complex thinking which requires us to bring deeper parts of our brain to work. Andy Hunt in his book The Pragmatic Programmer talks about L-mode and R-mode, which is about using our linear mode of the brain or the rich/random mode of the brain. Though there is value for linear mode, programming benefits a great deal from the R-mode. Staring outside the window, doodling, watching the fountain, a stroll could all be more productive activities than staring at the screen and furiously typing commands for long hours because new ideas pop out when you are least expecting and unprepared.

A programmer has to be lazy, should not jump into the task at hand instead approach programming with a mindset of ‘No code is the best code’. Laziness will make us look for to remove mundane repetitive tasks out of the way which will also pop up more creative ideas through R-mode. Workplaces should also help ease the norms of equating the number of hours in seat to productivity.

Push the problem out of your foreground mind, and just “hold it lightly”. Then go for a walk, etc. That’s when insights and breakthroughs come to me.— Henri Poincaré

Why not follow the boy scout rule when moving on?

pass on

Boy scout rule is well known in extreme programming, people are advised to leave the code in a better state than they found it. I observe this mostly works well for programming but not elsewhere. I have always admired teachers especially the ones that teach the basics. I made it a point that if I understand something after a good deal of effort then I would make it easy for another person by simplifying it. I kept doing this at school and college, I helped people learn tough parts of algebra, chemistry and physics through easy analogies.

When I graduated and got my job, I still carried on with this work of simplifying the tough things I learnt. There was a sudden change in team composition and I had to take up the work of a sysadmin, which was difficult for someone who was in technical support and testing for a year. I spent a lot of time learning to fit in the new role and in the process making sure that the next person getting on to this will require less transition, this is the time I was in for a rude shock; I was told by one of the senior members of the team ‘if you proceed this way of simplifying things and sharing your knowledge, you will soon be out of your job’.

The intentional complexity was hard to accept, especially when the company was trying hard to reduce dependencies on people. The high complexity created many silos in the team which made replacements harder eventually causing the team’s growth to slow down. It gave a false sense of security as people were called experts in their tasks, but not learning anything new as the learning curve was too steep.

Not working together with peers or communities will lead to phase called ‘Expert beginner’ which prevents someone from becoming competent. There is a good writeup about ‘Expert Beginner’. People take pride in the complexity of the their work and put through the new comers through the same phase so that the learning curve is steep and there is still value for expert beginners.

I read an article from ‘British Bird Lovers’ which is about how red robins which are territorial in nature lost out on the learnings it had got to open sealed bottles. The birds which learnt and kept the knowledge to itself gained a lot, but its successors did not learn any. The article finishes well saying ‘Birds that flock together appear to learn faster and increase their chances to evolve and survive’.

The general tendency for people is to pass on what was handed down to them as it is, especially if they spent a lot of effort to make it work for them. If someone has a tough time getting on board at workplace, s/he will tend to keep the on-boarding process the same, largely due to the fear of someone else overtaking or replacing them. In the process creating a culture of territory and stagnation instead of co-operation and shared growth.
Eric Schmidt mentions in his presentation ‘How google works’, that the only way to consistently succeed is to attract skilled people, work as a group, care for the workplace. We should only hand down the best, leave the place better than we find, if we do it that way then together we move ahead.