Lessons from Lucius Seneca’s “On The Shortness Of Life”

One interesting topic I’ve come across this year in a few podcasts I listen to is Stoicism. William Irvine introduced the school of thought in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast and Ryan Holiday wrote a practical guide about it for entrepreneurs on The Tim Ferriss Show. It has practical applications in daily life, and because of that I’d like to eventually learn more about what to practice and its how’s and why’s. For now though, I thought that reading up on Seneca’s essay ‘On the Shortness of Life‘ would be a good starting point.

Here are some notes from the essay:

  • It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. So it is: the life we are given isn’t short but we make it so; we’re not ill provided but we are wasteful of life.
  • Look at those whose prosperity draws crowds: they are choked by their own goods. How many have found their wealth a burden! How many are drained of their blood by their eloquence and their daily preoccupation with showing off their abilities! How many are sickly pale from their incessant pleasures! How many are left with no freedom from the multitude of their besieging clients!
  • What foolish obliviousness to our mortality to put off wise plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to want to begin life from a point that few have reached!
  • The person who devotes every second of his time to his own needs and who organizes each day as if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next day. For what new kind of pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? Everything has been experienced, everything enjoyed to the full. For the rest, fortune may make arrangements as it wishes; his life has already reached safety. Addition can be made to this life, but nothing taken away from it – and addition made in the way that a man who is already satisfied and full takes a portion of food which he doesn’t crave and yet has room for.
  • I am always astonished when I see people requesting the time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, and neither on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because it’s an immaterial thing that doesn’t appear to the eyes, and for that reason it’s valued very cheaply – or rather, it has practically no value at all.
  • The greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies in tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.
  • There is a common saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents we were allotted, and that they were given to us by chance; yet we can be born to whomever we wish. There are households of the most distinguished intellects: choose the one into which you’d like to be adopted, and you’ll inherit not just the name but also the actual property, which is not to be hoarded in a miserly or mean spirit: the more people you share it with, the greater it will become.
  • Honors, monuments, all that ostentatious ambition has ordered by decree or erected in stone, are soon destroyed: there’s nothing that the long lapse of time doesn’t demolish and transform. But it cannot harm the works consecrated by wisdom: no age will efface them, no age reduce them at all. The next age and each one after that will only enhance the respect in which they are held, since envy focuses on what is close at hand, but we more freely admire things from a distance.
  • It is nevertheless better – believe me – to know the balance sheet of one’s own life than that of the public grain supply.
  • In this mode of life much that is worth studying awaits you: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of how to live and to die, and deep repose.
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Everyday, Prepare Something To Be Curious For

Everyday, prepare a very specific question (or a task) interesting enough to warrant research for an answer within several hours without distraction. Sometimes for learning, sometimes for fun, hopefully most days for both. Everyday there must be an adventure to immerse in, albeit small, something to be curious for.

Notes from Creating Great Teams (How Self-Selection Lets People Excel) by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole

Here’s an always challenging question: how are great software development teams formed? Managers, scrum masters, we all struggle to create continuous progress within our groups. And we know that there’s lots of factors in why that is – communication, skills, individual quirks. Sandy Mamoli and David Mole tells us that self-selection is the answer, and their book, Creating Great Teams (How Self-Selection Lets People Excel), provides us with the details.

Here are some notes from the book:

  • Fundamentally, two factors determine whether a group will forge itself into a team: 1) Do these people want to work on this problem? 2) Do these people want to work with each other? Neither a computer program nor a manager can answer these questions. Only the employees who will do the work can.
  • Self-selection is a facilitated process of letting people self-organize into small, cross-functional teams. Based on the belief that people are at their happiest and most productive if they can choose what they work on and who they work with, we think it’s the fastest and most efficient way to form stable teams.
  • The best motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy provides employees with freedom over some or all of the four main aspects of work: when they do it, how they do it, who they do it with, and what they do. Mastery encourages employees to become better at a subject or task that matters to them and allows for continuous learning. Purpose gives people an opportunity to fulfill their natural desire to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves.
  • No one chooses to work on more than one team or project. Time and again organizations fall into the trap of optimizing resources rather than focusing on outcomes. People often believe that multitasking, having people work across several projects, and focusing on resource utilization are the keys to success, when in reality they’re not.
  • People communicate face to face. There are barely any discussions about process or how to communicate. Team members just talk and coordinate and collaborate as needed. Things are much faster that way.
  • In the spirit of letting people control their way of working, we never mandate whether a squad should run scrum, kanban, their own special creation, or a traditional way of working. Following Daniel Pink’s principles of motivation, one of the key forms of autonomy is being in control of your processes. Giving people autonomy over who they work with should be extended by letting them choose how they work together.
  • There are two agile practices we believe should remain mandatory: retrospectives and physical story walls (if you are co-located).
  • It’s fair to say that sometimes employees don’t want to work with each other. And that’s okay. People know whether they’re going to gel in a squad with a particular person, and if not, it makes sense they would choose not to work with him or her. Self-selection, unlike management selection, allows them to make that choice.

Be Brave To Ask People To Join You On A Quest

I have always thought of myself as a good listener. That’s what I believe to be particularly the reason why I have thrived working with both programmers and product owners, a software tester in the midst of all sorts of people. It’s a fundamental skill I have learned to be proficient in.

What’s not my strong suit at though is asking people for what I want or need. Of course asking for little things or asking probing/clarifying questions isn’t that difficult; what’s tough is inviting people to join you on a quest, asking friends to do something interesting together, or asking a fascinating lady out to lunch. It’s a fear which doesn’t get any easier even if I actually know the problem. And the solution is the same as with all skills: practice. It has been and always will be a struggle, so I need to continuously remind myself to be brave.

Takeaways from Elisabeth Hendrickson’s “There’s Always A Duck”

Elisabeth Hendrickson’s book “There’s Always A Duck” has been around for a number of years but I have only been able to read it recently. Now I know what she meant about ducks. They’re literally about ducks, but also about people too. People are different, and yet we share similarities. We experience things, we communicate with each other, and we learn and get better because of those experiences. Her book tells us stories of her adventures and the lessons she’s discovered along the way, and it was nice to have had a glimpse of what she saw and felt with her encounters with software project teams and everyone involved.

Some takeaways:

  • The vast majority of programmers I have met are diligent, capable folk. They truly care about the quality of their work and want the software they produce to be useful. They work hard to make sure they are implementing the right features and writing solid code.
  • The next time you’re tempted to think of your programmers as idiots, incompetents, or quality hostile, remember that no matter what else they may be, they’re people first. Even if it seems like they’re hostile or incapable, it is far more likely that they are having a very human reaction to a particularly bad situation.
  • And before you blame someone else for a mistake, remember the last time you made one. I’ve made some real whopper mistakes in my time. We all have, whether or not we choose to admit them or even remember them. It may be that some programmers don’t care about users, but it’s more likely that bugs are honest mistakes made under difficult circumstances.
  • Even when we are speaking the same language and about the same thing, it’s hard enough to communicate.
  • The point wasn’t to catch every possible error. What seems to go wrong most often? What errors are difficult to see at first glance, and thus require concentration to prevent? What causes the most damage when it happens?
  • Janet doesn’t know anything about the ins and outs of creating software. She probably doesn’t want to know. She just wants to serve her customers well. And this software is not helping. Back at corporate, the Steering Committee, Requirements Analysts, Designers, Programmers and Testers are congratulating themselves on a solid release. What they don’t see is Janet’s pain. The feedback loop is broken. The team back at corporate has no mechanism to find out whether the software is any good. Oh, sure, they’ll detect catastrophic problems that cause servers to go down. But they won’t see the little things that cause long queues at the front desk of the hotel.
  • Testers naturally notice details. Not only do we notice, but we think about what we noticed, we attempt to interpret our observations to explain why things might be that way, we ask others if they noticed, we question our assumptions, and we poke and prod at things to see if our understanding is correct. We use our observations to inform us, and in doing so discover underlying causes and effects we otherwise might miss.
  • I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the first problem I see must be THE problem that needs to be solved. Perhaps the problem I spotted is indeed worth correcting, but I almost never manage to spot the true critical issue at first glance.
  • Both fear and excitement stem not from observable reality but rather from speculation. We are speculating that the bugs that we know about and have chosen not to fix are actually as unimportant to our users as they are to us. We are speculating that the fact we have not found any serious defects is because they don’t exist and not because we simply stopped looking. We are speculating that we knew what the users actually wanted in the first place. We are speculating that the tests we decided not to run wouldn’t have found anything interesting. We are speculating that the tests we did run told us something useful. None of it is real until it is in the hands of actual users. The experience those users report is reality. Everything else is speculation.
  • It’s not because Agile is about going faster. It’s because structuring our work so that we can ship a smaller set of capabilities sooner means that we can collapse that probability wave more often. We can avoid living in the land of speculation, fooling ourselves into thinking that the release is alive (or dead) based on belief rather than fact. In short, frequent delivery means we live in reality, not probability.
  • Hire the right people. If that means keeping a critical position on the team open longer than anticipated, so be it. It’s better to have an under- staffed team of highly motivated, talented, skilled people than a fully staffed but ineffective team. Remember that hiring mistakes often take only a few minutes to make, and months of wasted time to undo.
  • Listen. There are always signs when a project is in trouble: missed milestones, recurrent attitude problems, general confusion about the project. Sometimes these signs indicate a dysfunctional team, sometimes they’re just normal bumps along the road, and sometimes they are early warning signs of major problems. The only way to tell the difference is to listen carefully to what the team members have to say.
  • The best way to get people to accept change is to make it more fun, and more rewarding, to do things the new way.
  • Choose a path that takes you in the direction you want to go. Don’t choose a path simply because it takes you away from the swamp you want to avoid.

Allow People To Do What They Think Is Best

To find out that the programmers in the team are seeking out product owners, stakeholders, and teammates on their own to ask clarifications and start meaningful discussions is a positive thing for me, to notice them initiate communication to whomever they need to talk to is always a major confidence booster about their ability to work on problems on their own. They never need my authority or permission to do what they think is best, they manage their own tasks, they own the responsibility to do the right thing as they see fit. I’m just there to help them perform the best work they can, in the form of suggestions and testing.

That’s why it’s bewildering to see someone get disappointed over a behavior that I deem to be on the plus side. Why would letting developers talk directly to stakeholders make you feel overstepped, if they think it supports better work? It seems to be, at least for me, a shallow use of a leadership position, a certain level of being clingy to power that’s not serving the team mission. It’s an upsetting, controlling reaction that I feel does not do any good.

Focus on empowering the team.

Team Questions I

What  does our team actually want to accomplish this particular sprint?

Do I know my teammates well enough?

Does everyone in the team feel safe working together with each other?

Can I rely on everybody in the team?

What does a user story mean to us?

Do we even need tickets in order to perform our best work?

Do we truly need this specific document to move forward?

How can I help a teammate feel good with the work he/she is doing?

What’s the minimum amount of input do we need in order to start?

What’s the 20% of activities that contribute to 80% of outputs we desire?

Do we believe in what we are building?

Which rules, in reality, help us become the best versions of ourselves? Which don’t?