The Objective

So, this isn’t a blog, but here’s an update: I made my presentation on the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata today. The audience was three IT managers. Of course, nothing I’ve written here was in the presentation, which was entirely a case study on a coach/learner improvement effort a project manager and I executed. The presentation suffered three major revisions—two after two rehearsals, and one after I slept on it. Cut were opinions and such. The details of the case study were expanded. The problem was my larynx was tight during the presentation, so I must have sounded like kermit the frog. This is a basic process error. A simple pre-presentation checklist would certainly have covered this.

Seth’s pre-presentation checklist:

  • Rehearse once per day for the three days leading up to the presentation.
  • For every fantasy you have of it going poorly, identify what is happening in that fantasy, and ask yourself if there’s something you can do to prevent that specifically. If you can, include that countermeasure in your next rehearsal, or at least mentally rehearse it. 
  • Review each slide and ask, “Why is this here?”
  • On the morning of the presentation, practice and speaking from your chest instead of your throat.

Or something. I don’t know. It’s a start. I need to get better at Word Press or CSS so I can adjust the vertical whitespace. Having the same amount of space before and after the header of a list is ugly af.

So, largely I was worried about the reaction of one of the three people, and his reaction was, relatively, very positive. It was basically, “OK, let’s try it. What do we do next?” Which I take to mean I prepared well for the presentation, not that this would have been his reaction regardless . 

Doing the kata this week has put me at odds against myself. This is normal, of course. Or it happens conspicuously and very often. I decide I am wrong-handed. I decide I like math and hate English. I decide I should only read. I decide to devote my life to drawing king fishers. (None of the above are made up.) This conviction is that I need to rely less on references and more on experiments.

On page 364 of The Dream of Reason, speaking about the Romans’ complicated admiration for Greek art, literature, and science, Anthony Gottlieb observes that the Romans, while more industrious than the Greeks, were less interested in empirical research. “The educated classes did not discard Greek intellectual habits altogether, but neither did they embrace them wholeheartedly. As a result, their philosophy was second-hand and so was their science, and second-hand science means no real science at all.” Going on, he says, “The romans wrote and read encyclopedias and compilations of interesting facts, but on the whole they did not share the Greeks’ drive to observe, understand, hypothesize, calculate and generally keep alive the spirit of inquiry.”

Stupid Romans.

When thinking about aims, I vacillate between the more demotic goal and the more martial objectiveAim is good, but less concrete. An aim seems in the air. End is archaic except in hackneyed phrases, though at least two authors have used it as a pun in their book titles. I can’t say goal without thinking about soccer. That’s certainly not true. A friend recently said that Every time I do such and such, I think such and such, but how could she know that? 

I also keep thinking about Schellenberg’s concept of non-believing faith.  Which is basically imagining that something is true, imagining how you would logically behave if it were true, and then attempting to behave that way. An example he gives is how a participant in a foot race behaves.

It turns out by a quirk of human psychology that, for most of us, the impetus of loss aversion is greater than goal attraction. We are more aroused by the threat of losing what we have than the possibility of getting something extra.  Sports psychologists use this to coach athletes to act as if a victory is rightfully theirs.

Lanny Bassham, an olympic gold-medalist, wrote a book based partly on this titled With Winning in Mind. His recipe is: write a description of your future self already having achieved a level of mastery that you currently aspire to. Describe, also, how that feels. Then describe, in detail, the process, day by day, week by week, to achieve that. Make copies of this short story, and post it in several places throughout your house, and read it through at least once per day.

Imagine having won, as if it were already a fact about you, and then behaving the way the imagined you behaved in your head to achieve that win, makes you more likely to win. You’re less likely to shirk during practice or give up the race early, because doing so would deprive you of something that, in your mind, is already yours. Behaving as if something is true, even though you know, logically, that it is not, is an intelligent way to behave. 

If you inadvertently found yourself running next to  a person in a foot race, and you overhead them saying aloud, “You’ll win. Keep going. You’re almost there. You’ll win. Good work. Keep going,” you probably wouldn’t correct them with the observation that they don’t in fact know whether they will win, unless you were rooting for another racer. But even if you did, it likely wouldn’t do any good, because the racer isn’t under any such delusion.

Conversations about what we believe and don’t believe rarely make much sense because they rarely get into epistemology. Interestingly, non-believing faith shares one characteristic of a common test of belief. I don’t know which philosopher coined it, but I’m sure you’ve heard that one way to define belief is an idea on which you are prepared to act. Belief motivates behavior. If a coworker tells you that they have a sure win on the NYSE, ask to see proof that they bought futures in it. But with non-believing faith, you also behave based on this mental construct. 

But I’ve left out one important feature of non-believing faith. In Schellenberg’s description of it, it is an idea about the universe that isn’t obviously false. For this and other reasons, it isn’t a god in any detail, or even a god at all as is popularly imagined. It’s instead an idea that there is some metaphysical object that is of ultimate importance and value.  Importantly, we cannot currently describe it in any detail (we’re a super young species, with an even younger set of active religions, a vanishingly young set of philosophical ideas, and a practically non-existent set of scientific observations and theories) and so we shouldn’t claim knowledge or even non-believing faith in any detailed descriptions. But we can use our imaginations and try to conceive, based on what we have experienced about the world, what behaviors seem to inclined towards a greater good, and which seem petty and short-sighted. 

Of course there are limits to this. We need standards by which we determine whether any prescribed behavior is achieving objective results. Imagination alone isn’t enough. But neither are tasks and short-term goals. Without a far, far off vision, without a transcendent sense of direction, the mind finds problems to solve that it already knows how to solve. It walks in the circles it finds comfortable.

This is what I experienced directly this week, and it’s why I feel like a stupid Roman. Seeing how hard it was for me to achieve simple objectives. What a challenge it was to measure cycle times, make a prediction, record a result, and draw some conclusion, I look back at my he-said she-said rambling and wonder how I’m different from any other true-believing mimic. 

But that’s fine. I was struggling to understand an idea. Now I’m struggling to experiment.

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