Sunday, April 19, 2009

Rewriting history

I went to the library recently to pick up some books on hold for my sweetie. Among them was The Mote in God's Eye, a first-contact novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I sat reading in the car for a bit, to see if I'd like it. I couldn't remember reading a Niven/Pournelle novel. They tend to write hard science fiction, and while I love hard science, I generally like to get it in short nonfiction articles rather than book-length works, and I haven't often found hard sf captivating.

The first few chapters kept me going, but I never reached that level of absorption where time seems suspended. Mote was interesting, but not impossible to put down. Maybe there were more characters than I could track; maybe I had trouble conjuring a mental image of the aliens; maybe I tried too hard to puzzle out the backstory (which I hadn't read); perhaps I was feeling impatient for the payoff of what seemed to me an overlong setup. Maybe a combination. I got halfway through the book before resorting to the Web for a synopsis.

Once I read the synopsis and knew how the story turned out, I was eager to get back to the book and finish reading it. (And, having finished it, I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.)

This started me thinking about "spoilers," the cheat sheets of popular media. You can find spoiler pages for TV shows, movies, books, games, you name it. Sometimes I don't want to be "spoiled." I want to come to a work fresh and open. I want the suspense to last for as long as the author can draw it out. I want to take my time as it unfolds.

At other times, spoilers renew my interest when it starts to flag. And once I've read a book, or seen a movie, what then? Well, I've read Pride & Prejudice and Atlas Shrugged and War for the Oaks and The Beekeeper's Apprentice about a bazillion times each, and each time, I love them more. Something new opens up, even in that familiar experience.

Life can be like that. Retrospect can reveal patterns imperceptible when I was in the thick of things. Imagining the ultimate results ahead can help me re-engage and can carry me forward.

And there's power in retelling the past, or telling it differently. If history is written by the victors, I possess the privilege of rewriting my own history. I can go back with a new perspective, emphasize different details, come to different conclusions, and change the lessons I learn to more empowering or entertaining ones.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

No excuses!

One of my personal heroes is a former boss who was a no-excuses kind of guy. He would ask for the most complicated meetings, with the most pie-in-the-sky schedule, and it was challenging. I couldn't always get everyone in the same room at the same time. I did my best given the information and resources I had, but I almost always saw room for improvement:

I could have started earlier.
I could have continued longer.
I could have called people at home.
I could have e-mailed people at home.
I could have tried contacting them through other channels.
I could have been more persistent, insistent, or annoying.
I could have delegated to others who had more influence.

What stopped me from doing those things? My own thoughts or beliefs. Typically, they fell into one of three categories:
1. What I've done is good enough. (I've got commitments from the key people, I've met the most important requirements, etc..)

2. It's not worth it. (Investing more effort would likely have diminishing returns; time or quality on another project would suffer.)

3. There will be another opportunity to achieve the outcome. (We can have another meeting for people who couldn't make the first one, or we can have one-on-one meetings or phone calls.)
Sometimes these beliefs were true. What I'd done was good enough. Investing more time or energy wasn't a good choice. Another opportunity did lie ahead. Sometimes they weren't true; they were excuses.

The significant point for me isn't whether the beliefs are true or not - that's secondary to the point that beliefs guide (or motivate) my actions. What I believe is always going to be more important than what's true.

I need to choose my beliefs carefully and be excruciatingly honest with myself.

Perfection isn't possible. No matter what I do, there's going to be room for improvement. The key questions for me are, "What do I want to achieve?" and "What beliefs will move me forward toward that?" and "Am I being honest with myself in those beliefs?"

Being clear about my goals helps me recognize the difference between an excuse and a change in priorities. A change in priorities keeps me moving forward. An excuse derails me. For instance, if my boss said, "Get these 15 people together for a meeting in two weeks," that's the assumed goal. If I couldn't do it because some people's schedules were already booked, I could say, "I can't do this." That's an excuse. But if I ask, "Which is more important: 100% attendance or the two-week time frame?" that's a change in priorities that keeps me moving forward. After all, the meeting itself isn't what's important; the meeting is just a strategy in service to some larger goal. Knowing the end goal means I can change my approach and keep on going.