Embracing the tradeoffs

Sometimes Seth Godin’s posts are a little too short and sweet.

His argument is that a decision without tradeoffs is not a decision. I assume the point was that without acknowledging that you’re giving something up, you’re probably deluding yourself into thinking you’re doing things “the right way” rather than “the best option given current understanding”.

I sort of have to infer that, because there’s no context or explanation. I would also assume that Seth would agree that those “decisionless decisions” are lazy and cowardly and optimized for shifting blame for failure, rather than a calculated risk with a specific reward in mind.

But I’d go a step further and say that unless you embrace the tradeoffs, you didn’t make a decision, you’re letting decisions feel like circumstances, and letting them push you around.

About a year ago, my wife and I made a commitment to getting out of credit card debt and letting her become a stay-at-home mom. She’s now been home for about 9 months, and it’s been wonderful in many ways.

But last night, I caught myself complaining about my financial situation. It’s our first holiday season on a single income, and some unexpected home repairs didn’t come at the best time.

The thing is, we knew this was coming. We knew we’d be making some sacrifices after years of high comfort and low worry. So it’s disingenuous to complain about it at all. It’s certainly not true of every couple, but in our situation, we’d much rather have a little stress about money and have the benefits of a stay-at-home parent. When I’m being mindful to embrace the tradeoffs, I’m immensely grateful that’s even an option for us.

Why embrace the tradeoffs?

It’s a formula for focus. Creating a product for a niche market imposes severe limits on mass adoption, but it lets you stop trying to be everything to everyone.  For my wife and I, embracing the tradeoffs gave us the vision we needed to get out of debt.

It provides strength when you need it most. When people undertake something without predicting and embracing tradeoffs, the first serious challenges come as a shock, and this is where most people quit. Understanding and remembering what you planned to give up is often all it takes to stick through those rough patches.

It puts you in the driver’s seat. Embracing the tradeoffs means that even when everything isn’t rosy, the decision was yours, and you also have the ability to change couse if necessary. You’re not the victim of circumstances beyond your control, you’re experiencing the effects of a decision you made.

How do you know whether you’re embracing the tradeoffs?

If you’re complaining about your circumstances, I can pretty much guarantee you’re not embracing them. Any time you catch yourself complaining about a circumstance, you’re probably complaining about the effects of a decision that you made. This is, in essence, complaining that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

If you’re choosing the lesser of two (or more) evils, it’s unlikely that you’re embracing them. This type of decision allows you to absolve yourself of the results of that choice, and lets you place the blame on the fact that your choices were limited. It’s nearly impossible to embrace the tradeoffs you make with this mindset.

If someone else is at fault, you’ve forgotten that you even made tradeoffs in the first place. This signals a serious need to dig deep and analyze the decisions you made that put someone else in charge of such a big part of your life.

This is a fundamental concept that means the difference between success and failure in business, and often between happiness and despair in life. It isn’t about taking control, it’s about taking responsibility and ownership for your decisions. Control simply tends to follow along for the ride.

Samurai funerals and office politics

Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death.”  -Uesugi Kenshin, 16th century

At lunch with a friend last week, we diverged into a subject that got a lot deeper than we’d intended. He asked me, “has anyone ever told you that you’re too emotionally invested in the business… that you care too much?”

Um, yes? This sent back a flood of memories.

If there’s one trait that people will remember me for at the startup I worked for, it was that I was deeply, tragically invested in the ups and downs of the company. Which isn’t ever healthy, but never less so than when your company is a nuclear meltdown of a startup.

I felt as if I might die if the company went under, if I lost my job, or a whole host of other things that were outside my control. I was anxious, I never slept, and I was profoundly depressed almost all of the time.

That company and those feelings are well behind me now. But when I’m honest, I recognize that I never did figure out how to truly divest myself of that need to attach so deeply. It’s been part of the “passion” package that I bring to the table, right?

Back to the conversation: needless to say, my friend had my attention. Another mutual friend (whom I actually knew from the nuclear startup) had relayed a story, which drove home the point in a way neither of us had thought through before:

Before a samurai goes into war, his family holds his funeral. His memory is laid to rest, his family and loved ones grieve, and he is dead for all purposes. All but the purpose of battle. 

What is left to fear? He is already dead. The only thing to gain or lose is grace and dignity in the face of an inevitable death. The samurai is now unbound by attachments and fears of pain, loss, or death, and he fights with an unmatched fearlessness and fierceness. 

I consider this to be apocryphal until I can source it, but it does create a lovely and profound metaphor for office politics.

You probably care a lot about the projects you’re working on. You want them to be done right, but there are obstacles in your way. Managers, red tape, approvals, deadlines. It’s all so bloody important.

But the thing is, you’re already dead.

When you look your boss, coworker, or CEO in the eye, you’re talking to a person that you’ll eventually have an awkward conversation with. One of you will explain to the other, in the politest terms, why you won’t be working there anymore.

All the things that mattered so much: the deadlines, the approvals, the frustrating coworker, none of it matters one whit anymore.

So what do you have left at that point?

You have the relationships you built and nurtured, the lessons you learned, the impact you made, and maybe a little bit of money for your trouble. But that’s pretty much it.

Relationships. Lessons. Impact. Money. That’s pretty much all you get, and I believe in that order.

If you’re worried about things that you don’t get to take out the front door with you, why?

When you leave, will they remember that you beat the deadline, or that you were kind and invested in the people around you?

When you leave, will they hand you a trophy for “doing it right”, or did you learn ways of doing things you’d have never thought of on your own?

When you leave, will they feel remorse for all the bureaucracy that tied you up, or that you always seemed to make things happen?

So before you stress yourself sick for that deadline, talk down to that coworker, blame that boss, or wait for someone else to fix your problems, remember that you’re already dead. You’re going to walk away with a cardboard box and precious little else, so make damn sure you’re investing in things you get to take with you.


P.S. It’s also interesting to note that life, as a whole, is exactly the opposite. You get to keep nothing, but you get to leave behind relationships, lessons, impact, and money… again, I believe, in that order. So as noble as it is to build these things, hoarding them is futile and sharing them is everything.

Community is my lifeline

Utah Ruby Users GroupNovember 10th, 2009 marked a pretty dramatic turning point in my career. The startup I worked for was in a tailspin, and a friend who’d escaped invited me to visit his new workplace for a meeting of the Utah Ruby Users Group.

This was the first time I’d attended URUG, or anything like it, and it was scary as hell. There were smart people talking about things I didn’t understand, and a guy in a fez who seemed to be asking lots of annoying questions.

Mike Moore showed off a fascinating new technology called Ruby Version Manager by a fellow named Wayne Seguin. People talked about the dramatic changes in Rails that would soon take place due to the work of people like Yehuda Katz.

I was literally incapable of processing about 90% of the conversation in the room, and terrified someone would ask me to say something and expect me to do anything but make a fool of myself.

Even though I was so bewildered that I literally cannot remember who was at that first meeting, I’ve since learned that at several of the people were there are now some of my closest friends. Over time, I became a part of this community that literally saved my career.

Here’s why I think the URUG community’s been so important to me:

1. It’s consistent.

It’s easy to forget now that there were moments where I very nearly gave up on breaking into software development. It would have been so easy for me to go back to marketing, and I had several opportunities where I could hang up my still-new coding spurs and have a long, prosperous career with the word “product”, “process” or “manager” in the title.

But I got to associate with the people at URUG every month, and I was able to keep my eyes on the prize. It repeatedly connected me with me the kind of people I wanted to emulate, and the kind of work I wanted to do.

Just having a single night where I knew I’d be around great people was an anchor when becoming a software developer still seemed like a distant goal.

2. It’s accepting.

The guy in the fez may have been irritating, but nobody chased him off. I was irritating, I’m sure, and nobody chased me off.  It was the only time I was able to have a face-to-face discussion with experienced Rubyists, ask my stupid questions, and come back next month with more.

Never once have I seen behavior at a URUG meeting that I felt embarrassed by, nor do I hear people say negative things behind others’ backs. I’m very proud to say that the kind of people who show up to user groups seem to be the kind of people who are interested in building one another up.

3. It’s a chance to contribute.

I once wrote a blog post about why I don’t contribute to open source, and now I realize I missed the point entirely. A friend pointed me to an old talk by Chad Fowler, one of my heroes, where he mentioned that people should contribute in their own specific ways.

My problem was that I was trying to contribute to the community in exactly the same way as people who are the best coders can contribute. So contribution felt like an obligation that I was failing.

That’s why one of my favorite things about the URUG is that everyone is, at some point, asked to participate. Even as a brand-new coder, I was given a topic to research and come back to share the following month. I mangled it, I’m sure, but the group interacted with me, applauded, and I gained the confidence to do it again later.

User Groups are a wonderful way for people to ease into contributing to a community without feeling like they’re competing with ninja-coder strangers on the other side of the planet. In fact, it’s so sneaky that you may not realize that you’re contributing just by being yourself and showing up.

My opportunity to help

Last week, I was asked if I’d be willing to handle the responsibility of organizing the Utah Valley Ruby Brigade. It’s intimidating, as I haven’t done anything like this before, but I am so grateful to be getting a chance to contribute the best way I know how.

At lunch with Mike Moore this week, we briefly talked about what sort of “outreach” programs we might offer to newbies. I do teach a programming class to non-programmers and think that’s a fun and noble goal. However, the most valuable thing is what URUG already offers: consistent meetups with friendly, smart people who are actively invested in one another’s success.

I can’t begin to thank Mike Moore and Jake Mallory for their work in maintaining URUG, and hope I can put at least some of the value in that I’ve received over the last two years.

For now, the best I can hope for is to bring my newcomer’s enthusiasm, not break the things that are working, and learn the rest as I go along.