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.

Emotional bagels

A couple of years ago, I worked in a small(ish) startup with people I absolutely loved. In fact, most of us stay in close touch and have become lifelong friends.

About once a week, I would pick up a couple of dozen bagels to bring into the office and share with coworkers. I’d get to play the hero, we’d talk and gather, and I felt like it was one way I contributed to the office culture.

But in other ways, it did little to compensate for the drain I often posed on the culture there. Unhappy in my job and with the direction of the company, I frequently vented my frustrations both privately and publicly. The company was horrendously mismanaged, and I let all the bad decisions I saw being made drive me crazy.

My dad could tell I was profoundly unhappy, and offered some advice. “I know you like taking bagels to the office, but you’re going to have to do better. You’re going to have to bring emotional bagels. Do you know what I mean?”

Sure I did, but how was I supposed to apply it?

I now know what he meant, but it was only very recently that I was able to get my head around this concept.

Knowing this flaw in myself, in my first week at my new employer, I wrote down one of my goals: “I want the time others spend here to be better because of my influence.” Since then, I’ve been shown some pretty amazing examples of how to bring emotional bagels to people. Here are a few of them:

1. Throw your support behind others’ decisions, especially if you disagree.

A friend and mentor took me aside after I strongly disagreed with a management tactic I saw. His point went straight to the heart of my problem:

“You have everything to gain by being supportive and positive, even if you absolutely hate a decision. Even if you’re right, if you’re vocal in opposition from the beginning, you’ll engage people’s defenses and that’s all they remember. If you’re supportive, you show that you’re interested in solving their problem, not serving your ego, and you’ll get a chance to offer your solution.”

The best thing about being a critic is that I get to be smugly superior without any of the responsibility of the decision-making itself. But if I can shelve my ego long enough to honestly try to support the ideas of others, I open up a lot of doors for collaboration. Plus, I’ll look like less of a jerk.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, when grabbing the steering wheel is the only way to keep someone from careening off a cliff. But those situations are vastly, vastly fewer than most of our egos want us to believe.

“That could work, it couldn’t hurt, let’s try it!”  is an emotional bagel.

2. You’re doing awesome.

When communicating with people around you, it’s nearly impossible to understand the effect you have on them.

If I’m having an awesome day, and I talk to you, and you say “today sucks,” you’ve just placed a burden on me. Now my day is a little less awesome, because I can’t help but notice all the little sucky things that I’d glossed over when things were awesome.

If I’m having a crappy day, and you tell me how excited you are to be doing X, my reason for hope just went up a notch.

So how are you doing? Think of a couple of the awesome things you’re doing. They must have a purpose, right? You’re doing some good in the world, so you must be doing something right.

This is totally weird, and totally true. You don’t need to lie if you’re having a rough day, but you do need to stop underestimating your power and influence.

“I’m doing awesome! I’m working on some great stuff I can’t wait to show you,” is an emotional bagel.

3. You’re there to help others shine brighter.

This is another very recent lesson. I must set aside my ego (see a pattern here?) and recognize that I have nothing to lose by helping make those around me into superstars. If my purpose is anything other than to benefit and improve the lives of others, I’m off track.

A software developer’s purpose is to create tools and products that help make people productive and happy. A manager’s job is to create an environment that helps make people productive and happy.

This doesn’t have to be a big moment of public recognition. The things that have helped me feel like a superstar have been as simple as a coworker telling me that they hadn’t thought of the way I approached a problem.

Some pretty amazing things happen when you put in the effort of looking for a person’s unique contributions: you become more tolerant of their flaws, and they tend to try to embody the good things you notice.

Even if you’re working completely in your own self-interest, you’ll never be as productive and happy as when you’re trying to help others shine a little brighter.

“One of my favorite things about you…”  is an emotional bagel.

Those are just a few of the emotional bagels I’m learning to bring to the teams I work in. I’d love to hear from you if you can think of ways people have made your day a little better.

A formula for excellence

Want to be excellent? I’m not saying I’m some kind of paragon of excellence, but every once in a while, I do get ahold of it. And I’ve noticed there’s a pattern that must be met before excellence can happen.

The formula is so simple, it’s become a cliché.

Actually, I’m going to share 3 clichés. BUT! They are firmly backed with facts that come out of experience.

Cliché 1: Love what you’re doing. Even if you don’t love your day job, you already feel this way about something. What do you talk about until people get irritated with you? What do you help them with even when they don’t want your help? That’s exactly the kind of craziness that Steve Jobs calls “passion”, that carries you through moments when “a sane person would quit, wouldn’t they?”

2 years ago, I thought that if I only applied myself, I could be a top-tier marketer. I’d run my own business and be outrageously successful. Only I knew I was doomed, because I just didn’t care that much about marketing.

If you don’t have “fire in the belly”, stop reading and try to think of a way to get on a track at least toward your passion, because no amount of applying yourself is going to cover the ground you lose doing stuff you don’t care about.

Cliché 2: Do it over and over again. This is not easy even with passion, and it’s quite impossible if you haven’t got it. Whether it’s building web applications or making sales calls, just by doing something a lot, you’ll become comfortable with something most people are a bit intimidated by. Soon, you’ll be astonished to realize you’ve become knowledgeable and skilled at it.

Much more importantly, doing something again and again increases the chances for happy accidents, coincidences, and relationships that propel you even deeper into your passion. This is crucial. Much of your success will look and feel like luck, but it will actually be the result of the work it takes to place yourself in favorable situations.

If your mind, heart, and hands are engaged in your passion, these happy coincidences will happen in that realm. If not, they’re liable to still happen, but you have no control over their direction. And that, tragically, is how people get into middle management.

Cliché 3: Do it better each time, even if only by a tiny bit. When hiring programmers, you have to discover if they have 5 years of experience, or whether they experienced the same year 5 times. It’s really tempting, once you become a “resident expert”, to keep tilling that same spot that you know best. But that’s not what you came here to do, is it?

Surround yourself with people who are more skilled than you. Take on challenges that you’re not 100% sure you’re up to. Get yourself in a little too deep. While it might be unwise to run headlong into something you have absolutely no experience in, even that is preferable to waking up and realizing that your fire’s gone out because you kept following Cliché 2 without moving into Cliché 3.

Bonus cliché: Take some responsibility. Even if you don’t feel 100% in control of your situation, you can still take a sliver of responsibility. Look for something, somewhere, that you care enough about to nurture and truly take responsibility for.

Sure, you might fail at whatever end goal you have in mind now, but you won’t fail at becoming excellent.