Tag Archives: motivation

Two Questions

Recently I was talking with a friend about coaching and specifically the act of helping younger developers improve themselves. I had a sort of microepiphany when I realized that I’ve been improving myself for over two decades with the same pair of questions, originally unconsciously and only recently in my active consciousness. The next time you do something you want to get better at, ask yourself these two questions:

What about this makes me feel good? This is a VERY specific question, and it is NOT “what do I like about this?”. It’s often hard to answer. You are not allowed to say “I don’t know”, and you are not allowed to settle for answering the much easier question “what about this do I like?”—although that can be a great guide into discovering what it is that makes you feel good. If you wrote an elegant passage of code, or did something clever, or shipped a really nasty hack but saved the company (thus buying them time to refactor your nasty hack) by shipping on time, that’s what you like. But go beyond this. What about that makes you feel good? Did it make you feel smart? Did it make you feel artistic? Did it make you feel like a hero? Did it make you feel like somehow, against all the odds, you might just be starting to “get it” as a programmer?

Take a moment and really just let yourself feel good about what you did. If you can find that and tap into it, you have just found a well inside yourself that you will return to again and again in the future. Congratulations, you’ve just found the reason you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting better at this.

If you can’t answer this question, don’t sweat it. But don’t be surprised if your life ends up going a different direction. Find something else that makes you feel good, and do that instead.

What about this could I do better? Most days, you’ll think of something right off. There was some duplication, or a lack of symmetry in the code, or your variable names were kind of awkward.

Other days it’s a bit harder. “Writing this bit felt a bit grindy, like I was pushing out lots of boilerplate. I don’t see how to fix it, but does it really have to hurt this much?”

The best days are the days when you try and try and just can’t answer it. Important: this doesn’t mean you did something perfect. Far from it, and far better: it means you’ve actually managed to see your blind spot. “This”, your brain is telling you, “this empty space, here… is where more knowledge will fit.” Those are the days that herald “getting it” on a whole new level.

So, them’s my questions for you. What made you feel good? What could do better?

Felt any good or done any better recently?

Peer Ethos: Safety and Doubt

I’ve had some GREAT feedback, online and off, about my Peer Ethos post. Thank you to everyone for the emails, tweets and comments.

Several new epiphanies resulted. The first is that the Peer Ethos is not just a single clique, or even the set of cliques you belong to. It is a universal ecosystem; it has tight niches and broad climes. James Britt rightly pointed out that there are differences between the Peer Ethos of your close friends and everyone on the internet. This triggered the epiphany that I was seeing BOTH close family and everybody on the internet as part of a universal ecosystem, and that practical meaning—the environmental conditions—change as you move around the landscape.

James says that some things that shouldn’t be shared with the Twitterverse can be shared with close family. I agree totally. There are some things that you can share with everybody, other things you should never share, and still more things that you should share only if the conditions in the peer ethos  are favorable.

I see two new dimensions of the peer ethos here: safety and doubt. The safety dimension is how supportive or antagonistic the peer ethos is at this point (“this point” meaning “your current audience”). Family and friends are very supportive because they want you to succeed; trolls and antagonists are destructive because want you to fail. The doubt dimension has nothing to do with the peer ethos and everything to do with yourself: it is simply an internal measure of your confidence that you will complete the task.

Here’s the interplay:

  • If you have high doubt, DO share your hopes and dreams with your family. Their nurturing support and love can encourage you to take that first risk.
  • Do NOT share your dreams with the internet until you’ve made them real: Trolls have a much harder time saying something is not possible when it’s just been done.
  • If you have low doubt, your goals are likely to be quite specific. Keep them to yourself, especially if telling your family won’t help you reach them!
  • You may, however, want to tell the world at large. Throwing your hat in the ring can be a huge motivator to drive you to live up to your word. Trolls may attack, but if you are confident in yourself these attacks do not discourage but rather come off sounding like “Oh yeah? Well, I dare you!

It’s a tradeoff. Family will be forgiving if you fail; this can provide the safety to take the first step, but can also smother your urgency. For this reason I say that some ideas should never be shared until they are reality. If sharing them won’t help you but can definitely hurt you, why would you take the risk? On the other side, trolls will heap scorn upon you if you fall short, but can also stiffen your resolve to be true to your word.

Before talking about your goals, consider your audience and means of delivery. If your intention is a mere ember of hope, protect it. Share it only with those who will blow on it gently to help it grow. But if your intention is already burning fiercely, hold it up for the world to see! All the huffing of your detractors will do is fan the flames brighter. Perhaps spicy food is a better metaphor: you know when you want exciting, racy food and you know when you want filling, hearty fare; you also know what level of spice will ruin your meal and what level of blandness will suck out all the joy. So it is with sharing your intentions with your peer ethos: know when you need to be challenged by your peers and when you need to be supported by them.

The trick, ultimately, is not so much to be aware of the landscape of the peer ethos, but to be aware that the landscape even exists, and to choose to interact with it appropriately. Move around in it, find the appropriate audience, and share when it can help you move forward.


I like to synthesize ideas by taking disparate concepts, putting them in a bag and shaking it up. One difficulty that often arises is that in order for me to communicate these synthesized ideas, you need to be up to speed on the underlying concepts.

One big concept bouncing around in my head is the notion of what motivates us. I’m not talking about carrot-and-stick here, I’m talking about things that electrify our souls: things that bounce us out of bed in the morning, engage us joyfully all day and then keep up at night wondering about what the next day will bring.

Dan Pink has a pretty good insight into this. This animation is excellent, but incomplete; if you like it go to YouTube and watch the full version of his talk.