So, I just went to a funeral...

autumn trio

I just got back from a funeral. At my age funerals are to be expected, but he was four years younger than me and a lot fitter, so I was not expecting to attend this one.

I went to a funeral and had some beers, because he was the kind of person who would appreciate you sticking around, meeting the other survivors and having a few beers. Thoughts occur.

There is a process of loss that you have to grow up enough to handle and which is so very much a part of growing up that it almost defines it. As you get older, the world that you considered fixed and entirely yours either ceases to exist (where the hell did the technology of my childhood disappear to?) or becomes the property of interlopers. That last part is crucial. There is a scene at the end of the Brat-pack film "Saint Elmo's Fire" where the teenage protagonists go back to the student bar where they used to hang out and find younger versions of themselves sitting at their table. They understand that this is no longer their space and move on. That happens to me all the time and it will happen to all of you

and that is fine.

The first reaction is negative, because those toys were mine, that space was mine. My children were born there and I grew up on that street. I pretty much invented being here and doing that. We come to believe that we own things by simply having made use of them, having celebrated crucial moments of our lives there. We expect that bond to last forever, but of course it does not. The young, foreign and different will inherit everything that you currently think uniquely yours, change it in ways you cannot envisage and become, as you once were, trapped in believing it theirs alone.

The world will roll on and you will not persist,

and that is fine.

At the funeral were hordes of people that cared about the person I knew as a colleague. He was gone and all that remained were his children and photographs

and that is still fine.

So we should, as always, seize the day for we will not persist and very little that we know or believe to be ours will remain. That is our nature and understanding that is what makes you a grown-up.


Play and Work

I am an avid player of computer games and pen-and-paper RPG games. I enjoy shooting hordes of zombies, building and deploying armies and being part of a team in a fantastic and dangerous world. I have always valued games for themselves, but it has only dawned on me recently that they must have great survival value. Research has shown that playing is hard-wired into humans, the great apes and well, pretty much all mammals as far as my cursory search goes. Something that is built-in, instinctive to people, dolphins, rhinoceroses and foxes is probably crucial and very generally useful. We share play with species that have no hands, no language, vastly different intelligence levels and which live in environments that would kill us. Play is so useful that it has elbowed its way into the evolutionary bandwidth. It is genetically ingrained in the species and gets time and energy allocated alongside the crucial business of finding food, shelter and a breeding partner. It is obviously doing something vitally important. So what is it for and why do humans think they need to stop playing as adults? Read more...


Mental health and games

OK, help me think about this.

I have spent a year recovering from burn-out. During the first period, I frankly do not know how long it was, I could not play in any way whatsoever. Given that game-playing has always been important to me, this was a sign of poor mental health. As I started to recover I regained interest in games. I started running a Savage Worlds (tabletop rpg) game for a group of teens and I started playing computer games. Let us look for a moment about the effect of those games on my health.

I experienced the tabletop game as an important creative outlet. I made a story-world for my players that was an adaptation to the modern day of  the book "Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham. I was inspired by rereading the book and created characters for them to interact with, going so far as to paint small portraits of them. I also crafted miniature Triffids out of papier-mache and drew an elaborate map of the caves and the cave entrance that the characters emerged from at the start of the story, teaching myself the GIMP image processing program to do so.  These were little steps on the way to being myself again. I was proud and encouraged that I had created something, surmounted all the little obstacles to trying something new and succeeded. Running an RPG game is also a small, well-structured social arena to rediscover the skills of connecting with others in. I believe the reason that some less socially adapted people are attracted to role-playing games is because they are a wonderfully safe and encouraging environment. They are non-competitive, create rapport and team-work and supply cool successes.

In the same period I gradually started playing computer games again. I started playing Team Fortress 2, a game in which you, as part of a team, attempt to defeat another team. Though TF2 is a shooter and you spend a lot of time being blown up, often after a mere few minutes of life, it somehow manages to have a cheerful, humorous tone. The characters you play are cartoonish, bombastic parodies, so it does not hurt your pride when you are repeatedly massacred by more skilled players.

That last part is important. I am rather competitive and a bad loser. It is not a trait I am proud of, so I do my best, at some cost, to be graceful. I had previously abandoned "shooter" games largely because my initial lack of skill and subsequent rapid defeat caused me to become frustrated and upset. Strangely enough, something about the goofy tone and rapid pace of TF2 did not press my competitive buttons and I was able to play it with pleasure and therefore become quite expert.

Which brings us to the here and now. I still play and enjoy the tabletop games, but I am finding it harder, as I get mentally healthier, to enjoy Team Fortress. I now get impatient if I am not among the top scorers and I get very unhappy if my team performs (in my view) badly. Apparently as I pull out of the burnout, my competitiveness and aggression are gradually increasing, to the point that it is becoming harder to participate and progress in the game I used to enjoy. It is something of a paradox, that becoming more of "my old self" brings with it traits that I was happy to miss. It also points up that some competitiveness is useful and a spur to excellence, but that too much can prevent you from sticking with a learning task long enough to become excellent. Video games are a powerful metric. They show you in many ways how skilled you are at playing them and the change in your skill level is visible from day to day. My learning task now is to find a way to relax and enjoy the times when I fail, in the certain knowledge that this will enable me to become more skilled and capable in the long run. I think the most crucial aspect of my early play was a concious setting of low expectations and the goal of having fun, rather than being very capable. Fun leads to skill, to expertise, not the other way round. If I want to get good at Team Fortress, or anything else, I had better be able to enjoy it.


Credo: I don't know their story

I am a geek, so I follow Will Wheaton. Much as I like Will Wheaton, I am no longer fond of his catchphrase "don't be a dick".

Don't get me wrong. I agree that dickishness is more than plentiful and less would be better, but DBAD seems to be something that is only said to other people. That is not really the problem. In most of the situations where I would apply DBAD, I am involved. I am often even a contributor. Despite my best efforts and those of my beloved wife and upbringing I am sometimes a dick. Sometimes people and things Rub Me the Wrong Way (pause for double-entendre) and I am a nasty, judgemental, sarcastic meany-trousers. It's not very often, but sometimes my dice land that way.

Stil, even when people are not being very nice to me, I have the opportunity and even obligation to take the better path and higher ground and sometimes I do. That is the heavy lifting. That is when a gorilla get it's wings, I get a year off purgatory and extra shiny karma.

The greatest challenge is that moment of judgement. The moment when I decide that someone is wrong, bad and a drain on the species: "cut me up in traffic!", "took it without asking!", "got in my way for no reason!", "looked at me funny!". That is when I could say "don't be a dick" to them and skip away secure in my own perfection, but it is harder, but I think better, to say "you don't know their story". You don't. I once sat in a very intensive coaching session with twelve ordinary-looking, well-paid professionals and discovered how much sadness, grief and suffering lurked in their lives. There is a lot of suffering out there that people who look no different to you are just dealing with. You have no idea, I certainly didn't.

The rude guy in the supermarket had just had a hell of day with his abusive boss. The dithering lady in the car ahead is dealing with the death of a friend but still has to pick up her children. The kid that pushed in front of you got humiliated in front of all his friends and maybe Will Wheaton's power-mad flight attendant can never have children, is facing redundancy, or  just got out of bed the wrong side this morning.

Judgement without information is just stroking off my ego and licencing me to be horrid. If we know the story, see at a real person in the wrack and fury of their world we might feel differently. We might get it, show compassion and let it ride. Life is too short.

It's a short ride on this spinning globe sweethearts: no one gets out alive. You may bump into me on this whirligig and I may be a complete dick at that time, so please remember: you don't know my story and I don't know yours. Until we do, judgement is not ours.

with Love, Tim


My life as a Dog (again)

As I very often say - I have an astounding ability to finally realize the extremely obvious. If I have an intellectual guardian angel she probably spends a lot of her time slapping her forehead and going "good grief". My current brainstorm is on the subject of learning a new habit. I have finally realized one of the main reasons it is so hard.



Uses of the truth

I got used last week.

But that's ok. Here is how it happened.

At the moment I spend part of my time in an environment were there is fear and lack of candour. People feel threatened and powerless and unable to connect to each other. Such situations are anathema to me, they dampen down our fire and life and infect us with secrecy and doubt. Anger and complaints do not counter this. Bitching around the coffee machine does not help. The only cure for fear is truth: gentle, unremitting personal truth. So I told the truth about what was happening to me (I am going to leave) but that I was fine and would be happy to talk to anyone about my situation. This undoubtedly helped the manager concerned to avoid a confrontation with his staff. He used what I said to paper over growing concerns. So he will probably not properly resolve the situation. That is a shame, but I stand by my principle. I knew that I would be used and did it anyway because, as I tell my sons very often, I wish to behave according to my own best principles rather than responding to other's worst actions. I hope that some of my co-workers will feel a little easier, a little stronger and less alone. It was for them. I was a small thing I could do.

So what am I telling you? For me, it does not matter if others would put your actions to bad use. Tell the truth. It really will set you free.


Why do we fall?

As Bruce Wayne's father says "So that we can learn to pick ourselves up."

It is a hard thing to do, perhaps the hardest thing. Coming back for something that really hurts you, really makes you doubt: very hard. But if you can do it, you will be stronger, simply because you know that you can. You will have done something that you will remember every time you get knocked down. I do not believe that suffering ennobles people. But surmounting it does. It opens up possibilities.

I recently read a blog post by a creative writer who fell on his face, was utterly incompetent in front of a group because he was not properly prepared. It almost crushed him, but he summoned up from somewhere the anger and spirit to "get back on the horse" and try again. As I wrote to him, I believe from the bottom of my heart that such moments are magnificent, they are triumphs of the human spirit and beautiful in the eyes of God. I do not wish you adversity, but I do wish you the strength to surmount it and a long and powerful memory of having done so.

Why do we fall? So that we learn how to pick ourselves up.


Burning up your will-power

I got very interested recently in experiments being done in the field of "ego depletion". The theory proposes that humans have a  limited quantity of "ego" or willpower. When you exercise self-control you use up this resource and will then be less able to persist with other tasks. In the classic experiment of this field hungry subjects were left with plates of radishes and chocolate-chip biscuits. Half of the subjects were allowed to eat the biscuist and the other half were asked to only eat radishes and ignore the biscuits. The subjects then had to try to complete a difficult puzzle that was, unbeknownst to them, impossible.

The "biscuit-resisters" gave up much earlier than the people who were allowed to eat biscuits and they were more tired at the end of the experiment. Later experiments with tasks that were not impossible showed that people who had not had to "burn willpower" resisting a normal impulse were much better at the task. They got better results. I looks as if "ego" is also needed for complicated thinking, like a sort of mental jet-fuel.

It is of course dangerous to glibly apply a limited experiment to the complexities of everyday life, but the image of will-power being drained away by resisting temptation is very appealing and aligns with many experiences we all share: the fatigue of resisting an impulse, a bad habit, the catastrophic results of trying to adopt several "good habits" at once.

If we do accept these results, what can be do to use them in ordinary life?

  1. Allow for reduced performance
    If you are resisting a bad habit you are depleting your willpower and will be less able to keep going in other areas needing persistance or higher level performance. If you are having to keep yourself to a strict diet you will not be as sharp as you might otherwise be...
  2. Don't try to do everything at once
    If willpower is being use for five different things there will be less of it available for each of them, so you risk failing to complete anything. This is very like the classic advice on goals: one or two give you focus, twelve is a recipe for failure.
  3. Limit the time you spend exerting willpower
    If you stay in the room with the chocolate-chip cookies too long you are burning will-power all the time. Stay there too long and you may "snap" and grab a handful! The whole point of exerting willpower is to create a success, to visibly, tangibly and emotionally succeed in controlling your own behaviour. Mark that moment very conciously, reward yourself and then back off to give your will-power a chance to recharge!

Fitting your frame


Let me tell you a story.

I once ran a team into which was dropped a grumpy and rigid old-school programmer. He was unhappy to be landed with me and I was similarly unhappy that this ugly duckling had been dumped into my budget.  Fortunately I had through personal experience one insight that served me very well: if you cannot get efffective work out of someone it is probably because you did not find the right framework, the right goals and match with their skills. You, as a manager, did not do the due dilligence to locate that thing which needs to be done which the person you are confronted with will do well and (hopefully) enjoy. I finally found a task within my purview which needed doing and which this person did well. He never quite got over the grumpyness, but he became more positive and gained respect from other team members for a job well done.

It  can be a tall order.  It may be that the right frame for your ugly duckling,is not in your team, or even your company. But do not make that judgement too soon. I work as a project manager and I and my colleagues are therefore often dropped into a new context. I have very often seen and personally experienced that the same person working in two different contexts within the same organisation went from excellent to not merely less capable but incapable. Subtle differences in management styles and culture can make a huge difference.

This, of course, also applies to you.

Look carefully at the social, functional and managerial context in which you are working.  Have you suddenly found yourself struggling upstream rather than going with the flow? Are you suddenly the black sheep? If nothing has significantly changed in your life and attitude, it could be that you are in the wrong framework. You may need to look carefully at the situations, groups and tasks where you excelled and enjoyed your work. That is your frame and you will be happier fitting in to it.


Webcomics show you people growing....


I read a  lot of webcomics. I have always loved comics, having been brought up with the Sparky and the Beano. Unlike their squashed-tree cousins, webcomics have almost no threshold. You could turn away from reading this, draw something, scan it and have a webcomic up in ten minutes. This means there are hundreds of dud, repetitive, game-themed, puerile comics out there and there are wonderful ones and foolish ones etc etc.

Getting started is simple. Continuing, updating regularly with new episodes, is a tremendous challenge. It requires an investment of time, creative energy and technical skill that commands respect. If you follow a webcomic for any period of time you will see the creator's ups and downs, family crises, bursts of inspiration and periods of despairing blankness. Of course, given that all the sustained webcomics have huge archives, you can follow someone's entire artistic history from beginning to end in the course of a couple of hours of clicking your mouse.

There is no other medium I can think of where you can so easily and precisely trace the growth of someone's skills and creativity.  It is an arc that is otherwise only visible to the expert who can gather an artists timeline in his mind's eye or by visiting a skillfully-crafted exhibition. I get a kick out of seeing skills build. It is a validation of my cherished belief in growth through enduring effort.