When you think back to first generation Hamurabi, and then play Oxygen Not Included, or Civilization or any of the other current world-builder games, you see the power of steady accretion of improvement. Do you know that all of this has happened well within my lifetime? I played Hamurabi in 1979, killing time in the one and only computer class i’ve ever taken (and did not complete).
From taking my figures and interpolating a partial differential equation and spitting its own figures back at me, to, well, these little uniquely rendered bastards are whining at me because the decor in the rooms lacks any art, and the food tastes like crap, and it’s stinky, INSIDE THE ROOMS I HAVE CARVED FOR THEM OUT OF AN ASTEROID.
The hamurabi model is one kind of gaming model, there are many, and what holds true here holds true in all of them: with the accretion of improvement in very small doses game to game, we’ve produced something my 80’s self would think of as quite impossible to do. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has, in little tiny, at times almost imperceptible, bursts of micro-change.
Change, for temporary and local good or temporary and local bad, very often works just this way.
About 20 years ago, I read a book of "evolutionary epistemology". It collected about 200 years of key papers that formed the seminal documents of this emerging discipline, what most of us would now call evo-psych. (how do u get 200 years of papers in an emerging science? By retroactively designating older work as belonging to your affinitiy. This, too, was ever thus, and has created many distortions in cultural history.) What was remarkable to me about that book of papers was there in the selected lineage, in two forms.
- First, it was that tho the gap between the first paper and the last — the richness and power of the understanding — was notable and significant, the gap between any two papers neighboring in time was pathetically small. Some thinker would write a paper elaborating or replacing one phrase in a paper that had appeared 20 years before. Just one phrase. And so it went, paper after paper, for 200 years. (if memory serves, it may have been more like 300, not sure.)
- Second, it was that the selection of papers drew a straight line from the past to the present, when in fact there is no straight line that works that way.
If it’s winter, take a look at the nearest hardwood tree and study its shape. Pick the tallest branch-tip and trace it back until it disappears into the ground.
Notice some things as you do this: 1) how hard it is to do. 2) how many branches get excluded from your tracing. 3) how not tree-like your resulting mental sketch. 4) how temporally bound your assessment of tallest is. 5) how much harder it would be to do with a tree that had leaves on it. 6) how very very very much harder it would be to do if you were in the tree.
This is us, fellow coaches, fellow geeks, fellow managers, fellow thinkers, fellow humans. We’re in that tree, in a time, tracing out its shape from top to bottom, and we are fundamentally, permanently, ineluctably caught there. We live there, and we can’t live anywhere else.
(To complicate the picture even further, and break my metaphor all to shit, it’s very rare in going from tree-top to root to find a branch that has two or more super-branches, but is ridiculously common in the target of my metaphor.)
What, you may well wonder, is geepaw up to, here? How does any of this have anything to do with coaching or geeking or managing or shipping software? It has everything to do with everything, because its a description of every human enterprise that is any way centered upon the life of the mind.
So? My advice to you, today, right now, if you’re geeking out, or managing, or coaching, or shipping software, is to stop for a second, take a deep breath, and just marvel.
For my closing epigraph, I turn to Benjamin Zander’s marvelous rule number 6: "don’t take yourself so goddamned seriously".