I frequently remind myself: Think Less, Sense More. It’s advice I give to me all over the place, from the most technical parts of the sociotechnical fractal to the most social parts of it.
It’s an odd thing to say, so we better dig in to it a little. I’ve recently come from a conference. This was a good one for me, full of old friends and new, smart crazy passionate people coming together to figure out what and how is next in the world of the modern software trade.
I found myself stumped a few times: though my respondents were clearly on fire with their ideas, absolutely filled with passion and joy and excitement, caught up in a delightful immediacy, their case, and the language they expressed it in, was often abstract, distant, and cold.
You may wish to wrestle words with me, here, but I hope you’ll lean into what I’m pointing at rather than jump immediately into a definition argument. Such an argument is part of what I mean by "think" in that opening trope.
For me, thinking is: word-centric, abstracted, technical, logical, cold, clear, axiom-driven, diagrammatic, appollonian, unsituated, timeless, factitious, deterministic. It feels overwhelmingly disembodied, and overwhelmingly not right-here-right-now.
Now, these are all wonderful attributes of a behavior, imminently suited to a variety of tasks.
Please: I have no brief against thinking.
I just notice how much of my experience it doesn’t include. Furthermore, I notice how far my thinking can go awry when it’s not deeply intertwingled with non-thinking, with what I’ve called sensing.
For me, sensing is specific, immediate, physical, psychological, unsorted, warm, vague, detail-driven, dionysian, temporal, organic, open-ended. It is deeply bound into my whole body, and overwhelmingly a kind of being-here-now.
A couple of quick sketches might help, especially if we can draw them from different parts of the sociotechnical fractal that is professional software development.
From purest technique: I am repeatedly struck, rolling code, by the way moving a test from red to green makes my body feel. That feeling, in turn, seems to fill me with the power to keep chipping away.
I also notice the brimming of — what to call it? — juice, that fills me, TDDing or not, when I grok that the end of my task is near.
And the converse: my sensed experience is extremely good at telling me when I need to walk away. When I’m alert to it, it saves me hours of fruitless banging on keys, sending me out into the world to look at anything-but-this for a little while.
Heading to a more social part of the fractal: I never pair well when I am physically uncomfortable, even a little bit. I am slower, I am inarticulate, I go negative on my pair’s idea. It’s icky.
Simiarly, when I’m alert to my senses, whether they’re giving me positive cues or bad ones, I can use them directly in the collaboration. I can share them, and in that sharing build both code and trust. When I don’t attend to them, I just get mysterious results.
Heading further social, we are hearing a lot of talk these days about empathy. This is overall a good thing, collaboration is at the heart of what it is to be a successful geek today. But here’s a secret: I can’t imagine how someone else feels if I can’t even imagine how I feel.
Empathy begins at home. Though one hears it surprisingly rarely, you are the first person whose total experience you have to care about to grow in empathy.
An aside: thinking is particularly good at creating just-so stories. (These are ex post facto explanations of events the thinker wishes to grok: see Rudyard Kipling).
For any event, including especially events you’re inside of, you can think of a seemingly plausible cause. You can chain them together. You can draw diagrams, reach conclusions, make decisions. Here’s the thing: you can do all of that a thousand different ways, all mistaken.
This is especially risky when my thinking is based strictly on my thinking. That is, when the input data for a thinking-run is dominated by the output data from the last thinking-run.
My answer? Get more raw input, uncooked, unprocessed, un-"thought". And that is my advice to me:
Think less. Sense more.
Have a surprising Saturday, oddly pleasant!