Friday, December 17, 2010


I work in a world of decidedly left-brained people. People with IQs in the 140-plus range. People who can work math problems in their heads. People who understand physics and calculus. People who design chips and circuits. People whom you would identify as "nerds" (at least when I was in high school) or perhaps as Asberger's-ish.

It is a world that I am in and yet not of. A world where I am able to thrive and at the same time will often have no clue as to what people are talking about, or more importantly, why they're talking about it. In this world, I grew up on the wrong side of the cerebral tracks: decidedly so. In contrast to my nerdish colleagues, I would have been identified by the gracious term "flake". Though nowadays I believe that would be, umm, well, "flake".

What's Your Process
Yesterday as I sat talking with some of the guys, we launched into the topic of programming process: exactly how do you go about translating ideas into code?

The majority of the folks in the room (all but one) take a very structured approach. They develop requirements for what the software should do when it's done. They identify the functional components necessary to satisfying the requirements and organize them into an architecture. They then systematically work through each component, designing it, reviewing the design to ensure that it indeed fulfills the functional requirements, and then finally, coding it.

The minority in the group ask a few questions about what the software is supposed to do and then start coding knowing that the architecture will emerge as he, I mean they go.

Neither the majority nor the minority could imagine writing software in the manner of the other. From the majority, there were questions like: "How can you know what to write, when you're not even sure of the structure yet?" and "How do you know you're not digging yourself into a big hole or painting yourself in a corner if you haven't worked through all the details?"

From the minority the questions were more on the order of: "How do know what the architecture will be until you've played with some of the pieces?" and "Why would you try to figure out all the details when only a few of them actually matter?"

It was fun.

You Say Pee, I Say Pie
We began talking more generally about right- and left-brainedness. One of the guys mentioned a man who was able to look at a printout of π calculated to the twenty-some-odd-thousand decimal places and then write it out. It took him six hours with auditors watching and verifying each step. He didn't miss even one digit.

The same guy (whom many would tag with Asperger's if not autism) recognized early that his social skills were not as well honed as some of his others. So he decided to compensate by learning how to be more social. He studied jokes and humor and so one, becoming more social.

This reminded me of watching my dad as a kid.

On the one hand, if you give my dad a very large number, he's able to see all the prime factors (i.e. he's able to break the number down into a set of prime numbers that, when multiplied together, equal the first number). Prime number factorization is something for which there are no computational short-cuts; the only way for computers to do it is to try all possible combinations. This takes a really long time. As such, prime number factorization forms the basis for secure encryption algorithms, codes that require years to crack, even for high-end super-computers. Yet, for some reason, my dad just sees them.

On the other hand, if you give my dad a social setting without the aid of a compass, he can get desperately lost in no time at all. He recognized this early, so he decided to learn to be social. As a kid, I can remember my dad taking a break from math-torturing, err, tutoring, and pulling out a cassette of jokes that he would listen to over and over, not only memorizing the joke, but also trying learn the timing and inflection of delivery.

Even nowadays, when my dad suddenly finds himself in foreign social territory, he'll pull a joke out of his survival kit. It's not a basis for ongoing socialization, but it helps in a pinch.

As we talked, one of the engineers said, "Wow, your family sounds a lot like mine! My mom and two of my brothers are very musical, completely right-brained. My dad, another brother and I are engineers and completely left-brained. I've always wanted to play music, but there's just no way I can do it; I'm so totally left-brained. I wonder if there's a way I can compensate for that?"

I told him about Drawing with the Right Side of Your Brain, by Betty Edwards. A book in which Edwards teaches how to get your left-brain out of the way so that your right brain can do what it does best: see and reproduce what's actually there (not what your right brain structures it to be). He responded, "Wow, I've always wanted to draw. If there were a way that I could... that would be amazing."

Later in the day, he emailed me, letting me know that he'd ordered the book. I can't wait to see what pans out.

To me, the most striking thing about our conversation yesterday morning was how often the contraction "can't" cropped up, typically in the structure "Someone who... can't...", e.g., Someone who is really left-brained, can't learn to draw. Throughout the day, I started listening for "can't". It was a lot like when you're expecting a baby and suddenly you notice how many people are pregnant or when you're looking to buy a car and you notice how many people are driving the make and model you're considering. There were can'ts everywhere.

And I realized it was all a form of under-compensation. The belief of cannot-ness was so pervasive and strong, that there was no compensation whatsoever. Why even try?

Over the years, I've known lots of folks who've worked through Drawing with the Right Side of Your Brain and invariably surprised themselves with their latent abilities.

Some Questions
In what areas has your cannot-ness reached a level where you're under-compensating? Do you actively encourage under-compensation in others? What if the cannot-ness is just a curtain behind which your latent abilities are hiding? What would you accomplish if you suddenly could?

Happy Friday,

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