Friday, December 21, 2012

Ron's Mantra

A guy that used to work for me, Ron, would often say, "There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working."

To some the words make no sense. To others they seem an oxymoron or just wrong. Technically speaking, the step from not working to working isn't an optimization; optimization can only be performed on something already working. Nonetheless, for me and others with whom I worked, Ron's words became a mantra: there's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

We mantrafied Ron's statement because it completely changed how we approached problems and, importantly, how successful we were at solving them. We were a group of engineers and computer scientists. However, unlike many groups of technologists, each of us had a strong creative streak. In team meetings, it'd take us a couple of minutes to solve the technical challenge du jour after which we'd spend an hour on all the additional features we could add based on the insights we gained from the initial discussion.

Were it not for the mantra, we'd never have got back to implementing the solution to the problem that had led to the meeting. As our ideas got bigger and broader, Ron would say, "Hey guys, that's great, but you know..."

The discussion would freeze in mid air, we'd each turn to look his way, the mantra would ring in our ears, and we'd get back on track.

There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

Of course, Ron's mantra applies to more than engineering and science; it applies to pretty much anything you want to do successfully. Last night our Will Power rehearsal morphed into a fireside chat. As we enjoyed a sumptuous combination of cigars, diet coke, chips and guacamole, we talked about all we'd done in the past year and what we intended to do in the upcoming year.

One topic was that of continuous improvement; what will each of us do to become better musicians and players? I mentioned that the most important thing is to play every day, that if you play for forty minutes every single day, you can't help but to improve.

Scott responded, "Yeah, but doesn't it matter what you play? I want to make sure that I'm playing the right material so that I'm not wasting time."

That's when Ron's mantra hit me. In one sense, Scott was correct; if you're going spend forty minutes a day practicing, you might as well work with the most effective material. However, from Ron's perspective Scott was wrong. The reason is the word "if".

The problem is this: if you're NOT playing forty minutes a day, it doesn't matter what material you use. In fact, your concern about optimizing the material may result in your never practicing forty minutes a day. Since the first order optimization is the one that goes from not working to working, then any other optimizations that get in the way of the first are not in fact optimizations. They're detriments.

I said to Scott, "What you're saying is true; it's just wrong. The most important thing is to build the habit of daily practice. Once you've got that as a foundation, you can start making your practice more efficient and effective. However, without it, you've got nothing to optimize."

This morning my mind played through conversations I've had over the last couple of weeks where people weren't doing what they'd intended because they were waiting until they could do it "right".  In one case, "right" might have meant "least expensively". In an other, "right" might have meant, "when I get the proper equipment." In any case, "right" meant, "so I'm doing nothing."

In everyone's life, there are situations where Ron's mantra could be useful, where wanting to do the best is leading to doing nothing at all. The funny thing is that our assumptions about what it takes to do the best change once we start doing, period. The actual path to best ends up involving nothing we'd thought we'd needed.

There's no optimization like the one that goes from not working to working.

Happy Friday,

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