Thursday, May 06, 2010

Event Horizon

Mera On the Headlands
Mera On the Headlands
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I used to be really good at planning ahead. In fact, DrC and I were arguably so good at planning ahead that we had our life mapped out clear to 2050. This was 1990 and we were young, very much in love, and -- in retrospect -- pretty dumb. I know that the politically correct term to use for our dimwitted certainty of our future path is "naive", but in retrospect I think we were stupid combined with misguided. Also, naivety implies that our myopia was entirely a by-product of youth and inexperience. Now, I believe that planning for the future requires assumptions which are built into the entire economy and social fabric in which we were raised. Our minds were threaded with notions of what was right, appropriate, necessary, and inevitable which made it relatively effortless to plan ahead.

Somewhere along the line, however, DrC and I fell off the track. Now we can argue ad naseum whether that fall from grace was a bold step into a unique and exciting lifestyle or merely a juvenile collapse into poverty resulting from severe mid-life crises. It doesn't really matter, though. The point is that once you extract all the "you musts", "you shoulds", "you can'ts", and "you won'ts" from the vocabulary of your planning horizon, life looks very different. From where we sit right now, it is almost impossible to figure out what to do next.

As a project manager, this problem makes sense to me as a classic one of resource, time, and scope. In the bounded world of musts and cants, society defines our scope. We are provided from the cradle with a set of parameters that describe what it is possible for us to become, what is required of us to accomplish. The timeline is an actuarially defined life span ranging from 70 to 90 years. As a result, the only real variable we can apply individuality and imagination to is the resource of our personal intellectual and physical capital. By improving ourselves through education and effort, we can increase our scope. Through exercise and good eating, we might increase our time. As a resource, our labor and effort can theoretically improve the probability of achieving the project objective -- a well lived, successful life.

However, the unbounded life destroys the planning process in two directions: time and scope. First, those who step off the track often make a big and scary leap regarding the available time on this plane of existence. When interviewed, these people repeatedly express some variation of the theme: "We only have one life to live. I don't know how long it will be and I don't want to miss any of it." The leap into a boundless lifestyle often follows personal crisis: lost family member, near death experience, children growing up more rapidly then expected. The time to achieve the project objective therefore is no longer a set value in the equation, but rather a variable ranging from two weeks to seventy years.

So too does the scope change utterly once you step outside the box. If the project objective is a "well lived, successful life" then we must look much more closely at that phrase, defining it with considerably greater precision. "The unexamined life is not worth living," said Socrates. Examining your life, however, leads you inevitably to the consideration of "well lived." I would hold it as a truism that "well lived" must be a completely subjective criteria, each of us shading meaning and value to every aspect of our existence. We must balance the relative value of goods, people, pleasure, and family. This becomes an entire branch of philosophy so I won't continue further on this line of thought. Let's just say for the sake of this thread that when you reject the classic definitions of "well lived" and "successful" and start exploring all the many alternative ways to bound these criteria, suddenly scope becomes a much messier variable. It's not that I expect everyone to throw away "money and material wealth" and replace them with "fuzzy logic, family happiness and pretty sunsets." It's simply that without the boundaries, there is very little way to predict scope; It becomes more whimsical. Scope changes over time as you grow, modify your expectations and desires. It changes when new people come into your life and other people leave. There is no hope of setting it at a predictable value and managing time and resources accordingly. Instead, scope is in constant flux and must be revisited continually.

Now to bring this down to earth, we now have a project with an ill-defined and changing objective of unknown duration. In other words, our lives are basically like every software development project every undertaken. The only way these projects ever get done is to first get a strangle hold on the marketing department and make them define the scope… at least for this week… and second draw an arbitrary line in the sand to define the completion date. Which explains, to my mind, why agile programming techniques are so popular amongst the digital natives. Instead of creative planning horizons which extend to infinity, project managers force the entire organization to focus down, in and sharply on a short term objective which is attainable within the known variables of what marketing and sales want now and what we can actually get done with the resources we have on hand. And the shorter the time horizon, the easier it is to know what we're going to build.

Which brings us to my personal headache. I fired the old marketing department and told the Sales team to go to hell about four years ago. And while I really like the new team a lot better, their instructions to "don't worry, be happy" are a bit amorphous and not particularly helpful. As long as I don't try to figure out what to do a decade from now, we can concentrate our family resources on what we need to be happy this week, next month, possibly next year. True, the event horizon must include enough recognition of the future that we don't block ourselves from the 70 year program during which the Zombie Apocalypse is a high probability, while eating every day and taxes are an absolute certainty. But those slow inevitable movements in our lives are merely counter-punctual bass lines on the melody of daily events.

Today, we focus on incremental wins towards our long term, life objective of the well lived life. We're coming out of our "Move to New Zealand" scrum, so it's a good time to look at the backlog and figure out what to do next. I spent a few days living in the Product Planning mode of a decade before migraines beat me back to the weeds of our lives. I just can't handle looking out there very far for any substantial length of time. The girls are happy right now and loving life. DrC is happy right now, getting his medical skills back to polish and learning how to play guitar. It's enough for now to know that by our own measure, we are still highly successful people.
Not a Good Place for a Boat
Not a Good Place for a Boat
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

4 comments:

hbunny said...

Nice post, Toast. I'm especially struck by:

"If the project objective is a 'well lived, successful life' then we must look much more closely at that phrase, defining it with considerably greater precision."

We all fall into the trap of looking at the tapestry of our lives in any given moment and giving it a score. When we plan for the future or think about what will "make us happy", we're imagining being somewhere down the line, looking at our life and deriving some kind of deep satisfaction in a job well done.

What we're actually doing is sitting in a little room in our head looking at photo albums. There's a deep difference between the happiness of the moment and the happiness of ideas. The satisfaction of looking back and knowing "I'm the kind of person who does triathlons" is very different from "man, I'm really enjoying this time with these people."

Too often, our plans seek to maximize the pleasure of ideas - "look at our well-lived life" - often at the cost of the pleasure of the moment. Of course, the opposite it true, too - the momentary pleasure of a night out drinking can cost us long term satisfaction as a chain of hangovers slowly drags down our career.

Speaking of which, I should get bak to work...

Unknown said...

>What we're actually doing is sitting in a little room in our head looking at photo albums. There's a deep difference between the happiness of the moment and the happiness of ideas.
> The satisfaction of looking back and knowing "I'm the kind of person who does triathlons" is very different from "man, I'm really enjoying this time with these people."

Yes, and that's the issue with the planning horizon as well. If you live entirely in the moment then you forego preparation for the future which may be critical to your success at that time and that place. It's the Zombie Apocalypse preparation problem. It's the "what do I teach my children to ensure their survival in the 21st century" problem. We can not completely relinquish a vision of our future selves in name of maximizing current pleasure. If we don't run and bike and swim today, that triathlon is going to be a nightmare. On the other hand, if we don't derive pleasure today from exercising in preparation for that triathlon, we've really got to question whether or not "I'm the kind of person who does triathlons" is a true statement.

What I've been noodling on these last few weeks is how easy I used to find contemplation of my future self versus how impossible, how painful it is do so now. The more I try to plan for our next phase, the more literal pain I am in: spasms in the back, migraines, sore jaw from gritting and grinding at night. So what changed that makes it so painful now to look at beyond a year or two? It is not fear of the future that makes me hurt; I believe DrC, the girls and I are capable of handling almost anything that the world throws at us. No, I think what makes me hurt is the sheer, unmanageable variability. Scope and time and even resources are such amorphous and liquid variables now that we are seeing the physical manifestation of a buffer overload problem. I just can't get my head around it. It's like trying to stuff a continental weather model into a MacBook. It just can't be done. I'm locking up.

> Too often, our plans seek to maximize the pleasure of ideas - "look at our well-lived life" - often at the cost of the pleasure of the moment.
> Of course, the opposite it true, too - the momentary pleasure of a night out drinking can cost us long term satisfaction as a chain of hangovers slowly drags down our career.

I'm going to move from a management concept with this one now to an economic principle: satisficing. Just as Physics 101 assumes an airless, frictionless world, so too does Econ 101 assume that all actors in an economy maximize benefit with the resources we have on hand. It is only in later classes do you add air, friction, and imperfect information. In the absence of perfect information and equal access to resources and perfect competition, actors in an economy satisfice... they work towards an optimal solution until they are satisfied that the marginal benefit to be derived from continued search for a better economic outcome just isn't worth the effort.

I believe that examining our lives also needs to be a satisficing exercise where we examine it enough to adjust course. We dive into our navels sufficiently to improve ourselves, head our families and our lives in directions that will bring greater happiness and success as we define them. If we fail to do this at all, we do run into Socrates' hard stop "isn't worth living." But at some point, we need to just live for the moment rather then thinking about the moment. At some point, we need to stop planning for the future, and just survive until we get there.

John Loggins said...

Ok...I love you.
You used "Zombie Apocalypse" not only in several post but in your answer to a comment. Kudos.
Very well written posts outstanding style.

Guilcolax said...

Every post provides amazing conversation provoking time for me and my wife. Thank you for the unabashed posts and perspectives on a lifestyle foreign to the society driving us to become drones of monotonous 9-5, pay taxes and chronic consumption comparison to our peer group. Best wishes to you and yours - living life.