Stuffing the stuff

without getting stuffy
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September 2006
October 2006

2006-09-21 »

Delirium 1: The Genius of Obsession

My friends dmg and apm recently lent me a book called The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder. It's a work of long form, non-fictional journalism that describes the process of designing a new minicomputer at Data General around 1980. It's much more about the people and their social issues than about the computer itself.

What an interesting book to recommend to me right now. I certainly recognize the story: team of 30 or so crazy people in larger company isolate themselves, gel as a team, build impossible product on crazy timeline, live through pressure, team reorgs, smart and stupid managers, and have way too little real life experience. Product gets completed (a bit late, of course), team leader moves on, and team essentially disintegrates and carries its experience elsewhere, person by person, while parent company lives on, continuing to sell the resulting product and ones based on it. I guess we can be proud - we held together the culture longer than they did.

But the things that really struck me about the story weren't so much the similarities as the differences. They did a few things "right" in that story - for some definition of "right" - that I never quite managed. Their team lead, Tom West, managed to bring out of everyone on his team something that I've only ever managed to bring out in myself personally - total obsession with the end goal.

And obsession, as I learned for sure in the last few months of not being obsessed, is where it's at. Obsession is the only way to really get into The Zone. It gives you energy you didn't know you had. It turns you from a normal mortal into something more. I've done it for myself a few times. I used to wonder if you could even do it for other people, because I never had much luck. But after reading this book, I have a few clues. Not surprisingly, they echo the environment I create naturally for myself - but I have to change my style if I'm going to create the same conditions for others.

Mutual Motivation. You can't obsess alone for long. The key thing isn't so much having help as being needed. You have to not let people down. That fear is what makes stopping harder than going on.

"Signing up." It has to be voluntary. You have to know what you're getting into on day 1, and decide it's worth it. You have to decide it out loud, and promise it to others. You have to be visibly, publicly in the game, so any failure will be an obvious one.

No way out. There can be no escape clause. If you fail, we're all dead. Nobody will save you. If you're late, we're all late with you. There's no superhero who will do it better and bail you out. You're going to have to grow up and be the superhero. If you really have to do it, maybe then you really can do it.

Too stupid to know it's impossible. It has to be harder than you thought it would be, not easier, so the pressure builds instead of dissipates near the end, when it's easiest to lose interest. And so experience kills - you'll never be able to obsess the same way twice. That's why younger people, especially students, are better at it than oldsters. (As someone on the verge of being an oldster myself - in the book, 30 years is the magic age - I already have to find crazier and crazier projects each time, always outside my existing experience, or I simply can't obsess enough.)

Too blind to see it doesn't really matter. In real life, almost nothing you do makes a serious, long-term difference. Realizing this will kill your fun. You need blinders - and if you're lucky, a really good reality distortion field. Again, older people have trouble here, because once you've been disillusioned by dedicating a year to an ultimately pointless project, it's hard to fall for that again. Except that falling for it is fun.

Too restricted to take the easy way out. Smart, sensible ways of solving problems will knock you out of The Zone. Sensible schedules, flexible and forgiving bosses, 8-hour work days, good nutrition, the newest equipment, a social life (outside work), even using low-cost direct mail services instead of composing your own poetry and stuffing your own envelopes - all these things make it too easy. That means less pressure. Less pressure means less obsession. There's a good reason why entrepreneurial companies are responsible for most of the wildest innovation in the world: because they're so helpless, disorganized, and resource-constrained that nothing you do there isn't a challenge. And that makes your brain work harder, nonstop, without any chance to cool down and drop back from hyperspace into normal space.

When I've done the best work in my life, those are the rules I followed. I turned my load factor down to levels I knew perfectly well were too low to be safe. I set things up so I had no escape and nobody could possibly bail me out. I bet my reputation that I would be done on time. And because it's my special skill, I always, always, failed to realize how impossible and unimportant the job was - at least until afterwards.

And that, let me tell you right now, is the magic combination that makes life worth living. From now on, I'm going to be a very different kind of manager. You should be glad you don't work for me anymore!

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