At first I thought I hadn’t learned anything new, just the same lessons I keep learning every year. Then I realized that I’ve learned new techniques that let me apply what I’ve previously understood in ways that work better.
Lessons I need to keep learning:
- Everything is about the people. My relationships with other humans are more important to me than anything else. Since much of my life is spent making software, I think a lot about how this applies to my work. Software is really made of people: people’s ideas, conflicts, errors, understanding or misunderstanding the needs of others or the limits of machines. We need to work well with other people in order to do everything, or at least to do the things that really matter. The so-called soft skills are hard.
- Why is more important than what. If we agree on doing something, but we’re doing it for different reasons, it typically doesn’t have happy outcomes for anyone. For that same reason, working with people who share your values is incredibly powerful. Our values influence our decision-making, sometimes so fundamentally that we don’t realize that we are making a decision at all.
This year I combined these lessons into a very different approach to finding my way in the world. Part of the reason I can do this is because I know a lot of people and have grown comfortable outside of my comfort zone. Or rather, I have discovered that what I used to think of as boundaries create a false comfort, and have gained experience in creating boundaries in my interactions which create safety in new experiences.
Find your people.
When I started doing business development for my own consulting company, I realized that there are different ways of doing business that co-exist in our capitalist economy. There are business people who are competing with each other to win, where in order to win, someone else has to lose. Success is gained at someone else’s expense. There are a lot of successful people who work that way, but its not how I work.
In my very first startup, I came up with a very simple formula for understanding this business of making software: if you make something that people need, especially if it’s something they need to do their work, they will be happy to give you some of their money.
My idea of a successful business transaction is when I am happy to do the work because I get paid to create something wonderful in collaboration with smart, interesting people. Then what I get paid feels like a lot of money, plus I’m gaining experience that I value. If we negotiate well and set expectations effectively, then the customer feels like it wasn’t that much money relative to the value of this awesome thing we created together. Of course, every business deal didn’t work out that way even with the best of intentions, but I learned to notice which people weren’t even trying to create that situation.
I applied this idea earlier this year when looking for my new job. I talked to people who I had really enjoyed working with, who I felt were doing interesting things. Those people introduced me to other people. I didn’t have time to talk to everyone I wanted to meet or reconnect with, so I followed my heart and met with people who I most wanted to talk with. It felt a little random at times, yet it was quite intentional. I prioritized the companies with the people who told stories about their work that inspired me, or made me laugh, where it seem like some things would be easy and most of the difficult things would be fun.
I spent more time talking with people who were honest, whose truths reflected my own, who caused me think and reflect. I also prioritized people who also wanted to work with me. That sounds kind of obvious in a job search, but I mean something very specific. Of all the people who would like a person with my skills on their team, there is a smaller group who actually want to work with me, with all my quirks and diverse interests, where seemingly unrelated talents and skills are valued as part of the team.
I ended up taking a job at Google, inside this huge company where there are lots of different kinds of people, I found a community of like-minded folk. Most of those people don’t even know each other, but they help me stay connected to my own values and help me navigate a strange new world. I stay connected with other industry colleagues through Bridge Foundry, a wide network of civic hackers, and small gatherings of friends. Every week I try to have lunch or coffee with someone awesome who I don’t work with day-to-day. Allowing myself to care about the kinds of people I work and staying connected with a wider group of wonderful people with has created a profound, enriching effect on my day-to-day life.
Be nice to the other humans.
I used to feel like I had to figure out who the good and the bad people were, or the good people and the other people who needed to be enlightened, but just didn’t know it yet. I had to try really hard not to be judgmental, and it was really hard to be nice to people who didn’t meet my standards, except, more often than not, I didn’t actually meet my own standards. Despite my best efforts, I kept screwing up.
I got excited about agile development and lean startup where you are supposed to fail fast and learn, but we can’t A/B test relationships. I realized that sometimes talking about a thing is a whole message unto itself. You are saying “I think our spending time on this is the most important thing we each could be doing right now.” Of course, sometimes it is, but often not at all.
If something might be a misunderstanding, it might be not that important for either of us. If I’m not going to be working with you or might not even see you again this year or ever, and you aren’t actually hurting anyone, maybe I should just be nice. Maybe I should give you the benefit of the doubt, think of the best possible reason you might have said that or focus on something else you said that was much more interesting. Then when we meet again, if its important and still relevant, we can figure it out. More likely, things will have changed, and we will have changed.
We invent ourselves in each moment. These shared experiences are precious moments of ourlives. It may seem obvious or inconsequential, but being nice, genuinely nice, makes the day just a little bit brighter and leaves the way open for new opportunities.