The Optimists Don't Make It Out
The Optimists Don't Make It Out
There’s only one advantage to delayed flights, missed connections, and extra nights stuck in hotels far away from home—you can catch up on your reading. The book at the top of my “to read” list was Making it Big in Software  by Sam Lightstone. It’s a collection of interviews with various “biggies” in the software field mixed with good advice from Lightstone in the areas of education, getting a job, using your first work years wisely, gaining essential skills, career advancement, and others. All in all, it’s an interesting read.
However, the interviews provided me with no usable advice. Some of the biggies’ secrets of success were: join Microsoft in 1986; begin programming at age nine; start a successful company; become Google’s twentieth employee; always work for a powerful, influential, and upwardly mobile boss; and have few friends and no family. In fact, when one interviewee was asked “How do you achieve a work-life balance?” he responded, “Why would I want to do that?” It seems that throughout my career, I’ve made all the wrong decisions to make it big.
In her interview, Diane Greene, cofounder and past CEO of VMware, explained the secret of the company’s success. “We hoped for the best but planned for the worst, always.” That reminded me of an interview Jim Collins had with Vice Admiral James Stockdale as reported in his book Good to Great . Stockdale was held in a North Vietnamese prison for seven years, beaten and tortured repeatedly, and later awarded the Medal of Honor. Collins asked Stockdale about his strategy for coping. Stockdale replied, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.”
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale immediately replied: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale added, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you willprevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Are you one of those project managers who believes the project will be finished by Christmas, and if not then, by Easter, and if not then, by Thanksgiving? Have you been crushed again and again? If you continue down that path, Admiral Stockdale says that ultimately your heart and spirit will be broken.
In our work, it is vital that we do not confuse either goals or estimates with reality. Goals describe the desired end results of our actions—what we want to achieve. However, our goals may not necessarily become reality.
Estimates are an approximate calculation of the actions required to achieve goals—what we believe will need to be done. Our estimates are not necessarily reality, either. Reality is simply the way things actually are. It exists independently of our goals and estimates. Don’t confuse them.
What could cause us to confuse goals or estimates with reality? Goals and estimates are often more positive than reality. Ted Young, an agile development manager, believes it’s fear—fear of disappointing people, fear of punishment, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, fear of confronting others with the truth, fear of not being in control, and fear of our own inability. If our reality is full of fear, we substitute and believe positive goals.
Rick Scott, a Canadian philosopher-geek, generalizes this to “the positive consequences of believing something that can’t possibly be true can be made to outweigh the consequences of believing something that is true.” In other words, it can be less painful to reject reality than to embrace it.
While never in the “Top Ten Attributes” of great software professionals, it seems that courage, the ability to overcome adversity in the face of fear, is vital to our effectiveness as software professionals. Remember: The optimists don’t make it out; the courageous realists do.
Originally published Oct. 30, 2010
- Lightstone, Sam. Making it Big in Software. Prentice-Hall, 2010.
- Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0066620992.