The Dukkha of Original Thinking

 

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This blog is dedicated to all workers out there, on this U.S. Labor Day holiday. The Eternal Fishnu says there are other peaks to explore – with different treasures. There’s a point of diminishing returns in everything. Climb down from this peak you know too well and take a long, exhilarating hike to the next peak! But not until you’re ready.

We Don’t Pay You to Think

I originally wanted to title this blog, “We Don’t Pay You to Think”, a phrase I often hear on movies and TV shows. It usually goes something like this:

A private approaching his sergeant: “Sergeant, I think …”

Sergeant immediately interrupts: “WE DON”T PAY YOU THINK, PRIVATE!”

The movie Sergeant makes a very valid point. They are paid to faithfully carry out their orders based on a carefully orchestrated plan. The beautiful execution of a plan, perfect or flawed, beats the hell out of thousands of independently-minded “armies of one” rushing onto the field like in an old medieval movie.

But the notion of beautifully executed plans only works well under simple, closed conditions. In fact, any fairly reliable machine is a physical manifestation of an executing plan;  a watch, car, refrigerator.

We should obviously plan, incorporating what we’ve learned from the past. However, plans quickly unravel for endeavors beyond simple and closed systems. These are complicated or complex systems. For example, a large business enterprise and certainly the battlefield where our Sergeant depends on his orders followed as given.

I once again invoke the Zen Master, Mike Tyson’s, great quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In the end, plans only point us to the road to our destination. We will have yet to hurdle lots of things we never saw coming. Sometimes there isn’t any road at all, so the plan can only point us in the direction to our destination.

Original Thinking

By “original thinking” I mean intellectual exploration of the unknown, as opposed to optimization and/or exploitation of the fairly well-known. Like Captain Cooke and Captain Kirk, I long to venture into the unknown. But instead of far off lands, for me it’s hurdling the challenges of understanding our consciousness through software development and Buddhism.

However, I need to be clear that “original” is a strange word that doesn’t really mean what we subconsciously think it means. Hardly any of our inventions or art are as original as we’d like to think. There’s hardly, if any, examples of purely original thought – or purely unoriginal thought.

Originality is a measure on a spectrum ranging from ideas that are unimaginable to our humans brains to a basic thought like “I’m hungry”, practically hard-wired in your brain. Examples of genuinely original thinking include … I can’t think of any … it’s beyond the computational confines of my 80 billion neurons.

Our brain is a device that spawned from the relatively closed system of “macro Life” on Earth (the interaction of things we can see with our naked human eyes). It’s incredibly hard to think of something outside the realm of Earthly life. So for this blog, let’s think of original thoughts as a clever association between one or more known concepts. For example, phone infrastructure plus cheap computers equals Internet.

“Original thinking”, doesn’t even mean being the first to have thought of something. In a world having hosted about 100 billion total people over the past 200K or so years, seven billion alive today, it’s extremely rare to have thought of anything, no matter how bizarre, that had not crossed the minds of at least a few hundred, if not millions of others.

Even if no one thought of your particular thought, it’s still based on our collective knowledge-base of thousands of years of history. As it is for practically every other computer programmer out there, lots of the code I’ve written over the past decade was born out of snippets code cut, pasted, and molded from StackOverflow.

In fact, The Eternal Fishnu told me that even the critical technologies for ancient humans, fire and agriculture, were re-invented many times in many different places. And they weren’t invented in a vacuum, but just part of a long series of little steps leading to a context where the association between flint and tinder wasn’t a far reach at all.

Conversely, what about at the other end of the spectrum, completely unoriginal thought? Life on Earth is so complex that what we humans face instant to instant is hardly (or never?) ever exactly the same. Remember Heraclitus’ teaching of never being able to step in the same river? Almost every action we take has some measure of originality, albeit a wee bit.

By “original thinker”, I’m not judging that as better than other sorts of thinkers. Being an original thinker is more of a preference. I prefer and enjoy original thinking. That doesn’t imply I’m even good at it. Because most of the time, I’m not good at it. Even for original thinkers, almost all thought through the daily grind is ordinary and unoriginal – walking to work, eating, attending scrum meetings.

However, this preference isn’t something I’m able to turn off. Believe me, I often wish I could. For whatever reasons – my genetics, my upbringing, my unique and random experiences – my brain computes an affinity for exploring the unknown, as opposed to exploiting the known. Unlike my colleague who once told me, “I used to look for shiny things too”, I can’t let go of that curiosity for what this Universe, or at least consciousness, sentience, is all about. Somehow he did … or at least he makes himself think he did.

Our society requires thinking preferences along the entire spectrum from original “shiny things” thoughts over to pragmatic thought. If we stand on a mountain peak, we can get to know every nook and cranny of that peak and hop around it like a Sherpa. But there are other peaks, higher with wider views. The original thinker is the one that figures out the tough journey of getting there without a map – she is the author of that map.

Herding Cats

Well over a decade ago HP put out a classic commercial for EDS that gave us software folks the herding cats meme. For those who haven’t seen it, I don’t think I need to explain that commercial any further than asking you to imagine herding cats as compared to herding sheep or cattle.

What I think of as Computer Programmers are an odd sort. That is, the circa 1980s sort of Latter Day Hippy programmer. We’re not artists, nor are we scientists, nor are we engineers, certainly not academics. We are not corporate resources like a fleet of bulldozers or grid of cubicles. We are rugged individuals who love playing God in our little silicon universes, favoring the creation side of the job of being God.

Before the invention of computers gave us programmer types a venue to earn a living playing out our God fantasies, we were a combination of artist, scientist, and philosopher; inventors. Not just the ones you’ve learned about in history class, but the many who are lost to history who, awakened to the fascination of the unknown, still had to make a living as worker bees.

Such folks struggle in a team environment. Cross-human communication is much slower than intra-brain communication. Collaboration waters down that mucho cool idea we’re powering through. Of course, I say that tongue-in-cheek, but yeah, incubating original thought in just ourselves is our default mode.

However, many modern problems vastly exceed the capacity of one human brain. Interestingly, this is the same thing Big Data solved for computers. Databases used to grow at a rate where the larger ones could fit on the currently “largest single machine”. But the growth of the larger ones began to far exceed the growth of the currently largest single machine. So an architecture that recruits hundreds of 100 pound gorillas can scale much further than one 800 pound gorilla.

Can we overcome that default mode of rugged individualism towards the whole is greater than the sum of its parts magic that is teamwork? Can we attend the daily scrums with a pleasant smile, update our task hours daily to stay in the green, and gear our intellect fully into the sprint requirements? Yes, we can and have, even though we may absolutely hate it despite the mind games we’ve learned to play with ourselves. (“Yes, I love my job. Yes, I love my job.”)

It’s a very good thing that many people don’t like exploring the unknown. Instead they have an affinity towards fully exploring what is known. These are the A+ students. They optimize a domain, pushing the limits of that domain further out. In fact, Life on Earth never asked for original thinkers of our scope in the first place. All innovation has two fairly equal parts – the first 90% that takes half the time, and the last 10% that takes the other half of the time.

Armies of people are needed to manifest the thoughts of the original thinkers into this world. There are way enough people with way enough good ideas. Even for the most brilliant of original thinkers, much time will be spent in that army carrying out the ideas that somehow gained traction.

If you’re lucky, the thought being carried out fits nicely into your own goals. If it doesn’t, your pliable brain will mercifully “grow to love it” or at least endure it. For the rest, i.e. those who read my blogs, my guess is neither of those cases apply … hahaha! The good news is that the execution of someone’s great idea still has an entire journey of problems to be creatively solved before the manifestation of that vision is completed.

Teamwork and the Battle at the Species Level

It might help rugged original thinkers cope in a team environment to realize that the real shtick of humanity isn’t our individual brain power alone but that brain power combined with those attributes enabling us to work as a team. As sentient individual humans, it’s easy to forget that evolution isn’t just a competition among individuals. More compellingly is focusing on the competition between species.

We humans are not the strongest, fastest, most durable creatures. But our package of qualities enables us to gel as a team coalesced around a goal. Even if each team member has other things they’d rather be striving for, somehow the members put aside their personal desires.

Genuine teams opens up much more scope of possibilities than just a loose collection of guys with spears. If our hunter teams were just a bunch of guys with spears chasing an animal, all that animal species would need to do is get faster, bigger, meaner, fly away, and maybe develop thicker armor. Simple solutions for a simple predator.

Similarly, basketball wouldn’t be that much fun to watch if it was just a one-dimensional game of  two sets of five guys catching a rebound, dribbling a bit, and shooting. Working as a team, they can get the ball closer to the net for a closer, higher-percentage shot. That’s a much more interesting game with much more scope for evolving.

Again, that goal or the approach taken towards that goal probably isn’t shared by everyone on the team. Maybe some guys on the basketball team favors a different style or one or more of those guys wants to be the scoring leader. If they suppress their individual desires, suspending their own needs for the “greater good”, what emerges is truly something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The notion of “greater good” can be tough for some of us rugged, individualist, original thinking nerds. But we do somehow put aside our own desires. As disjointed as society may seem at times, society wouldn’t work if we didn’t indeed coalesce as a species to a larger degree.

Lastly regarding teams, it’s important to point out that what sometimes may look like a team is not really a team, in the context of this blog anyway. Imagine a team working at a high-performing McDonalds. There are people adequately trained in their different roles. They must all effectively communicate. None of them can drop the ball.

Are they a team? Although they are certainly hard workers due the respect of any other workers, they are human cogs in a well-defined machine. When we refer to a team as a well-oiled machine, that’s not too far from the literal truth. As soon as a machine is able to fill in for a role, out goes the workers in that role in favor of that machine. And yes, that process started years ago.

A machine is an organization which for the most part not much unexpected happens. When the function of the organization of parts is well-defined, things are predictable and so the organization can be machine-like. In this case, for the most part, customers just want a quick and familiar meal. No surprises to either the McDonalds team or the customer. If anything unexpected happens, the only one “paid to think” is the manager. But even that manager probably has a special decision tree app on her phone of what to do for 99.9% of weird things that could happen.

Row, row, row your boat …

I’m still out there in the world banging away on a keyboard, working in an IT department, tucked away in a nondescript grid of cubicles. My current position certainly is not my dream job, not anything I would choose if I were an omnipotent being. But I’m not an omnipotent being, just a “piece of the Universe made alive”.

This is great. Original thinkers at least for iterative periods of time need to be directly connected to the real world. Go into the world and work for a while filling your mind with things new to you. Then spend some time composing an orchestration of novel relationships. If it’s of value, do the entrepreneurial thing. If not, go back out into the real world to refresh your mind. If you don’t do this iterative thing, the original thinker sinks into the realm of being impractically too academic or just plain crackpot.

Sometimes the transition between iterations can be a forest fire. Forest fires, literal or metaphorical, indeed have an invaluable purpose. I had been a gun-slinging Business Intelligence developer for almost 20 years. That’s maybe too long and a career forest fire took its inevitable hold. Enjoy the burn on your brain. As with the literal forest fire, a new trajectory is born.

The “team” I currently work on is indeed intended to be a team, not a herd of isolated developers. However, the comfort zone of those in charge are not familiar with software development tend to push towards the “sensible” non-team variety of human cogs in a well-defined machine.  Software development is not a well-defined machine … not yet anyway. Software developers do indeed actually strive for the day we put ourselves out of business. However, every day is still Surprise Day and computers are still the dumbest computation devices in the room, still too tough and chaotic for what we’d call a well-oiled machine.

Although my desires often don’t jibe with the project plans on various dimensions – the schedule doesn’t exactly fit with mine, the subject matter isn’t very interesting to me – it’s best for the corporation, the team, and me if I offer the least friction possible. Time, energy, and other resources prevent adequately stating each “cat’s” case. So we settle on the “good enough” approach, take the blue pill, and carry on with no fear.

Life is but a dream …

I carry in my pocket an old gaming token from the Monte Carlo Resort in Las Vegas. I’m not into the Vegas thing, but many Hanamoku family reunions take place in Las Vegas – thee favorite destination for people from Hawaii. “Monte Carlo” is also the name of the most well-known simulation algorithm, a tie to my analytics past, and to my eventual return. But the symbolism runs much deeper.

What is interesting is that underlying the other-worldly atmosphere of a Vegas casino are  a set of tight processes onto which the owners confidently place their faith. The casino architects set up processes with the scrupulous authority of mathematics on its side, as well as processes geared to keep gamblers genuinely entertained. Everyone is trained for beautiful execution of these processes.

With these processes in place, the workers at the casino can focus predominantly on execution, confident in their systems. This is like locking your doors and windows before going to bed so you can sleep peacefully without the worry of someone walking in and sneaking up on you in the middle of the night.

As a casino goes about its business, every now and then someone will walk out the door with a big jackpot. But it doesn’t bother them because the math of black jack, roulette and slot machines dictates that overall, in the long run, they will be comfortably ahead. In fact, a periodic big winner provides hope to the gambler even in the face of inevitable loss, bringing in even more customers. Growth is a good thing for a linearly-scalable system.

Monte Carlo
I carry this casino token everywhere to remind me that my mind is mostly, and thankfully in many ways, in a reality created by and shared by fellow humans that really isn’t Reality. The token reminds me that I have processes into which I place my trust.

The Gift of Sentience

A central notion of Zen is to realize this heuristic: Pure acceptance of what comes your way is way much less stressful than fighting it in favor of what your brain wants. However, strict adherence to that heuristic renders our gift of sentience meaningless. Our gift of sentience, our ability to purposefully design, is a magical power over evolution. The purpose of Zen is not to retreat back to the innocence and bliss of non-sentience but to smooth out the transition, which is a rough ride.

For me, practice of that pure acceptance means to set aside my own thoughts and desires in favor of the goal of my team. But as the days go by where I become more comfortable with my situation, I may be lulled into a cozy blanket of complacency that could be taken away at any time – i.e. I’m laid off like a Detroit auto worker from the 1980s with lots of skill that nobody needs anymore.

To sort of have my cake and eat it too – a dukkha-free day but avoiding the eventuality of getting caught with my pants down – I have a system in place to ensure my long-term marketability. I’ve identified a couple of key areas of knowledge and the highest level of abstraction that is practical. These couple of key areas take up only a few hours per week with minimal volume of knowledge.

For example, my current day job doesn’t include anything remotely requiring functional programming (FP), a skill I believe is a critical complement to object-oriented. I simply don’t have time and energy at the end of the day to keep up with the plethora of FP languages without spreading myself too thin and/or burning myself out. Instead, I study abstract algebra, the foundation of FP, a single topic that I actually enjoy. Instead of being a novice with a few FP languages, I became very good with a single topic from which I can easily ramp up to any FP language.

Similar to how it is for the workers at the casino, my system ensures that I can blissfully go about the “daily grind” with faith that my system is busily at work protecting my long-term marketability. I’m able to stay in the Now, without distractions of that future which isn’t yet here. The the end of a work day, having put aside my own “desires”, and fully accepting what is right in front of me, I lived a dukkha-free day.

But when I get home and empty my pockets, I notice the Monte Carlo token. It’s a reminder that what my brain computes hardly ever fully reflects reality. It’s merely a pitifully inadequate model of reality. Similarly, the Business Intelligence reports enabled by the systems I build are useful but still inadequate pictures of what’s going on in the physically real business ecosystem. 

What is this process I have in place? What is this process intended to re-design what surrounds me towards what I envision, while at the same time living with 100% acceptance of what is right in front of me? I am working on a blog on that topic I will share some day soon. But it is one tailored for me that happens to fit the unique set of circumstances that is me. Following someone else’s process instead of taking full ownership of your own somewhat defeats the purpose of our gift of sentience.

Faith and Patience to you!

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku