One of my favorite books is "The Clock of the Long Now," edited by Stewart Brand. Brand will become a young man of 73 this 14 December. The book’s premise is that we who live now have a responsibility to the future. Ah, the past; the future. This is my third composition in a row that touches on the subject of time. My Season composition reflected on the fact that we can’t control our destiny in detail, but that, paradoxically, planning is important. The Routines reflection looked at the place of habit and cycle in life, and recalls Mary Poppendieck’s admonishment that we practice with deliberation. One theme common to these two perspectives is that we live in the now. But a good now is long, straddling past, present, and future.
While we are endowed at birth with various gifts, talents and abilities, most of our professional selves is nurture rather than nature. We are a product of our experiences: of the family that chose us to raise, of the schools we chose to attend, and of our chosen colleagues. Every now is worth treasuring as an opportunity to grow, improve, and to refine our influence. Planning helps us prepare for the opportunities that accelerate that growth. Ritual honors the human element and contextualizes our experiences to help us better integrate them into our whole selves. Improvement comes from time and attentiveness.
The most direct way to learn is first-hand experience from our work. Critical conversation with voices of experience can often be more efficient, optimizing our paths around needless blind alleys. King Solomon said, As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Vicarious learning is often the best.
While we can reap benefit from any conversation, we should listen with particular care to the voices of those who have had time to collect and assimilate the world’s knowledge, and to demonstrate that they could act on it. It has been fashionable in engineering for some time now to put our faith in youth, but the most resilient ideas are woven from grey hairs. I think of Jeff Sutherland when he invented Scrum at age 52, building on previous careers in the military, medicine, and finance.
As I write this, I’m on my way to spend some days with a friend and mentor, Trygve Reenskaug, who invented MVC at age 47. We’ll be talking mainly about nerd stuff, though the discussion will build on our combined lifetime of experiences. But more than that, we’ll both draw on the many gifts of insight that accumulated in discussions with others over the years.
In planning your career, think about your stage in life and how it affects your contribution both to your firm and to society. Share your knowledge in open dialogue but be willing to be challenged either by broader, deeper and more general experience, or by a new perspective that causes you to realize that long-held beliefs might be arbitrary stereotypes or tribal beliefs. Find good mentors who have followed, or perhaps pioneered, the path before you. Just take the time to hear them out. Integrating their experience, though sometimes outdated, with your own life experiences increases the chances you’ll take the right paths.
If you feel you are smart now, but can see how wrong you were in the past, it’s worthwhile projecting yourself a decade or two into the future. You can often do this through the eyes of someone that age. Extend your now into the past through the eyes of senior people, and into the future through your dreams.