Be the Wind: What to Do When Things Aren't Working

You know what I love about programming? There are a lot of problems. Every step of the way, you're taking something that doesn't do what you want it to and making it work.

As I improved at this I thought, "Cool, I'm getting to be a better programmer." Lately, I've been realizing that the fundamental skills of coding reach far outside the digital world.

In fact, programming has made me a better person, largely because it's taught me what to do when things aren't working.

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Sometimes while developing software you come across a bug that you just can't seem to figure out. You swear it must be a problem with the operating system or programming language and have to remind yourself that this is almost never the case - it's your problem to fix.

For a programmer, this is the Dip. There are no clear, sensible paths to go down next. You want to give up because things just aren't working.

What I've learned is that in situations like this, the only important thing is to create motion by any means necessary. In other words, changing absolutely anything even remotely connected to what you're working on.

Delete pieces here and see what happens there, add lines of code even to check parts you assume are working fine. Make changes that you know won't solve the problem because they still may lead you there.

The only objective is to shake things up and unearth new pathways to explore.

When something isn't working, put priority on trying new things quickly instead of finding a direct route to the solution. This seems to be a universal tactic; it's improved every facet of my life I've had the insight to apply it to.

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I'm no sailor but I know that when you're on the open seas and using the wind as your driving force, the problem isn't going into a headwind - even energy going opposite to your desired trajectory can be channeled in a useful way. The problem is when there is no wind, no motion.

Being stuck is being in a sailboat lost at sea, water stretched to the horizon in all directions, with no wind - except we may have more control over the gale than we think.

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At Chris Guillebeau's recent booktour stop in New Haven, I found myself making a recommendation I never had before.

Kimberly has a great blog where she writes about education but has been feeling like posting some off-topic articles and wasn't sure where they fit. She was having some doubts.

The trouble with doubt is that you don't continue to work while entertaining doubts on the side - they halt your movement and leave you in the middle of the ocean without even a gentle breeze blowing past.

So, despite my general opinion that blogs are about personality and that off-topic posts are often where readers connect most with a writer, I suggested that Kimberly try having a second more personal blog on the side.

I'm not really sure if this would be better or worse, but the outcome itself doesn't matter. What matters is answering doubt with action, observing what happens and going from there.

(By the way, Kimberly seems to be kickin' butt even without the second blog!)

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A New Perspective on Change

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We treat change as if it's something rare, precious and important to get right. We believe that there's a such thing as 'good' change that works in our favor and 'bad' change that doesn't. Change "we can believe in"  implies that there's some change we can't.

But, it's only when we make fewer changes that it becomes more critical for each of them to have positive effects.

When we, instead, start treating change as an ordinary reflex to doubt and stuckness, it has a new purpose.  It becomes less about being right directly and more about exploring the unknown and discovering solutions to problems along the way.

All changes become good, because all of them provide real answers settling our doubts one way or another so that we can move forward.

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Next time you're frustrated because you can't seem to wake up on time, can't quite capture a character in a novel you're writing, feel uninspired by your latest design or are just unsatisfied with some aspect of your life, start experimenting with changes.

Consider that it may be better to consciously make a few mistakes than to simply stagnate.

You can't leverage stagnation but a gust in any direction can help you discover what you've been looking for all along.


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