Being Agile Means Being Courageous

LionFear is common in many workplaces. Theory X managers will often wield fear to try and whip their employees into shape, and motivate them to do the work they were hired to do. Threats of being written up, put on probation, fired, and subsequently losing your insurance, maybe your car or your house, not to mention your sense of identity and self-worth…

Fear is terrible. Fear stifles communication, prevents learning, inhibits innovation, and creates a work environment and workforce that is toxic and terrible.

A culture built on fear is not inherent in traditionally managed environments, nor are agile teams immune to the effects of fear. I think fear really comes from the top down, and any organization can have a bad leader.

What I like about agile is that it calls us out of fear, and if you’re doing it right, it encourages confronting those things that make us afraid and overcoming them.

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We should practice humility in our ignorance

I have always been confident of my intelligence. Given enough time, I know that I can figure most problems out, and if I have the resources I can learn most anything. On a subject where my education has been lacking, I can still rely on a genius-level IQ to help me understand what other people are saying, and I can pick up subjects quickly.

There are a lot of people for whom the last paragraph would be applicable, and a multitude more who think it is applicable to them when it is not. To both groups, I offer the following advice: don’t be an arrogant dick, whether you are familiar with a subject or just pretending to be familiar. Instead, always practice humility to better ingratiate yourselves to others and to not make yourself look more ignorant than you might already be.

I have been in both groups, and I suspect that most people are the same way. There are subjects on which we know a lot, and so we love to wax eloquent on these subjects and show off our immense knowledge. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from bullying on the school playground or whether it is innate to humanity, but we seem to derive a certain amount of pleasure from making other people feel worse than us. We should work to overcome this emotion and inclination, because we will often find ourselves on the other side of the discussion.

While my high IQ has been a factor in helping me learn and understand a lot, I feel its utility is greater in making people think I know what I’m talking about even when I don’t. I was faced with this most directly my freshman year in college when I tried to discuss classical periods of music with a music performance major. I knew only a tiny amount on the subject (the same amount I know on most subjects), but tried to discuss it as if I was a studied scholar. She tore me apart and made me feel a right fool, but my pride wouldn’t let me back down and so I argued more. Smoke and mirrors will be exposed to a bright light and a knowing eye.

Now I revel in admitting I am unfamiliar with a subject. I find a great deal of freedom in admitting ignorance, and a certain measure of power as well. It seems odd that it would be so, but admitting that I don’t know something and asking someone to explain it to me (say, in the context of a conversation) frees me from the onus of intellectualism and puts that burden on the other person. There is freedom in the truth as well, in not trying to be something I’m not, and that freedom makes me feel more powerful and confident. When I am trying to stand on a lie, I feel shaky and weak; when I am honest about my ignorance, I feel secure and strong.

So if you’re not familiar with a subject, don’t pretend that you are. No one can be expected to know everything about everything. I’ve been studying religion for almost seven years now and could discuss Buddhism or the Judeo-Christian Bible in great depth, but I don’t know jack about physics or plumbing or geology. My earth science class in high school doesn’t make me an expert on the earth, so I shouldn’t pretend it does, just like having played in the orchestra in junior and senior high school didn’t teach me all that much about music.

Be humble in both your knowledge and in your ignorance. Even if others don’t follow suit and still act arrogantly, at least you can feel more secure in your integrity.

Fear in America

Fear is pretty common in our society, so there’s no need to talk about it as something distant or difficult to comprehend. We all deal with it, whether the anxiety flows from talking with the people we stand next to in the checkout line or smiling at the person one table over at a coffee shop. When we see a stranger break down in tears, we freeze. If we ask someone how their day is going and they respond immediately that their child just died and they’re considering suicide, we are at a loss for a proper response. How should we react?

I haven’t read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis yet, but I was told recently of a passage in it that gives a vision of what hell is like. In hell, Lewis writes, there are millions of houses, but everyone lives very far from one another. They can’t stand to see or be near their neighbours, so they continually build more houses and move further away. Like our universe, it is ever-expanding as people build, settle, and then realize they are still too near one another and begin the cycle again. Their loneliness is self-imposed, fueled perhaps by their bitterness.

There seems to be something in humanity, perhaps sin itself, that encourages this isolationist trend. It is not good for man to be alone, and for this reason woman was made, but I cannot count how many people sabotage their relationships so that they end up alone. As the author of Bowling Alone observed, we get in our own car when we leave work, we drive to our homes and open the garage door without stepping from the car, we close it behind us before we exit the vehicle, and then we enter our homes, having never been exposed to our neighbours or the outside world. We don’t make eye contact with strangers on the streets, and rationally we have to recognize that it’s not because they might all stab us if we did. We’re all equally afraid of intimate contact–of someone seeing us.

It goes without saying, though, that something in us does drive us to relationships, else we wouldn’t live in cities at all, nor would we seek out partners with whom we can form relationships that we eventually sabotage. But from where does this fear come? I believe it comes from our regrets and self-loathing, where we have taken a sin and made it (in our minds) a huge facet of our lives, and we don’t want others to see that sin. We are afraid that if they see it, they will leave and our worst fear will be confirmed: that we are sinful. We might think it, but it’s not quite as real if no one else knows, so if we hide it away then everything will be fine.

I dated a girl briefly my sophomore year of college who attempted to hide herself. She was afraid that people wouldn’t like her if she was herself; if people realized how truly intelligent she was. In high school, the smart kids were outsiders, discriminated against and mocked, and she wanted to be an insider. She didn’t want to be alone, so she pretended to be someone else. When I saw through her facade, it made her extremely uncomfortable, and she left me. It was better to her to not be seen, to have her soul unexposed.

As is so often the case with this sort of fear, though, the terrible thing we are attempting to hide is no terrible thing at all. For years I hid my past life from others, afraid of how they would judge me. Before I was Christian, I didn’t want people to know I was involved in witchcraft, despite my pride in it. Visions of hate crimes, burning stakes, and eternal loneliness floated through my mind. I had been beaten and stigmatized sufficiently just for being different and smart–adding a different religion to the mix seemed extremely unwise. Even after I became Christian, I was afraid that if people learned of my past actions, of what I had done, and of the crimes I had committed that they would leave me. I would be kicked out of the Church. I had found a family, and I did not want to be pushed from it.

This fear weighed on me, kept me up at night, and prevented me from forming vulnerable, intimate, life-affirming relationships. That same sophomore year of college, though, I met a very inquisitive young woman who also wanted to know my life story, but she wanted to know the parts that I had left out when I told it to Brooke. She wanted to know those things that I was afraid to share, and she exhorted me to take strength in Christ and be honest.

I let it all out, told her everything, and she hugged me and told me it was OK. There was no blame in her eyes, no disillusion or anger, nor was there pity. There was just acceptance and love, and it was the first time since I had accepted Jesus into my life that I was able to experience that. When someone knows your darkest sins and accepts you anyways, there is no room for fear. The light has shown everywhere and nothing has been found wanting. There is only love.

She urged me to share my testimony more often, so I tried it once more. The man with whom I shared likewise did not reject me. Before long, I was speaking in front of a church, telling them my story, and they did not cast me out. They did not throw stones. I was hugged and brought in deeper. Over the years, I have found that vulnerability builds relationships, where fear leads to weakness and stagnation at best, and isolation at worst.

When the random person on the street smiles at me, and I smile back, it makes my day. It is uplifting for me, and I hope it is the same for them. I’m still afraid to talk with people in the checkout line or at the store, and especially at the next table in the coffee shop, but sometimes I try, and I really try to reciprocate when someone talks to me. If someone shares that they’re having a particularly bad day, I offer to sit down and talk with them. Maybe pray, if they seem comfortable with that. I force myself to reach out a bit more and touch their lives. For all I know, no one else ever has, and they are dying for someone to reach for them and pull them out of the darkness just a bit, just enough to find their way.

How are you? I am fine.

It was Wednesday and I was getting ready to pack up my computer and head out for a long lunch. No Riksha Chinese food or Gem of India for me today, though; rather, I would be spending my lunch at the dentist’s office so they could ascertain if my jaw was as screwed up as I feared. Despite having had my wisdom teeth out six days previously, I still had a decent amount of swelling and a lot of pain from my right temple down through the right side of my neck, and the constant muscle pain that accompanied this made focusing on work next to impossible.

I hadn’t slept well the night before… or any night since the surgery, really. I would wake up multiple times a night, take some more pain meds, and then dream fitfully about living underground, having won the lottery, or digging through a flea market. I hadn’t had any coffee in almost a week, and though I was pleased to have lost a little weight, I really wanted to drink a beer, eat a cheeseburger, and in general be able to consume something without a twinge of fear and miserableness.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, my phone rang. Krist from HR was on the other end and asked how I was. “I’m just fine,” I replied. “How are you?”

Generally, in Christian circles when we discuss this subject, we advocate honesty and openness. Why do we always lie when we feel like crap? How can we expect to build relationships when we never tell anyone anything about ourselves?

Obviously, this was at work, not church, but a campus community bears some similarities to a church. We spend way more time together than I do with the members of my church (which is a bit of a commentary on me, I suppose, though potentially extending to our society as well), and we’ve all got a common goal and passion. I’m generally honest with the people I work with, and would go so far as to say I have several friends through work who are very supportive.

But I didn’t say that I was miserable, in pain, and hungry because I was afraid to eat. I said I was fine, because that’s more professional.

I believe strongly that certain feelings and attitudes should be left at the door when you go to work, and my miserableness isn’t needed there. We’ve got a job to do, and I not only cannot let my feelings get in the way of that, but I can’t dump on other people and take up their time with my problems. They don’t deserve that.

But even beyond the professionalism-at-work scenario, I’m beginning to think more and more that we need to cultivate this attitude of positiveness in most every setting. To return to the church example, yes, I think we should be able to be honest and open there, but I also think it would be healthy to check some of the baggage at the door. If your issues are going to keep you from worshipping God, then you need to put them on the altar and stop worrying about them. Trust in Jesus and praise His name.

On the religious side, I’d encourage you to do this because God will take care of you and those problems will probably work themselves out through His faithfulness. There’s no sense in making ourselves sad and upset when we have such a loving God who takes care of us. When we refuse to trust in Him, we’re worse off and things tend to go poorly.

It’s obviously a tricky subject. I’ve advocated elsewhere that we need to trust people, be open, and allow them to serve us just as we want to serve others. We can’t do that if we’re not open. But I think there are a lot of petty grievances that we let ruin our day because we can’t just let them go, and that’s not healthy either. Some things are worth bringing up and sharing because they need to be dealt with, but my physical mouth pain wasn’t one of them.

So I said I was fine, because I was. And wouldn’t you know it, after visiting the dentist, everything was A-OK.

Transition from Transparency

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring why I blog and my values concerning both writing and my personal life.

I had originally intended to write about how I value transparency, and how my blog helps keep me humble because I put everything out there for all the world to see. How I write (or used to, anyways) about my faults and failures, about my weaknesses, and about my degenerate childhood to serve as both an example and a warning.

This is in contrast to when I was younger, before I became Christian and when I had several different masks I wore depending on where I was. No one truly knew who or what I was, least of all me, and I subsequently developed a tightly wound ball of neuroses that made healing and growing next to impossible.

On top of the lack of self-understanding, my fear of abandonment (stemming from a workaholic mother and a distant father) had led me to assume that if anyone knew the real me, they would turn away. That if I let anything slip about myself, or if someone found out what I had done or what I was, that I would lose what little companionship I had managed to garner. I hid out of fear.

When I first saw that people (Christians, notably) forgave me for my past sins… no, that sentence is not quite true. They didn’t forgive me, they just didn’t think about it. As Christians began to learn more about me and my past, it was a complete non-issue, and that was a huge relief to me. There was no drama: I’d screwed up, it was in the past, and we were different now. It was like being reborn with every truth I let fall from my lips.

Being brutally honest, wearing my heart on my sleeve as it were, was the only way I knew to excise those fears, doubts, and masks, so I committed to always be transparent. To not censor myself, and to not hide behind another mask. And this translated into my writing and blogging (beginning my freshman year of college), where I forced myself to be public with my private-most thoughts and concerns. To be honest, lest I fall back into that trap of fear and self-loathing. Blogging transparently, and living honestly, helped me break free of those fears.

Now, however, my writing is transitioning from that stage. I write less about myself personally and more about technology, the world around me, and interacting with that world. I censor both my blog and my social networking accounts (such as Twitter), not sharing certain thoughts or words, for fear of offending or alienating.

While this leaves me a little unsettled due to my previous commitment, I am comforted by knowing that I now have personal relationships, rather than the impersonal eye of the Internet, to keep me accountable and honest. I have friends who I know I can trust, and while my blog is less transparent than before, my friendships are far more honest than they ever were.

Of course, that means there are more arguments, more heated debates, and a few more apologies, but from these are friendships forged, as far as I’m concerned. If we cannot fight, trusting that the other will not walk out, then there is no real friendship there.

I am glad to have friends I can trust well enough to be transparent with, and equally glad that I need not put every detail on my blog just to keep myself honest. My blog entries from years past are nearly incoherent piles of worthless prattle, and not worth being read by anyone. By transitioning to writing about something other than myself, I am able to communicate something worth reading. I am free to give something to the World Wide Web that might help others, rather than pouring out my heart to only help myself.

Say it like you mean it

When talking about relationships, everyone talks about communication. And we all know it’s important and vital to a healthy relationship. Yet for some reason, it’s still one of the primary points of failure. We kind of suck at it, I guess?

It starts off all innocent and sweet. You’re upset at your significant other, but you don’t want to hurt their feelings, or you’re not sure you’re being reasonable, so you don’t say anything. You might even eventually forget about whatever it was that made you upset, and since you’ve forgotten about it, it must not have been important.

Until your significant other (SO) does it again. Then you’re pissed, because this is the sixth freaking time, and how could they do this to you yet again? Admittedly, you’ve never told them that you’re upset, because… well, they’ve done it six times now! Obviously they wouldn’t have listened to you anyways!

We’re ridiculous.

April and I have experimented with several different modes of communication, and we have found that talking about things immediately is about the only way that works. If your SO upsets you, tell them. Right then. They’re probably going to get upset in turn, either angry at you or guilty and upset at themselves, but it’s better to have it out in the open where it can be dealt with. State the issue, then hug and say you love one another, then give it some time.

I think the last part there is important, and it has worked well for us. Once it’s in the open, you can give each other time to think about it, to analyze your own actions and those of your SO, and then come back together later to talk about the issue a little more objectively. You have to be willing to give ground, to really listen to your SO and try to see things from their point of view, but the important thing is that you’re talking about it.

Otherwise, you end up breaking up years later because something relatively insignificant and easy to resolve has built up, been repeated umpteen times, and is practically insurmountable. It doesn’t need to come to this, and if a few tears along the way is all it takes to keep the relationship intact, I think it’s worth it. Moreover, you’ll both become better people and better able to listen to and help others because you’ve forced yourselves to deal with one another.

When a co-worker comes to you with a complaint, you’ll have learned how to deal with it because, with your SO, you couldn’t just leave or avoid the issue. In the confinements of a relationship, you were forced to deal and learn, and now you are better able to live your life with others.

The Power of Confession

One of the criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church from many Protestants is the necessity of the priestly figure. Protestants tend to feel that, due to passages like Matthew 27:51-53, the rift between man and God has been bridged by Jesus. Therefore, we no longer need an intercessor, but can approach God ourselves. Protestants are, I feel, correct in this statement, but then the logical thought process breaks down. We assume that the only reason for confession is for God to forgive us, and fail to even consider whether there might be other purposes for the practice.

I heard a story once of a girl who regularly confessed her sins to a friend of hers. She did not do so because she wanted the friend to pray and ask God to forgive her sins, but rather because she needed to see that a person, a close friend in this case, could forgive her. And if this friend could forgive her, God, who is so much greater, surely would forgive her as well.

Just like a funeral is not for the sake of the one who died, but to give those who loved that person a chance to mourn and gain closure–it is for the attendees rather than the deceased–so too is confession to our benefit. God commands us to confess our sins, but we sometimes get too wrapped up in the surface-level meaning of the command. Yes, we should confess to God our sins and ask for His forgiveness, but there’s more to it than just gaining forgiveness.

Confessing forces us to be vulnerable, to admit a mistake rather than glossing it over, to confront ourselves and, in some cases, to discover that our failings aren’t as bad as we thought they were. When we feel most unforgivable is when we so desperately need a time of confession, for it frees us from that fear. To confess reminds us that Jesus hears and forgives, and that we are free indeed.

Tomorrow, I will expand a bit on why we should ask forgiveness from a God who has already forgiven us.