Tech Life Point your brain and pray

The Soak

My pitch at the SXSW panel was this. In creating a start-up, you’re going to be faced with a thousand seemingly inconsequential decisions. Tucked amongst those thousands of decisions are five decisions that actually matter. These decisions will change the face of your company. What I didn’t say was that I believe it’s next to impossible to figure out which decisions matter and which ones do not.

How depressing.

Here’s the deal, you can spend a lot of energy deciding what the big decisions might be, but that’s much less important than making the decision… educated guess or gut instinct. There’s a pile of thoughts on creating decision friendly environments in the Taking Time to Think piece, but that article focuses on the idea of thinking in a team scenario and I want to talk about when you choose to take your thinking solo.

Let’s start with the most infuriating email you’ve ever received. I’m not talking about that jerk in Tech Support who is simply stupid, I’m talking about the email from someone you trust… a peer… pissing you off in email. You’re going to want to react to this email in the same manner as if I came into your office and punched you in the face. It’s your animal brain at work and it served you well when you were living in a cave doing the hunter-gathering thing because reacting slowly meant you were eaten or punched again.

Now. You have time to soak.

The soak is when you plant the seed of a thought in your brain and let it bump around in a rich stew of ideas, facts, and whatever other random crap that seems to relate. The soak is a protected activity that will rarely occur during your busy day because you’re busy reacting to the familiar never-ending flood of things to do. The goal of the soak is simple: an original thought. Whatever the problem is your stewing on, you want to find an glimmer of inspiration which transforms your response from a predictable emotional flame-o-gram into a strategic considered thought.

Emotion and Ignorance

At a prior gig, I was finally hitting my stride. After a two year awkward getting-to-know the company phase, I was in the groove. I knew who was doing what, who was hungry, and who was coasting. I’d turned a small bright idea of a product into a successful money maker, so my boss decided to saddle me with something completely different. An entirely new product built on technology I’d never used. It was a strategic-shift product for the company which meant everyone would be watching. This visibility would amplify potential fuck-ups. This was the career defining product for me.

Holy shit.

Having no clue where to start on a new project and want to rip someone apart in email share one important characteristic. The best move in both cases is to start with a good long soak.

I break soaking activities into two buckets: Active Soaks and Passive Soaks. The Active Soaks are activities that you can direct and usually involve gathering content where as Passive Soaks are activities when you just point your brain in a random direction and pray. Passive Soaks are were the real work gets done. Let’s start with the first:

Active Soaking

Ask dumb questions. Your first job when faced with ignorance is information acquisition and, hopefully, there are folks out there who’ve already done some soaking. These folks have some facts, ideas, and opinions regarding whatever the problem might be and you need to hear them all. The first five of these conversations can be awkward for managers because it’ll be obvious after your first two questions (“What is it?”, “How does it work?”) that you have absolutely no clue what’s going on and a manager’s job is be clueful.

Suck it up, pal. Soaking starts out uncomfortable, but with each ignorant question you ask, you’re adding content to that managerial brain of yours. Ever sat in a meeting with your VP where they were presenting product strategy? Ever sat there, unblinking, shocked and thinking, “This guy, our leader, has absolutely no clue what doing”? That’s you in ten years when you’ve a modicum of success and decided that success is a result of your MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY policy.

Asking dumb questions is the best way to start figuring out what is actually going on. Furthermore, asking any question of your team is a handy way to indirectly say, “I care about what we’re doing enough to ask you what you think.”

Pitch a stranger. Once you’ve asked enough dumb questions, a picture will start to form in your mind about what exactly you’re doing. It’s a not a complete picture, it’s more a rough sketch coupled with the mild relief that accompanies the sudden absence of ignorance. Now you’ve got to test your understanding with a qualified someone who is willing to listen to you ramble. Pitch this person on your picture and see what happens. Lots of nodding? Great, it’s coming together. Blank stare? Ooops, time for more dumb questions starting with the person you just pitched.

What I find when I pitch a stranger is that the words coming out of my mouth have very little to do with the picture that’s in my head. The act of linearly mapping my thoughts into words and sentences exposes flaws or gaps in my thinking that I never find when the ideas are swirling around my head. This leads me to our next step.

Write it down, throw it away, write it down again. Once your stranger is no longer totally confused by your idea, it’s time to write it down. This is the same process as pitching the stranger in that you’re find another medium to capture your idea. Like the pitch, seeing the words on a piece of paper or flat panel monitor will, once again, expose gaps you can’t see in the picture in your mind. Those gaps prove you’ve got more dumb questions, so go ask them, write it down again, and then throw it away. That’s right, don’t just close the document window, you need to get rid of everything you just wrote down. Toss it, empty the trash, and step away from the computer.

I know you’re attached to some part of that document that you wrote. Some witty thought that elegantly captured an angle on your problem, but remember what we’re trying to solve here. This isn’t whether or not you should get a blueberry-orange muffin on the way to work, this a decision that matters and solving it elegantly means you want to visit and revisit your response as many times as possible. Consigning your first written draft to the ether might forever lose a piece of wit, but if that wit shows up in the second draft, I guarantee that it belongs there and you’ll never lose it again.

Passive Soaking

Once you’ve done all your active content acquisition, once you’ve pitched some strangers, once you’ve you’ve written it down a few times, you need to stop actively working on the problem. Remove that sticky from your screen, hide those second drafts on your desktop, and just stop working on it. Yes, you need to make a decision, you need to respond to whatever the problem is, and while I am saying you should remove all the physical artifacts of your active soak, you’re not going to stop. You can’t. Your brain won’t let you.

Back to the original flame mail from your friend. You’ve received these before and you know the absolute wrong thing to do is immediately respond. Of course, your animal brain is dying to do so because IT FEELS SO GOOD TO PUNCH BACK, but it’s never the right move because your animal brain is defending itself, it’s not resolving anything other than proving BOY CAN I PUNCH BACK OR WHAT? My advice regarding flame-o-grams and hard decisions is the same. Sleep on it.

A night’s rest is one best ways to calm and alter your perspective on a problem. Ever gone to bed at night when the sky is falling and awoken to a blissfully simple way to easily prop the sky up? How’d that happen? The answer is, your brain never stops working. Better yet, it has the unique ability to subconsciously construct elegant solutions to hard problems when you least expect it. Call it inspiration, call it intuition, but don’t stare at it too long because it’s a shy ability. It does it’s best work when no one knows it’s there.

Soaking Takes Time

Don’t tell anyone I work with, but I earn a majority of my pay during the forty minute drive to work in the morning. I get in the car with my cup of coffee, hit the road, and let my mind wander to whatever music is playing. Never do I think, “Ok, Phil flamed me pretty hard yesterday… how am I going to deal with this?” My mind stumbles, it strikes out in random directions, and I never know where it’ll end up. Still, if I’ve spent time actively soaking on the Phil problem the day before, my wandering often ends up somewhere Phil-like and, sometimes, the mental journey reveals a nugget of inspiration.

As practical advice goes, the soak is pretty thin. If your boss is waiting for you to weigh in on a critical decision I am not advising you to say, “I have no clue what to do, I’m going to go ask dumb questions, pitch a stranger, write it down and then throw it away, and then forget everything I did”. What I am saying is that any big decision, any big problem deserves time and consideration. If you’ve got years of experience under your belt, you can probably wing it pretty well, but you’re still going to be faced with situations where the right decision is to not decide, but think.

The soak is, hands down, the favorite part of my job. What I’m doing when I’m soaking on something is an act of creation. It’s design work. It’s strategy. It’s removing the emotion and ignorance from a problem and then constructing an original solution that shows those I work with that I’m actively caring about what I do.

7 Responses

  1. Great stuff, you’ve really put into words the facts I knew about since I was 9 😉

    It started when I invented a way of completing a tricky level of Monty on the Run (Commodore game 😉 on a walk to church

    Since then passive soaking works best during the shower, or a lunch walk, or maybe a drive to work – the perspective it provides is second to none and I base my most important decisions on the results of soaking 🙂

    I just didn’t know the keyword for it 😉

  2. TheIowaKid 18 years ago

    SOAKING…passively and actively. You are a genius in that you have finally coined THEE term in which all of us experience on alternate levels on a daily basis. Having a term for it makes it seem less surreal and more substantiated. I wish I worked for a boss that thought like you, hiring?

    SOAKING™. “It’s what your doing when your not.”

  3. Brilliant. Absolute genius, Rands. I just started working for a company where a MILLION THOUSAND BILLION things pelt me all day every day, and this is the perfect way to deal. Btw, your blog is ill. Keep it up d00d.

  4. As usual, you’ve clearly explained some concept that I’ve been thinking about but haven’t been able to put into words.

  5. Amen. One of the biggest things I miss as a full-time telecommuter is being able to soak during a commute. As a substitute, I tend to run errands or take a walk after the kids go to bed at night. Luckily, playing with the kids affords some good soak time as well – let’s face it, playing “Chutes and Ladders” doesn’t require many CPU cycles.

  6. I’ve had many “talks” with managers (who were not directly in line above me), who asked my into their office. “Eddy”, they’d say, “you talk too much”. They immediately add: “I know, it somehow isn’t affecting your work. No complaints there, but you are keeping everybody else from achieving anything. So, for others’ sake, just go to work”.

    In all honesty, I felt I just was doing my work. I needed to understand how my problem was related to the work of others, how what I was doing would fit in what was going on elsewhere. The reason it wasn’t affecting my work was because I could come up with solutions before certain problems started being visible.

    Somehow, those I was talking to did not use the conversation for the same goal as I did: while I was soaking, they were merely chatting.

    Especially important is the difference between what you call “active” and “passive” soak. I think it is all part of the motto: “work smart, not hard.”

    If you compare a problem with an angry bull coming in your direction, then soaking is like looking down to enjoy the grass growing. Most will just stare at the bull getting closer with every step, which isn’t helping. But facing away needs a bit of courage and that can only grow if there is room to fail.

    So there is a catch-22: if you know you can wing something, you can relax enough to soak. That situation needs to be actively created as is won’t emerge spontaniously.

    Advice to first-time soakers: choose a problem where you know you get a second change.

  7. @ Marcin,

    I am not sure you are getting the point:

    It started when I invented a way of completing a tricky level of Monty on the Run (Commodore game 😉 on a walk to church

    This sounds as if you were aware your brain was working on the problem. However, TheIowaKid says it very well:

    SOAKING™. “It’s what your doing when your not.”

    As an example: when I need to come up with a design or a choice that needs some work, I go out into the garden (I work as an independent software developer and work from home) and do some pruning. Now pruning isn’t just clipping away branches. You need to understand the growth of different types of plants and you need to know where you want to go with the plant, especially if you want to use some of the material for propegation. It is an activity that requires you to concentrate on only one thing. However, at some point, the original dilemma that I faced, the one why I went outside, will pop up and at that moment I will know I have a solution. If I get back at the keyboard I will continue as if I always knew what to do next. I am completely unaware of the process that went on from problem to solution. This is a completely passive soak.

    Sometimes, if a problem is bigger, there is a phase where you collect anything that is even remotely related to the subject and where you try to organise what you have. Let it flow naturally: try to find it’s inherent structure. Things have a natural tendency to organise themselves (I know, it doesn’t like a firm foundation to base a design on, but at this point the goal is only to understand the problem. Anyway, this is how life started, so it is something to respect). Collecting/organising is active soaking. Active soaking, however, comes before passive soaking.

    Just see this as good news. If you are trapped in a long meeting that is going nowhere: unfocus. Your brain will be soaking on problems that need to be solved. Back at your desk, you’ll probably be able to do some important work done.