In John Bogle’s book “Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life”, Bogle makes it clear that “I am not against success”, but is concerned rather with what he sees as an increasing obsession with entirely flawed measures of success such as wealth, fame and power.
In an earlier chapter he characterizes this way of thinking as the equivalent of living by the maxim that “whoever dies with the most things wins”.
Such calls to invest in the development of sound character traits over and above chasing the trappings of success are echoed for example in Tom and Mary Poppendieck’s Leading Lean Software Development: Results Are Not The Point where they site purpose, pride, passion, persistence and pride as critical success factors: “We find that if people are proud of their work, proud of the way they do their work and proud of the contribution their work makes to a larger purpose, they are motivated to do a god job, they persevere in their efforts despite obstacles and over time they are successful.
Why these character traits are more important than any specific skills or knowledge of particular techniques and practices is that they are necessary to enable us to succeed even in complex, novel and dynamic situations (i.e. situation normal!).
In my last blog I explored the need to be able to critically appraise any given situation and conclude which specific courses of action may or may not be appropriate. This is often called Critical Thinking.
The founding father of the art of Critical Thinking is generally recognised as being Socrates. And Bogle indeed makes many references to his admiration for Socrates. And, as a philosophy student and graduate myself, Socrates happens to be something of a personal hero for me too.
One of Socrates’ maxims was that “The unexamined life is not worth living” and he sees it as our most fundamental human imperative to get to the bottom and reason through any particular circumstance. I know that in many, many ways humans are not rational beings at all, but in finding our way through any given situation, be it personal, business or technical, fundamentally, reason is all we have.
But we also mustn’t forget that Socrates came to a sticky end. Tried and executed by a people’s court in Athens, that most democratic of all states. Exactly why this came about is a much bigger subject for debate, but one of the two charges was “corrupting the youth”. The problem being that certain sections of Athens’ youth adopted the Socratic method of taking someone’s most fundamental beliefs and mercilessly unpicking them until they fell in pieces on the floor. Which not surprisingly led to a degree of unpopularity.
So, we might conclude that we need more than a superficial following of the techniques of Critical Thinking, we need also a character that is able to make sound judgements based on experience. Something that we might, in short, call wisdom.
Legend has it that Socrates was declared the wisest man on the planet by the all-knowing Oracle at Delphi. When asked to explain this, he said he could only come up with the fact that he alone seemed to truly appreciate how little he knew. Those around him seemed assured of what they know, until he tried to understand what they knew, at which point their assured knowledge seemed to dissolve in a mass of contradictions.
Which is where I conclude this series of blogs, with what perhaps in many ways is the precise opposite of a neat ending or the promise of a quick fix. For, as William Blake reminds us:
What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain
The bottom line conclusion? Maybe that what is needed is a degree of professional humility. The recognition that every day we face situations that will challenge our wits and that we are unlikely to be able to solve alone and certainly not without deeply engaging and taxing our reasoning and judgement. That’s what most of us are in this game for anyway. (As I often say about software developers – if we were after an easy life or a fast buck, we’d have chosen a different career path)