Monthly Archives: January 2016

Fail More Gooder than the Before Time

Crazy Talk

I have a crazy, controversial attitude toward success: I feel good when I succeed, and I feel bad when I don’t succeed.

Wait, no, that’s not the controversial one. Sorry, got my notes out of order.

I appreciate failure. There we go.

Now, I know this isn’t actually controversial; people constantly offer advice about learning from mistakes and treating setbacks as a chance to grow. But I have a specific idea which became important to me in the past few years, that I wish I’d understood long before. This isn’t a groundbreaking new insight, but maybe hearing it in a new way will help you appreciate it, if you didn’t before.

First, a confession: I’m going to tell you about how I’m dumb. Don’t worry about my self-esteem. I know I’m awesome. I also know I’m dumb. Let’s take a look.

Think Harder

Here’s something dumb that I used to do all the time: If I didn’t know how to do something well, I didn’t try to do it at all.

I’m not talking about perfectionism, per se, but a very similar attitude. When I approached a difficult problem, I always wanted to spend a lot of time up front, thinking through how to approach it before actually working on the actual task. I never said it out loud, but I always had this underlying assumption that if I spent long enough just thinking, then I’d get this flash of inspiration and I’d realize exactly what to do. So I’d pace around or take a walk or sit down with a journal, and I’d say to myself, “Self, we’re going to sit here and think about how to do the thing until we have figure out the best way and then we will do it the best way and the thing will be done and we will be heroes.”

And we’d think, Self and me, and we’d ponder and mull and contemplate and consider and we’d stare very intently at our conspicuously blank journal until eventually realizing that wanting it harder didn’t make things easier and we’d give up and go play Nintendo.

This process has never worked once in my entire life.

Here are two and a half problems with this plan:

  • I never actually started the task
  • I got mad at myself
  • I got meta (this is the half)

You Wanna Start Something?

Simple productivity rule: in order to complete a task, you have to actually do it.

The biggest, most significant problem with spending too much time thinking about how you work is that you’re taking time away from actually working. And of course, a major disclaimer belongs here: thinking about how you work is good. You should ask yourself if there’s a better way to do it than the way you’re doing it now. But don’t miss the forest for the painstakingly manicured trees. Split your time! Spend a few minutes asking questions like “What do I need to do first?” and “How can I break this down into smaller chunks?” and “Is there a good technique for this?”, come up with some basic answers, and then roll up your sleeves and get started (unless your task is to put on a sleeveless shirt).

After you’ve made some progress, go back to question mode. Ask yourself “What did I do poorly?” and “Did I miss anything?” and spend some time looking for ways to do it better. This isn’t about blaming yourself for mistakes. There’s a huge difference between asking “Do I suck?” and saying “I can be even better.” This is about being even better.

Mad is For Hatters, Which You Aren’t

This one’s pretty simple: trying to do something that doesn’t work will not work. This is an important part of appreciating failure, like I mentioned before: when you fail and learn from it, you make a change, and you abandon the thing that doesn’t work. Don’t lose yourself in trying to do everything right the first time, because you will get mad at yourself and end up in a downward spiral where you try harder and fail harder and try harderer and fail even more worser and you get so angrified that you stops using your grammars good.

Take it from me, don’t bother learning this one the hard way.

What’s a Meta With You?

The best thing about realizing your planning method doesn’t work is when you use your broken method to try to fix your broken method. I was stuck for longer than I’d like to admit before I understood that thinking long and hard about how to think long and hard wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Remember that thing where I’m dumb? Yeah, me too.

So What Should I Do to Do What I Should?

Most of this post has been about what not to do, but I want to close with some basic advice for good ways to get things done.

Most importantly, start. Ask a few questions, gather a few supplies, do whatever seems obvious and readily available to make the task easier, but you usually don’t need to rally the troops and deliberate before you make some progress. You’ll even find that having something to show for yourself early on gives you something to reflect on when you want to improve it.

Second most important, iterate. Software development has adopted the idea of version numbers. The vast majority of software releases are not Version 1.0 – they’re 1.1, 1.5, 2.0, 10, and so on. We start with something that’s good enough, and then we use it for a while, and we update it when it’s no longer good enough, or when we realize we can make it even better.

Third, software developers also have a concept called minimum viable product. Remember your first cell phone? I bet it didn’t even have Angry Birds on it. But it could make phone calls! Start with something that does the main thing, and make it better as you go.

Rock On

In closing, bear this in mind: You are awesome. You might also be a little dumb. That’s okay! When you catch yourself being dumb, just smile, laugh, and be less dumb the next time. That’s all any of us are ever doing.

What do you say?

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Urbana – Hack4Missions

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 2015, I joined 16,000 brothers and sisters at Urbana, a missions conference hosted by Intervarsity and held in St. Louis, MO. I want to share some thoughts on my experience. I’ll break my reflections into few posts, because I have more to say than I can fit into one entry.

What it Was

Urbana normally consists of 4 major elements: general sessions, bible study, seminars, and an exhibit hall. Mornings and evenings are for bible study and general sessions, leaving people free in the afternoon to browse the exhibit hall and attend seminars. I’ll go into more detail on these in later posts.

This year Urbana introduced an additional path in the afternoon: a hackathon (if you’re not familiar with that term, check it out). 190 participants (with a few dozen mentors, challenge leads, and organizers) gave up the chance to attend seminars or spend time in the exhibit hall to work on 12 different technology projects, ranging from bible translation software to a video game about the life of a refugee to a social media campaign for Christian testimony from Olympic athletes.

We had a very simple rallying cry for the week: “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”

Though a hackathon is usually much longer (often a nonstop 24- or 48-hour event), Hack4Missions teams only had 9 hours of real development time. Even with sizable teams, that’s a drop in the bucket for a software project. And yet, when each team presented on Thursday, we all had real, tangible results. None of us quite had code ready to give to an end user, but we all had amazing results given the constraints. As I told my friends at the end of the week, “what we accomplished this week…was literally more than we could have accomplished without the power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty convinced I witnessed a miracle.”

What it Meant to Me

If you’ve had a long-ish conversation with me in the past year or so, odds are very high that I’ve talked about my dream job: bringing technology to the Church, helping missions and ministries be more effective in loving, serving, and evangelizing with the help of modern tools. It’s why I created Kingdom Builders, and it’s why, when I went to Urbana 15, I participated in Hack4Missions.

Recently, I had become pretty self-conscious when I talked about my dreams; plenty of people I know aren’t really technologists, and they would say “oh, that’s a good idea” but it would be hard to move the conversation forward from there, so I started saying less about it.

That changed completely at Hack4Missions. I got a chance to very briefly share my story with all the participants, and I told them plainly that this event was a dream come true, and it was not a new dream. I’ve been moving in this direction for 3 years. Finally, after three years, I was not just telling a friend about my dream, but I was in a room full of people with the same dream. Not only did I get to make something that a Christian ministry can take, improve, and really use to share the love of Jesus with others, but I spent about 20 hours talking, laughing, and working alongside over 200 of the best people I’ve ever known. Like I told them then, I was finally among people like me – my people.

I held myself together, but at the closing event on Thursday, I got pretty choked up. Have you ever anticipated something for a long, long time, and then had it finally happen? The mixture of joy that it’s happening – along with the realization that now it’s over – is powerful.

I have known for several years that this is the direction my career will go. Hack4Missions was only a snapshot, only a glimpse into that future, but it was energizing and affirming in a way that largely escapes explanation. I felt home in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time.

I could do this forever. I plan to.

What it Means for You

In the last section, I said “now it’s over,” but really it isn’t. I have 200 new friends. I have 12 new hobbies. At Urbana 15, God worked in many enormous ways, but my personal favorite is that He showed up at Hack4Missions, He filled us with the energy and focus to serve Him with our gifts and talents, and He proved that no matter what the application, if we’re using our talents for Him, we’ll achieve more than we imagined we could.

If you’re a techie like me, please join in! Come to Kingdom Builders, get connected to a project, encourage one another, and celebrate the God can and will use us in His Kingdom.

If you’re not a techie, please also join in! If the work of the Church is important to you, you can help us see how technology can improve it. You can help us see what’s hard to do, what’s inefficient, where the talent is needed. Technology creators love to solve problems; tell us the problems we can help you solve!

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I’d love to hear what you think! I’m getting more into blogging, and as I do I’ll always want any feedback you have. Comment here, send me an email, find me on social media, whatever works for you.