I believe in self-reflection and self-analysis. (Of course, I also believe that such things are necessarily flawed, but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.) I think it’s important to know what your faults are, what your limitations are. Of course, I think that sometimes people want to identify their faults so they can correct them. I have a slightly different approach: If I can’t identify all my faults, I’m a blind moron, bumbling through life not even knowing the damage I’m doing. Contrariwise, if I can identify all my faults, and if I could somehow correct them all, then I would be perfect. I know that I cannot ever be perfect. Therefore, either I’m never going to be able to see all my faults, or I’m going to be able to see them all but never fix them all. I choose the latter.
That is, there are some faults that I have that I’ve just learned to live with. They’re bad, sure, but they’re not so bad, and, if one has to have faults anyway (and, lacking perfection, one does), you may as well have some that aren’t so bad, right? For instance, I’m too loud. I have a naturally loud voice, and it carries, and the more excited I get about a topic, the louder I get. Especially in an office environment, I’ve been asked many times throughout my life to keep it down. Another problem I have is that I get pissed off at little things. Not things that people do, so much: more like inanimate objects. Like if I drop a cup and spill water all over the place, I am pissed at that cup. This is moronic. I know this. But I still do it, and mostly I can live with that.
Now here’s the fault that I wanted to talk about today: I try to be too helpful. Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like one of those bullshit “flaws” that you dredge up during an interview. (“Mr. Jones, what would you say is your biggest failing as an employee?” “Well, sir, I’ve often been told that I just work too gosh-darned hard.”) But note that I’m not claiming that I actually am too helpful, only that I try to be. And, really, it isn’t correct to say that I try to be to helpful ... the truth is that I try too hard to be helpful, which is subtly different.
If you ask me a question, I want to give you the right answer. If I can’t give you an answer, I feel bad. Like, unreasonably bad. Much worse than I would if I were to screw you out of a parking spot—worse even than if I were to screw you out of a job (unless perhaps I knew you personally). That’s messed up. But that’s the way I am. If I give you an answer and it later turns out I was wrong, that’s even worse: then I feel hideously awful. I have friends that think I have a burning need to be right. I don’t think that’s true. My father, for instance, has a burning need to be right. He doesn’t ever admit that he was wrong. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no problem admitting I was wrong: I just feel really crappy about it, if I think that someone was misled somehow (and that’s nearly always true, unless you were talking to yourself or something). It’s sort of like a savior complex, but on a smaller scale. I don’t feel the need to save people, only help them out a bit.
And, at first blush, this doesn’t seem so bad. So I go out of my way to help people; what’s wrong with that? Someone with a savior complex often has the problem of taking care of others so much that they forget to take care of themselves, but I don’t have that issue. So where are the downsides, and how is this a fault? Well, there are two main areas that I’ve identified, one smaller, and one larger.
The smaller issue is that I’m so constantly afraid of giving people the wrong information that I often over-qualify all my statements. Now, I’ve talked before about my fear of absolute statements. So, in one sense, this is just another facet of that. But it goes further, I think: if I qualify everything I say to a large enough extent, I can never be giving you misleading information, right? Many of my friends think I’m wishy-washy. I don’t think that about myself, but I certainly understand why they do, and this is at the heart of it.
But here’s the bigger problem. When I think someone is wrong, I have a desperate desire to “help” them by correcting their misconceptions. Which can be okay, sometimes, if the person is receptive to that sort of thing, but often people aren’t. And that just makes me try harder. Which is code for “I’m a jerk about it.” And, of course, it’s one thing if it’s a fact we’re discussing. If I can tell you that you’re wrong, and we can look it up on Wikipedia or somesuch, then the question will be settled. You may not appreciate my correcting you (especially if I did it in public), but at least there’s no more arguing about it.
But suppose it’s more of a matter of opinion. Now, I’m okay if you have your own opinion about something. If you have an intelligent, informed opinion, and I just happen to disagree with you, then fine. I don’t have a need to “correct” you then, because you’re not really wrong. But, let’s face it: most poeple’s opinions are not intelligent, informed opinions, and that includes mine. I try (really!) to have the good grace to back down when it’s obvious that you know more about something than I do, but I find that I’m in a minority there, and sometimes I can’t resist either.
Here’s the situation that brought this to the forefront of my mind and inspired this post: Just two days ago, I was in a meeting with several other technogeeks that I work with. There were five of us, and were talking about architectural decisions. For some reason, the topic of TDD came up. Now, I’ve actually talked about this exact situation before, and I even specifically mentioned TDD in that post. I also mentioned my good friend and co-worker, and he happened to be in that meeting. Perhaps I didn’t mention it, but he’s also my boss (everyone in the room’s boss, for that matter). We don’t usually treat him any differently for all that, but it’s a fact that should not be ignored.
So, suddenly we find ourselves debating the merits of TDD (again). What those merits are is not important to the story. Suffice it to say that my friend, and one other co-worker, took the con side, and the remaining three of us took the pro side. And the discussion got heated. I found myself geting more and more frustrated as I tried to “help” them understand why TDD was so cool.
On the one hand, it made perfect sense that it should upset me so much. Neither of the fellows on the con side had ever actually tried TDD. And it was obvious from the statements they made that they didn’t have a very thorough understanding of it. Them saying it was a bad technique was basically the same as my six-year-old claiming that he’s never tried a food but he’s sure he doesn’t like it. It’s just silly, and therefore somewhat maddening.
But, on the other hand, I have to be careful, because I know how I get, because of my fault. Here are people making a mistake: they’re espousing an opinion based on incomplete information and zero experience. And, trust me: even if your opinion happens to be accidentally right, that’s still a mistake. So, I see people making a mistake and I want to help them. And I know that’s going to blind me to common sense. (Well, I know it now ... seeing that at the time was pretty much a lost cause.)
And, here’s the thing: the other two people on the pro side didn’t get into the argument. Why not? Is it because they were scared to get into it with the guy who’s technically their boss? No, not at all: we’ve all had technical discussions where we’ve been on the other side from our boss, and we don’t back down when we think it’s important. So maybe they didn’t think it was important, then? Maybe. But I think I see a better explanation.
When your own kid tells you he’s not eating the fish because he doesn’t like it, even though you know perfectly well he’s never tried it before, you can get into it with him. As the parent, it’s your job to teach your children to try new things, not to be close-minded. If you don’t, who will? Because, when it’s someone else’s kid telling you he’s not eating the fish, you just nod and go “okay, sure, kid, whatever you say.” Because, and here’s the crux of the matter: why the hell do you care?
These other two guys are both younger than me, but they’re apparently much smarter. The fact that our two colleagues are radically misinformed about TDD and think it’s bad even though they don’t understand it isn’t hurting them one whit. It’s not stopping them from using TDD: the boss has said he doesn’t believe in it, but he certainly hasn’t banned it or anything. In fact, he’s been supportive of other people using it. So why bother to get into it? Let the unbelievers unbelieve, if that’s their thing.
At the end of the day, who really gives a fuck?
Apparently I do. Apparently I have this burning desire to convert all the non-believers and help them see the light. And here’s where we fetch up against today’s blog post title: I just don’t have energy for that shit any more. I’m looking at myself doing it and thinking, “why oh why am I even bothering?” It’s not like these guys are thanking me for my “help.” No, they’re just irked at my stubborn insistence. And who can blame them? ‘Cause, as I mentioned above, the longer this goes on, the more of a jerk I am about it. So, here I am, pissing off people that I care about, over something that really doesn’t make that much difference in my life, just so I can say to myself afterwards that I corrected a misperception. Seriously: what the hell am I doing?
I really am too old for this shit. I need to learn to let go. Today, when I logged into my work computer, it presented a pithy saying to me, as it always does. I mentioned previously that I’ve customized these quotes, so mostly they’re familiar, but every once in a while it surprises me and hits with something I’ve forgotten, or something that’s just eerily appropriate. Today it was both.
The aim of an argument or discussion should be progress, not victory.
— Joseph Joubert
Yeah, good advice. I think I’d forgotten it, somehow. I need to try to remember that, next time I have this burning desire to “fix” somebody else’s “wrong” notions. I’m going about it all wrong, I think. And my family has a history of high blood pressure, so I need to chill the fuck out.