Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Training the Tiger to Test

Over the years, I’ve often wondered if there was something about the way my brain worked that just wasn’t the same as everyone else. I don’t mean that I feel I’m any less or more smart than other people; I’d say I’m of fairly average intellect, and I’m OK with that (of course, always willing to improve on it where I can). What I mean is that, for years, I would amaze people with my ability to remember some of the most arcane things (historical events, timelines and pivotal events in history I could recite back with freakish detail) but when I tried to do the same things in my math or science classes… nothing. Well, OK, not nothing, but nowhere near as clear or as fast as I could do it with history or trivia or other factors. I listen to podcasts related to software quality and software development, and while I have all of the historical details down (such as what drove Dr. Deming to be embraced by Japan in the 1950’s and why we didn’t get to the meat of his proposals until the 1980’s, as well as his 14 Points) and I remember almost word for word many of Scott Hanzelman’s Hanselminutes podcasts, when I sit down to try to code something from scratch, a lot of the time, it’s just {static}….

This is not to say that I cannot do the tasks that I need to do. I can code and perform complex tasks when I need to, but for me, many times, the “when I need to” deal becomes more the focus. I confess that I don’t have the passion for programming that some others do, where they dive in and play with code because it’s fun. However, I love to test, and mess around with things, and I find it great fun to poke and prod things to see why they don’t work or why they do. Testing concepts I have no problems with (or very few, I should say. Again, it’s what I do every day).

I’ve often struggled with why I cannot get my brain to do what I want it to do right when I want it to do it. As I was pondering this, two books were recommended to me; “Linchpin” by Seth Godin and “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar” by James Bach. Both added some interesting insights, some of which I’ve heard variations of before, but never in quite the way that these two books present them. In “Linchpin”, Godin spends a lot of time talking about “the Lizard Brain” and “the Resistance”, and how both tend to sabotage our daily efforts to excel and develop. This was great, as it gave me a good way to look at what I feel are causing my “learning blocks” and that many of them could be dealt with once I understood what they were and why they were there. I realized that I retained those things that I found comfortable or fun to learn. Linear knowledge, like historical narratives or short stories, or even full novels, I was able to keep together and remember a great deal about, in some cases years later. I’ve picked up half read novels that I hadn’t looked at for close to a decade, read one paragraph, and the entire story preceding it jumped back into my memory as vividly as if I’d just read it. I do well with this type of learning because it’s comfortable for me.

Science, languages, recursion, mathematics… those are not comfortable topics to me, and it’s that very discomfort that gives both the Lizard Brain and the Resistance so much power. The Lizard Brain doesn’t want to be challenged, it seeks safety and comfort. The Resistance is the acknowledgement of the real or perceived external stimuli that feeds the Lizard brain, and if left unchecked, they simultaneously grow and become more powerful. When I sit down to try to write a new program or experience working with a new application, I now recognize when the resistance starts to set in, and I can now better deal with it and circumvent the negative aspects. Likewise, I can calm the Lizard Brain so that the more evolved brain can work with the situation.

In “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar”, Bach’s shares that he also had challenges related to learning certain things and the way that the school system was structured stifled and irritated him, to the point where he dropped out and pursued his own education. He developed his own mental map and approach to learning so as to be most effective, a full breakdown of which deserves its own post, or better yet, a visit to Bach’s Buccaneer Scholar website will probably be better. That way, you can see James’ own thoughts on this subject. I found many of the comments in his book to be very insightful and interesting, but it was during an interview segment promoting the book (Hanselminutes, Episode 187) that he said something that really hit home with me. In this interview he said he realized at some point that his mind was like a Tiger, and that it was willing to play and be engaged and even do focused work, but if it got pushed the wrong way, it would go run off into the forest, and he’d have to go chase it, or wait for it to return and do his bidding! In short, he couldn’t just force his mind to learn, he had to learn how best to engage his mind at the times it wanted to be engaged! Hurrah!!! Finally, someone who has had the same challenges I have had finally nailed a metaphor that helped me make sense of my own reality.

A number of years ago, I read a book called Peak Learning, and in that book there were certain exercises that helped the reader determine when their ability to learn was at its “peak” (hence the title). Through the processes laid out in the book, I realized that I had two excellent three to four hour periods of the day when I was “on fire” and could tackle just about anything, and then I found that I had times of the day where I was less than peak potential. What was interesting was to discover when those times of the day were. For some reason, my brain works the best early in the morning and the late afternoon. More specifically, my brain is best suited for creative and the hard analytical things (two elements not normally associated with one another) between the hours of 5:00 AM and 9:00 AM and between 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM.

Realize, these times are not exact, and it’s not as though I turn into a non-thinking lump during the other times of the day, but it helped me to realize that, if I wanted to learn things in the optimum time or do something really difficult, those two time periods were my best bet to do that. Wow, wouldn’t it be great to schedule my work day so that I could harness both of those times to their optimum benefit? Well, unfortunately, most companies would frown upon my working from 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM, taking an extended lunch until 3:00 PM and then picking up until 7:00 PM (my family wouldn’t be too thrilled with me either (LOL!)). But this gave me a powerful tool. By realizing that my early mornings could be harnessed for “hard think”, I decided that that would be my study time, and my time to program, tweak and play with ideas I struggled with. Likewise, the later afternoons would be time to do some of the more challenging testing that requires my entire focused attention (exploratory testing, persona based testing, etc.). During the other times, I would focus on the activities that didn’t require such focus and that could allow me time to read, write, report and gather information.

This approach has two benefits. The first is that it allows me to take advantage of the times when the Tiger is cooperative, and it also allows me the ability to structure my time so that I can get more of the things that are more of the busywork of testing at a time when the focus for those activities are where my head is at for that given time. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always behave that elegantly and allow us the ability to do that all the time, but when I have the opportunity to set my days up like this, I astound myself at how much I can get done, and how much I can learn, even on the subjects that normally freak me out. You may find your mileage to vary considerably from mine, but if you find that you have a Tiger for a brain, consider doing something like this as well. The results may surprise you.
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