Thursday, July 8, 2010

Permission to Suck

One of the situations that every tester will find themselves in, at one point in time or another, is where they will come face to face with their own incompetence. I don't say that to be a downer, but to let those who might get discouraged know that it's going to happen eventually. Each of us will face that moment in a different place and at a different time. It may be a situation that is of comical or even trivial import at the given time, and as such, may have limited impact. On the other hand, it could come at a time and at a place where career changing or even career threatening implications can take place.

I had this happen to me almost a decade ago. I found myself in a situation where I was very much in over my head, in a company and an area of industry that I had not prepared to be in. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to those who helped me and stuck by me at that time, but it became increasingly clear that what was desired by management was something I could not easily deliver. The net result was that I was ultimately encouraged to seek another area of employment.

I often think about that period of time, and I ask myself "what could I have done better, or at least done differently?" I came to the conclusion that, had I had a different mindset and a different attitude, I might have been able to salvage the situation, but ultimately my fear of looking incompetent caused me to keep my mouth shut, and keep my head down. My hope was that I would ultimately figure it out, and no one would have to be the wiser. Unfortunately, the gap was too great for that to happen on my own, and ultimately, my fear of being seen as incompetent became a reality. 

Today, I am much more vocal about my deficiencies (those who have read this blog for any period of time should know that well by now (LOL!)). Seriously, though, this is something that I have found to be very helpful and very liberating. As the title says, I've given myself permission to suck. Not forever, not indefinitely, but for the time being, on whatever particular area I may be having trouble with. It's not a crime to be deficient in a given area; it's not possible to know everything about everything. What is a crime (or at least should be) is not honestly and objectively deciding what to do about that deficiency. 

We have a limited number of hours in a day, and therefore we cannot pull off miracles overnight. I know well the search for "silver bullets"; that hope that I'll find the one article, the one tool, the one book that, after I get through that, then I'll have the magic that I need to do what I need to do. It's a quixotic quest, and one I would advise my fellow testers to not follow. There is no one magic formula for anything. The only "silver bullets" to be found are those that require a lot of work, a lot of repetition, and a lot of trial and error. What's even more frustrating is the fact that, early on in any of these attempts, we may find that we're just not particularly good at whatever it is we are doing at that moment. Fear sets in, and we decide that maybe it's better to just keep quiet and keep doing what we were doing before. This manner of thinking has been described by Seth Godin in his book Linchpin as "the Lizard Brain in control". The Lizard Brain doesn't want to be challenged under the best of circumstances, and it really doesn't want to be challenged when the results might not be satisfactory. The Lizard Brain hates sucking at something, and will give a person no end of intrusion to get them to abandon their endeavor and go back to what feels comfortable and safe (and when I say that, I mean what feels comfortable and safe for the Lizard Brain, not necessarily for the person). 

Getting out of this mode of thinking is difficult, but it's not impossible. First, it's important to know that whatever you attempt to do to fill a deficiency will, early on, yield mediocre results. Perhaps your efforts will even be bad results and a lot of dead ends and bad ideas. It's easy to give up at this point, or just not deal with it. This is the time when all good intentions go by the wayside unless the person takes control of the situation. The best way to do this is to give yourself permission to fail early and fail often. I remind myself of my first day snowboarding, when I was pummeling myself black and blue. It would have been easy to give up that first day if my goal was to escape ridicule or not be seen as incompetent (because, at that time, I was. I was *terrible* to the point of absurdity). Instead, I kept the goal in mind, that of riding down a hill without falling, with speed and dexterity, having the time of my life. By doing that, I shouted down the Lizard Brain and got on with it.

Second, it's important to develop a game plan to improve, and if it can be done with others who can cheer you on and encourage you, so much the better. Back to my snowboarding example, I let all of my friends know I started riding, and that I was terrible at it, but wanted to get better. Several friends made the pilgrimage up to the mountains with me to watch me get my bearings and lose my fears. Within five days, I was able to make a competent show of it on the hill. I wasn't winning any elegance awards, but I was riding most terrain with confidence and from there, developed an even greater desire to improve. As I improved, my friends offered other challenges, some of which were definitely humiliating at times when I didn't do so well. They knew I was trying though, and they encouraged me to give it another go. In testing, or any other pursuit, never underestimate the power of numbers to help you learn and grow.

Next, set realistic goals as to how you might progress and show the skill you are developing. After snowboarding for a few years, I had the opportunity to compete against riders that were my age in the United States of America Snowboard Association. Understand, I had no illusions that I was going to be an Olympic level racer or freestyle rider, but that wasn't the point. My goal was to keep improving my skills and to have a chance to test myself against others to see where I needed to keep working. Today in my testing world, I get involved in professional organizations that give me the chance to learn what others are doing, and to get involved and learn from them.

At each of these levels, realize that there will be moments (or longer periods) where you will come face to face with you mediocrity or, at times, complete incompetence. Breathe deep, square your shoulders, and realize that this is normal. Yes, your first efforts are going to probably be terrible. Yes, your first attempts will lead to many dead ends. Yes, you will be less effective at these times. Yes, you may get stares, chuckles, and, dare I say it, even a little derision as you gear up whatever you hope to learn to do. All of that is true, and at the end of the day, none of that matters. What matters is that we have identified a weak area or an area we want to learn about, and we have decided that the end goal justifies any amount of pain, frustration and embarrassment we may feel early in the process. Give yourself permission to suck! It's a temporary situation if you stick with it and work through it. It might be a permanent situation if you don't. Which option sounds better to you :)?


Lisa said...

I'm glad you wrote this post because I think too many people are unaware that it needs to be ok to need to learn, and it needs to be ok to make mistakes. We need to want to improve and have that fire in the belly to achieve our goals, whatever they are - learn that scripting language, find ways to collaborate with customers, be a great exploratory tester.

This is in the same vein as Dawn Cannan's article (in which I have a sidebar), originally in Agile Record. You can download it at, I'd be interested in what you think!

Michael Larsen said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for the comment. I read the article. Well done :).

I also think that, yes, it is a great strategy to surround yourself with people who will challenge you and help you bring your A-Game. A favorite quote of mine is "you will be the five years from now as you are today except for two things, the people you meet and the books you read". While I agree on the surface, I think there needs to be another qualifier... you'll be the same as well unless those people and books actually help challenge you to step up and do something from the association.

BTW, I've been remiss, but I'm going to feature Agile Testing as my Wednesday book review next week. It's taken me longer to get through it than I thought it would (for all good reasons :) ).