False Dichotomy

I had a long conversation with a friend today. We covered politics, evolution, finances, college experiences and more. He would throw false dichotomies at me in jest as we got into a debate. I thought there was a single word, or a common expression, for a false dichotomy, but I couldn’t remember it right away. As almost any other 21st century westerner would do, I went to Google and searched the term.

I found this elegant piece on the importance of false dichotomies in programming. I immediately realized that I have relied entirely on constraining the inputs to my system, and I haven’t built in any handlers for when those inputs are novel. This gives me yet another way to make my next project a little more robust and a little more flexible.

Anyway, this conversation got me thinking about all the false dichotomies I have thrown myself into.

I have to do exactly what the client wants, or they will hate me forever.”

If there is any kind of setback, I must be going the wrong way.”

I have to excersise for a full hour, or it’s not worth exercising at all.”

When the brakes needed changed

I spent a good portion of one long Ohio summer at my best friends house. I was 18 going on 19 that year. Josiah and I spent countless hours playing ping pong, hunting, and riding four wheelers that year. One evening some of his parents friends were over, and one of the ladies brought two new brake pads for her oldsmobile and she asked if Josiah’s dad, Chris, would change them out for her.

Chris said “sure, we will change them for you” and looking at Josiah and me, he said “why don’t you two go ahead and do that”.

I had never changed the brakes on a car before. He knew it wouldn’t be very difficult for us, since they were just disk brakes. Plus Chris had all the tools we needed; a nice floor jack, a compressor, and an impact wrench with all the bits we could want. It seemed scary at the start, because the brakes going out from a mistake we made would be devastating, but we got right at it anyway. We soon saw that it was just a series of little steps, and we had the capability to do it. So we went right to town, jacked up the car, took the old disks off and replaced them with the new ones. We made sure the calipers were freely movable, we bled the lines to ensure there wasn’t any air left in them and we checked the brake fluid up top.

It really didn’t take us too long, and then we asked Chris if we did it right. He said that sounded about right, so we took it for a test drive. I drove real slow at first. Pushed the brakes hard. Pushed them soft. Felt them bite and release. It was a fantastic experience. No one actually showed us how to change the brake pads.

We only used our previous experience from changing tires, and the stories we had heard about replacing pads (always bleed the lines), and figured it out. That experience encouraged me to take on more challenges.

Failed Again

I failed a few more times today.

I dropped the ball.

I missed the target.

So what now? It seems that I’m facing a dichotomy.

On one hand I want to play it safe. Back off the challenge, turn the pressure down, go back to the place I was comfortable. Before I go any farther in writing this, I want to make it very clear that I don’t believe that is the wrong choice. Sometimes that is exactly what should be done. In every football game there is a time to play defense. There is a time to focus on preservation over increase. Consider if you were at this moment on the mainland, awaiting Dorian, this is not the time to be casting nets. This would the time to bunker down, to play defense, to retreat. Heading for safety is the right thing to do.

But I am not facing Dorian. I am not staring at a catastrophic force of nature. I am under no imminent threat. No, I am only feeling the sting of my injured pride at making a false step in this dance. I am feeling the embaressment of shooting my arrow off mark. In this case, it wouldn’t help if I ran for safety. If I bowed out of the game now, I wouldn’t have the chance to grow. I wouldn’t get the full experience.

So instead I am facing the target, raising my arrow, and drawing my string. Exhale. Release.

Elizabeth ready to release her arrow

How can we fail?

I once reviewed some promotional material for LASIK surgery. The video was from a partnership of opthamologists that specialized in that type of surgery. One of their biggest selling points was the hefty years of combined experience of the group.

They went on to even brag that no one on their team had less than some number of years (I don’t remember for sure but I think it was at least 5 years). I thought it was great they could have such an experienced team, but I grew concerned when one of the senior partners said, on the video, that he believed you should never get LASIK surgery performed by someone who did not already have years of experience.

I thought this was a strange thing to say. It angered me.

How could someone ever get any experience, in a world where only those with prior experience get the chance?

How did this fellow talking justify his early days, his first experiences? Should those patients have never let him perform those first surgeries? Taken one step further, why should someone ever let a surgeon with 5 years of experience operate on them, when there is a surgeon with 6 years of experience also available?

Can’t we culturally make room for people just starting out?

Can’t we allow others into the game, even if they are going to make some mistakes along the way?

Where is the novice in our cultural story? Where is the space for the person showing up, failing, and still showing up again.

We need a retelling of Rocky, of someone going the distance, irrespective of whether they win or lose.

A Coat Too Large

When I had only 17 years to my age, almost half a lifetime ago for me now, I spent a day volunteering at the District 4 Headquarters for The Ohio Department of Natural Resources. There were three of us, and we were taken in the employees’ only section to an empty conference room where several boxes sat full of papers on the large wooden table. Our supervising officer showed us how to take a paper from box 1, fold it into a paper from box 2, slip them both into an envelope from box 3 and then use the little sponge to make the sticky stuff sticky and close the envelope.

For the next several hours we did just that. Fold, stuff, seal, repeat. Those little envelopes would be picked up later by the postal service and sent all across the state to former patrons, asking them all once again for their money and support to the ODNR.

There was no glamour. There was nothing exciting. It was simply something that needed done, and we were willing to do it in order to make the connection with the district officers. I even felt like I was contributing to a distasteful part of our society (junk mail) but I convinced myself these letters were much less junky than all those that were simply selling something. Yes we were asking for money, but it was for a good cause.

At one point, we took a break and spent a few minutes peaking through the nearby rooms. Its true that we were “in the back” in the employees’ only section, but we figured we sort of classified as temporarily in the employ of the ODNR, plus the rooms were on our way to and from the bathroom.

Well my friend Jerrod noticed a coat rack in the one of the other rooms, and hanging up on that rack was that unmistakable symbol of the Ohio Wildlife Officer, a forest green jacket. This one was the winter model, complete with the fur lining around the neck. We stood in awe for a second and then Jerrod took it and put it on. One by one we tried it on, the coat worn by those select few who had achieved what we all dreamed, to be a game warden.

I was suprised at how I felt when I put it on. I immediately knew that it was too large for me. I wasn’t ready to wear that coat. I was just a kid, and someone in that position had a heck of a lot more experience, wisdom, and age than I did. I was an imposter. Now at 31 years old I am learning more and more that I can never, ever, be ready for every situation.

I am learning the art of navigating troubled waters. I am learning to live with the flames close by. I am learning to walk in the light that I have, even when all else is dark around.