A Failure of Reduction

Remember the movie Better Off Dead? That movie is a family Christmas tradition for us. Lane Meyer has to ski a dangerous mountain to prove himself to Beth. He seeks advice and receives the most boiled-down help imaginable.

While entirely accurate, it is incorrect and Lane barely escapes injury.

I was talking to our children recently about the search for that special someone and I, too, fell prey to the temptation to reduce. Not wanting to embarrass my child on the internet I’ll begin this way, one of my children was found to be holding hands with someone…but they were way, way in the back of the group trying to express their affections without being “caught”.

Allow me to reduce the other mother’s response: shock.

From my perspective it’s no big deal. Immature. Silly. But no big deal. But it gave me an opportunity to boil relationships down to the minimum: Whatever else happens, don’t anger the mother. You will lose. Make her your ally…pursue real friendship with her. And if you find you don’t like the mother you will find you no longer need to pursue the child because, if things go according to plan, you will have to spend every Christmas with her for the rest of her life. And that may not be what you want.

Whatever you think of my guidance above, it is hardly adequate. But I do this with everything.

How to take a shower? Get wet all over and put specific emphasis on cleaning places where the skin folds.

How to drive a car? The pedal on the right goes, one on the left stops. The wheel keeps you from running things over. Let’s do this.

The majority of server issues boil down to capacity management or connectivity.

So I have this pattern I fall into of attempting to boil it down to the essence. What is trying to be done here?

That practice, in summary, fails when people are involved.

Let me give you another one and then I’ll give you a few more.

I tend to manage people by setting expectations and turning them loose. I don’t micro-manage. I expect my employees to learn the basics and grow from there by teaching others. Let me know if something comes up.

But that’s not enough because these are people we are dealing with!

I have successfully described the work that needs to be accomplished but nobody comes to work to do the work and get money. We come to work to be with people.

People who care about us. People we enjoy being with. People we can trust.

So there’s another reduction. I would suggest my job accomplishes several things all at once. My work is meaningful, it pays the bills and allows me to enjoy interacting with others.

There is a kernel of truth there but it misses so much subtle detail.

Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m missing the subtle detail.

I’ll typically arrive at work in the morning after most of my team has arrived. I’ll walk in and speak some song lyrics or something like, “You know, I don’t need dolla bills to have fun tonight…as long as I can feel the beat.” Two of them will look at me like they have no earthly idea what I just said. Another will laugh because I’m such a dork…but everybody loosens up a little we greet each other and then tie into work.

But I have already reduced the workey part. Let’s pretend I have a new employee named Larry. “Larry, each of your co-workers assume primary responsibility for a platform. They have created documentation so anybody else can do the work when they are on vacation. I need you to learn A, B and C in and out. But you won’t be primary on any of those. You are going to take on a new project. You are going be primary support, create the documentation about it and teach everybody else. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ma go over here and work on the things.

“Oh, and on Wednesdays we get together as a team to update project status and do some team training. In your free time I need you to learn all about technology X and teach it to us next month. I know you don’t know anything about it at all. In fact, I’m well aware that you have never even heard of this. My goal is not to make you look stupid in front of your peers, it is to expose our team to something new and help us to find better ways of doing our jobs. I can’t sift through all of the options on my own so we learn things together and discuss. I need you to be a part of that.

“Oh, and one more thing. If I catch you working evenings we’ll have to have a serious talk.”

I REALLY like that freedom. I have had at least three managers who worked that way. They gave me a lot of room to run, expecting me to just get my stuff done because I’m a grown-up. And, for the most part, I do. But it’s not for everybody. Some people need much more structure. So I interview for that. I honestly and completely lay out the culture, the environment and the expectations in the interview. We have fun, we learn how much we don’t know, we teach each other. We own our projects. And if their eyes pop out of their head I scratch them off the list.

My style is not for everybody. Sometimes people need each day planned out. They need to be told each step along the way.

I failed to discover this when I interviewed Julie and the kids.

I tend to give vague instructions like, “Please move the cows before noon.”

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What I really mean is, “How are you feeling today? Look, I have to go to St. Louis today. I know it’s a bother but I need help with the cows. They cows are by the hog building. They are watering in the creek down the hill. Please set up a new grazing strip about 20′ wide to the East beginning at the hog building and going down to the bottom. Julie should carry the reel, oldest boy should set posts. As you are walking back, shift 40′ to the West and Julie should reel up the previous day’s rear fence while the boy collects the posts. Then leave any extra posts and reels in the SE corner of the grazing area. This should take you 15 minutes but give yourself 30 just in case. I really appreciate your help in this. The cattle are important to me but you are more important. This farm is important to me but we can put it aside if needed. I hope it is important to us. Maybe I can bring dinner home to make it up to you. I love you.”

It is not safe for me to assume they understand what my expectations are. Nor that they realize the most efficient way of getting it done. Nor that they won’t need discussion time to offer feedback. I just say, “Make the magic happen” and expect it to happen.

I had a boss named Rosie. She was a great boss. She was not technical so she relied on us to know how to fulfill the vision she gave. But she gave clear vision and she encouraged feedback. She didn’t say, “Go fast and turn”. She said, “Here’s the plan. Here’s where you fit. What do you think? Let’s go.”

Ugh. If only I could be more like that.

But I don’t even make time to talk to myself about why and how.

With the events of last year we were unable to raise replacement pullets. So right now, I have 100+ birds laying as many as 6 eggs/day. I know what needs to be done. There is no discussion. Nobody cares about feelings. Those birds have to die. We are already out of the egg business. That’s a fact.

But there is more. There are no replacements. There may never be. I have shown the kids the viability of the business model…when appropriately scaled and in partnership with other enterprises on the same resource base. And if they want to do it, they can. But if I am to put my resources to their highest and best use, I have to spend my time elsewhere. I can’t stay up all night hunting a skunk that is killing my birds and still answer tech calls at 2am and still show up at my desk ready to rock at 8. I am not 25 anymore.

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There are more factors involved. I can no longer reduce it to “I want chickens so I have chickens.”

Reductionism only goes so far.

So I guess I should spell out what I’m trying to say. I do a fine job of reducing tasks to their essential points. But I should not be reducing people…because people are more complex than tasks. And I need to encourage feedback rather than just act like it’s all obvious.

So…what do you think?

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A Dairy Maid’s Life Sentence

“Good morning, cow’s manure-covered tail.”

“Hello girl. Don’t kick me today. The bruise still hasn’t healed.”

“Come on. Just put your head in the thing and eat your oats. Where are you going?”

I’m sure you have seen the pictures Julie puts up of her cow. Or her milk. Or her milker. Maybe even the cow in the stanchion. But you haven’t heard her.

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You haven’t heard her beg the cow to cooperate. And you haven’t heard her cry out in frustration.

What is she so frustrated about? There are thousands of people in town who would trade their retirement plans for a few acres and a dairy.

Well, here’s the thing. Even with 4 children we have a hard time drinking 2 gallons of milk every day. And we only milk 3 teats, leaving the fourth for the calf.

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We could make butter and mozzarella cheese. That’s probably what Steve would do. But I’m not Steve. Or Matron.

Let’s talk about Matron a little bit. Matron is a real source of inspiration for us as well as a source of encouragement. She has been a friend to us at a distance. But she and Julie are different people with different motivations. Different needs and wants.

So there really is no comparison.

So we do our own thing.

In fact, we do what I have never known anybody to do. What I have never heard of anybody doing. So I don’t recommend it.

Now that we are several months into the lactation and the calf has grown we let the calf have the milk and only milk every 2 or 3 days.

I know. Crazy.

Even when we milk we leave one teat for the calf.

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So how does that work. Well, one day we drove away to the airport. We went to Disney for two days and came home again. When we got home we separated cow and calf overnight then milked the cow in the morning. Every evening the cow gets fresh grass. She usually gets a small amount of oats even when we don’t milk. And that’s about that.

Milking every day meant milk going bad.

Milking every day meant sterilizing equipment every day.

Milking every day meant dreading the morning’s chores, never sleeping in and hating being enslaved by a cow.

But now she is free.

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And that’s really good news.

Re-Learning Things I Already Learned Again

I try to carry a theme of humility and ignorance on my blog. Another theme of my blog posts is I tend to start at the end.

I learned something recently. I have to be able to understand your issues without internalizing them. Additionally, I really treasure time with my wife.

So why is this important? And how does this relate to the farm? And why am I writing this in a public blog instead of just leaving a notebook for my kids to read later on? Because I say it is, because I believe it does and because my handwriting is terrible.

So with that out of the way, let’s start over. 14 months ago my youngest was diagnosed with cancer. For eight months my wife and daughter lived at the hospital for a minimum of 10 days each month. In addition there were trips to the ER, surgeries, blood work, checkups and infusions of poison…each with its own co-pay.

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But I don’t want to talk about poisons and finances today. I want to talk about Julie.

I love Julie.

But I lived without her for so long I lost a level of intimacy with her.

Not just physical intimacy…which was obviously lacking when she was away. Real, personal interdependence. Need.

Friendship.

Julie is my best friend. I say that because you look worried.

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But that wasn’t the case for much of the summer. Julie was more like my roommate. Friends with benefits.

We identified this problem some time ago and sought out professional help. I guess it helped. I have gotten ahead of myself again. Let’s go back.

14 months ago I learned about pediatric oncology. Those two words do not belong together. It’s not like I was unaware of childhood cancer, it’s that I was insulated from it…either because I am shallow or because I am lucky. Please let me believe I am lucky.

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On August 31 my life was normal. On September 1 the whole  world was upside-down. Or downside-up. Or topsy-turvy. Skip it.

We found our way to the pediatric cancer floor of Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. A whole floor of sick kids. One girl we remember was in isolation for months. She was 11 and had leukemia. The bad kind of leukemia. Without treatment she would die. But treatment was killing her. So she lived in isolation. Every few weeks the nurses would allow her to move to a different room so she could see fresh scenery.

She died between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I have a 14 year old girl. Believe me, I can imagine.

In fact, for a long time I could do more than imagine it. I could feel the pain of the other families on the floor.

But something began to happen. Slowly. I learned how to care without internalizing the pain of others.

To some of you that seems entirely obvious. But it was not easy for me. I would go to the hospital every day. I would ride the elevator with the other parents and I would take time to talk with them. One child was 7 months old, was born with a heart defect and was not eligible for a heart transplant. One child was 7 days old and could not draw breath on his own. One child was in an accident and had fractured his skull. Heavy stuff. And it all weighed on me. My own daughter, losing weight, feeling sick, throwing up, sleeping all of the time, fighting and crying to avoid the next painful round of breathing treatments, obviously depressed and extremely self-conscious about her little bald head…and then all of the weight of other sick kids in the hospital…the struggling families we were meeting.

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Like Bruce. Bruce was a truck driver. His son was in prison. The son had 7 grandchildren all in foster care. Bruce had custody of his youngest grandson…the one with leukemia. Bruce and his wife just lived at the hospital with the boy…the 2 year old boy. The 2 year old boy who was on his second round of treatments. The boy died at Christmas.

How do the nurses and doctors deal with this pain?

How can Julie and I deal with it?

You know what? We don’t have to deal with it.

We have to support our daughter’s needs. Not that little boy.

One thing our daughter needs is a stable home.

Bruce also needs us. But Bruce doesn’t need us to take his grandson’s pain away. Bruce needs us to listen. To listen. Not to feel. To listen. To understand. To understand without internalizing.

But we did internalize. And it was killing us.

It caused each of us pain, individually. The weight of that burden, in addition to our daughter’s illness, was almost more than our relationship could stand.

So we sought help.

Rest assured, we sought professional help. From a real, licensed professional.

But I had a particularly difficult moment at work, cornered an executive, shut the door and, among other words, quit my job.

Now I didn’t lose my job at this time. I say that because you look worried.

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I’ll summarize my list of complaints about myself. Everything I touch breaks, I’m tired, I’m not the right person for the job and I think I would be happier making sandwiches at Subway. I think that about covers it.

He corrected me that all of the technology I am responsible for at work is in better shape now than it was when it was handed to me. However, he thinks I probably am tired because I am still fixing problems. “There will always be problems, Chris. That’s why we need managers. You are a manager. You should not be fixing problems anymore. You should be managing them.” Thanks, Jim.

At the same time I was reading A Failure of Nerve by Friedman. Friedman says roughly the same thing. There are problems. Real problems. Some of these problems don’t have solutions. They have to simply be managed to mitigate the damage.

Living with crises is a major part of leaders’ lives. The crises come in two major varieties: (1) those that are not of their own making but are imposed on them from outside or within the system; and (2) those that are actually triggered by the leaders through doing precisely what they should be doing.

My daughter’s cancer was not of my own making. And there was nothing I could do to make it stop. We just had to manage it for the duration.

And when that battle ended we had a new fight on our hands. The emotional distance separating Julie from me was not of my own making. And there was nothing I could do to make it stop immediately. It took time. And patience. And change.

And here I sit talking of it in past tense. But that is inaccurate. This is our present battle. Every. Stinking. Day. is a fight for my marriage.

And it is more than just acknowledging that a marriage is more than sharing a house and a bed. This is an every day effort to meet her needs. And, beyond that, to help her to heal as well.

I had a hard time learning not to internalize the pain of others. In fact, we still struggle with it.

We met a boy recently who had a similar type of bone cancer to our daughter’s. He, too, had his fibula removed but his was transplanted to replace his left humerus. We met them at a fundraiser and shortly after he began to struggle with the combined weight of chemo and recovery from surgery. It was hard not to cry with the family. But that is not our battle. That is not our calling. That is not our purpose.

Certainly we reach out to that family and seek ways to support them. But their struggles are not our struggles.

I woke up one morning and realized Julie and I were next to each other but far, far apart.

That is our struggle.

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How did this happen? I love Julie. She is my best friend. Or she should be…

I have given this subject some thought. I believe I prioritized the wrong problems. I fought the wrong battles. I empathized with the wrong people.

I avoided doing what I needed to do because it was hard. It is easy to sympathize with a family on 9. It is hard to deal with Julie honestly and openly. Especially when neither of us were in the wrong…we were just apart. That’s a tough problem to solve! And it requires more than just time. More than just trips away together. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive in this post because your marriage is not my marriage. I’ll just say I had to find ways to discover who Julie is today… 20 years and 4 children and 1 cancer after I met her. She is not the same person she was even 14 months ago. I am not either.

Marriage is hard but I think Julie and I are both fighting the right battle now. We were both distracted and our efforts were misguided. We suffered. But I think we are back on track.

The Painful Place Between Willing and Wanting

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I am willing to wash the dishes. I don’t want to do it but I am willing to so our house will be clean.

I want to eat a chocolate chip cookie. I’m totally willing to eat chocolate chip cookies too.

You down?

Let me bring it to the farm. Julie is willing to milk the cow but she doesn’t really want to.

This really is not about milking the cow. It’s certainly not about chocolate chip cookies.

It’s about that wide and disheartening gulf between the things we are willing to do and the things we actually want to do.

What does Julie want to do?

That’s a very important question.

It turns out, more and more, that what Julie wants is not to run a farm while I’m at work. So year by year there is less and less farm. We started butchering layers today and there is no replacement flock.

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Why is that disheartening? Isn’t that a bit of a strong word?

Well, the shrinking farm is not disheartening. That’s a reality and a consequence of our daughter’s illness.

The disheartening part is watching Julie wither away as I impose my will on her.

…watching us grow distant as I want what she is only willing to do.

OK. So now what?

Now we address the problem. We make small adjustments to our routines.

We want chickens but we don’t want to wash 40 dozen eggs Monday morning. How about pigs? I love having pigs. But pigs on pasture cause her a lot of frustration. So I have to find simple solutions to the pig problem to make it as hands-off as possible…while still honoring the pig’s design.

And milking. Every year milking led to crying. And more crying. But not this year. And why? Because we realized that we don’t need 2 gallons of milk every day. More on milking another time.

I’m not as concerned about the kidlets as I am about Julie. They approach a number of chores only reluctantly and want to play video games. Part of the deal for them is doing things they don’t want to do. But what about me? What about Julie? Yes, we do a number of things we are willing to do but don’t really want to do. I drive away from the farm every day because it’s the best thing I can do for my family right now. But I don’t want to do it.

However, I see that differently than making Julie, who is a willing participant, do things she doesn’t want to do all day.

Because it leads to resentment if she is never allowed to do the things she just wants to do.

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I am being vague here. I don’t want to share too much about my beautiful wife…putting her on display for all the internet to read. But mistakes have been made. And we are working to ensure they do not continue.

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Take a moment to ensure that you and your other both want the same things. Ensure that you have common vision, not division.