Monday, June 8, 2009

The strange law of difficulty and success

Have you ever heard somebody saying "Easier said than done", or something similar?

I recall hearing this quite a lot in the past few years and it always got on my nerves, not only because I find it quite disrespectful to say this to somebody who is motivated to work on a difficult task, but also because it is utterly untrue.

A little exercise for you

Have a look at the projects you worked on recently, at work or on a personal level. When did you succeed? When did you fail?

As you might have remarked, I recently came to live in Seattle. That was one of the most difficult task I undertook in my personal life. But there was no room for failure in this project and so far it is a complete success.

Conversely I had 3 dead light bulbs in my apartment in Paris. I never changed them in six month, and left France without having bothered to. Now, that's an easy project, right? Why didn't I do it?

I am not going to go in depth about the projects my team worked on, but the same holds true: humongous projects went like a breeze, easy little side projects consistently took more time and energy than planned and where considered failures by our standards.

I could write an entire post about how the perceived complexity of a task affects the work of a software development team, and indeed I will. Let's just stick to the notion of difficulty in this post.

What is a difficult project?

What people usually label as an "hard project" is a combination of two factors.

The first one is the amount of work necessary to complete a task. A project is perceived as a difficult one because it involves crazy amounts of work. Another is easy because there is little to do.

The other one is discomfort. An easy project is easy because it doesn't involve stepping out of your comfort zone. Another is difficult because it requires you to learn new things, do things you are afraid of doing or that you never did.

Often it is a combination of both, for example my moving to Seattle was difficult because the moving in itself was a huge amount of work (visas, renting my apartment in France, preparing everything to be able to handle them from ten thousand kilometers away, shipping everything) and because of the fear involved: fear to leave friends, to step in the unknown, to work in a different country...

The truth is difficult projects are only a big collection of easy projects, and should be considered as such, which should reduce the fear factor.

Difficult, really?

Timothy Ferriss, in his book "The four hours work week", said that he gave an exercise to students: interview a celebrity about a topic, with a huge reward if they succeeded. None of his students did, because they thought it was too hard and didn't even try.

I like this example because before reading the book, I wondered if I could interview a celebrity. I tried, and I did. It was basically as easy as asking. Well providing corrections to the bugs of this person's new website helped, of course ;).

Many things appear impossible to do to most people. And in fact they are, because they don't even think they can succeed. It would help so much if people consistently rephrased thoughts such as "I can't do that" to something like "Up until now, I've never been able to do that". Believe me, it makes a huge difference.

"Only do, there is no try" (Yoda)

The fact is that 99% of people just give up before trying. Just by trying, you stand out of the pack. You have a chance of success where others have none.

And this is it: easy tasks are easy to botch, because you lack the dedication. Hard tasks are easy to achieve because chances are you'll devote all of your energy to it, and because you are one of the only few that try it.

And I am not saying that you shouldn't plan in case of failure, but failure not being an option certainly helps. There is a japanese motto that says "I don't fight to win. I fight in order not to loose." which makes a huge difference. Now only fools don't have a plan B. Just don't let your plan B become your plan A because you are not trying hard enough.

The harder it is, the more you'll learn

One last reason to embrace difficult tasks: even if you happen to fail, you'll learn a great deal, and will be more likely to succeed in the future. The greater the difficulty, the greater the rewards, even if you fail.

The law

How, I almost forgot. The strange law of difficulty and success. Can you guess what it is?

To me it is: the harder it is, the most likely I'll succeed.

Next post, I'll try to go a little more in depth about how this translates to a software development team.


dimple said...

ha la la..encore un bon texte...quel pholosophe (sans ironie aucune) tu fais ! Toujours un plaisir de lire une de tes reflexions dans ce si brillant anglais (j'apprend des mots ou des expressions a chaque fois)

Loïc said...

merci :) c'est pas sorti comme je voulais à l'origine mais bon, content que ca te plaise !

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