Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Struggling is Not Lying

That Lying Hypocrite!

When you see someone talk about the evils of smoking and then catch them having a smoke in the back yard, the cognitive dissonance hits. Your brain hates cognitive dissonance.

You see someone talking about techniques for losing weight, tricks to avoid cravings, etc. Then you catch them mid-afternoon with a Hostess cupcake two-pack, a half-eaten bag of chips, and a Pepsi. That is when cognitive dissonance kicks in.

Luckily your brain has an easy answer to cognitive dissonance in the Fundamental Attribution Error. One attributes behavior of others to personality rather than circumstances. By reaching for judgment and blame, the brain quickly settles the issue: because person does does the opposite of what he says, he is a hypocrite. The individual is either self-deluded or dishonest, so let the shunning and shaming begin!

That's not necessarily how it works though.

Rather, That Brave Soul!

A person who struggles to change and suffers setbacks is not a hypocrite.

The dieter who binges on pre-packaged, mass-produced sugared fat is not a hypocrite. That dieter is a person struggling and sometimes failing.

There is so much more to this than "you say (X) but I saw you do (not X)."

I used to smoke. About two packs a day for around 10 years.

Toward the end, probably the last two years, I wasn't really enjoying it, but I enjoyed the withdrawal symptoms even less.

I liked sleeping, but I found that 8 hours was longer than my body was willing to go without a cigarette. I woke in the middle of the night so I could smoke, so I could sleep.

Doesn't sound like fun? I complained, but was hooked. I was a poor soul struggling and frequently failing.

"Inspiration" from Strong Quitters

Some people tell inspiring stories of putting down a pack of cigarettes one day and never looking back, never really struggling with withdrawal, never lighting another or taking a drag from a friend's cigarette, never inhaling deeply in a crowd of smokers, nothing. Just "I decided and that was it."

I think those stories are great. But I don't think we all experienced it that way.

Those "inspirational" stories are held up as "the way it should be" -- an expectation that one can make a simple decision and then never have any issue again.  When poor saps like myself hear those stories, and don't experience such a painless, seamless transition then we feel like we have failed.

I "failed" to quit smoking several times. I even "failed" to cut back. People would be happy to tell me that it was willpower, and I needed people to hold me accountable, and it was a lack of discipline.

In other words, not only did I fail, but I failed because of the kind of person I am -- a weak-willed loser.

Think about the fixed mindset message here: you are the kind of person who can't quit because quitters are better than you are.  I would have to have a personality change in order to become a winner who could walk away without symptoms. People like me can't make it.

The last thought I needed in my head was
"I can't change, and trying will only show me to be the inferior specimen that I am."

Being the Weak Quitter

Even though I didn't want to smoke, I still smoked. I just didn't like it much.

I came (again and again) to a decision to quit. I looked for reasons and opportunities. I struggled and fell back a lot.

A bit later I started dating Libby, who was to become my wife only months later, and asked her support. Libby didn't smoke, and that made my smoking even less desirable.

Good Lord, it was tough. The "crawling lungs" and the nicotine fits were so constantly annoying.

Worse yet was the doldrums and inability to feel joy;  nicotine, I'm told, replaces dopamine, so the body quits rewarding you for good decisions and actions.  For some time, stopping to take a smoke break was my celebration, and the only way my dopamine receptors were activated. I was unable to take joy from food, from activities, and from work.

I slipped up. Sometimes I was out with the other consultants and was the only one not smoking... at first. Eventually it was simply too much for me and I mooched a cigarette or sometimes a few.

Most people would experience the "what the hell" syndrome about this time. Many would succumb to the social sense that struggling with smoking meant you weren't really resolved and were in fact a weakling who couldn't quit.

Those of us who made it through this stage all realized that we hadn't quit quitting; we just screwed up.

It got too hard for us, and we caved in that time, but in the morning we were still cigarette quitters. We just weren't really good at it yet.

It took me a little over two years to reach the point where the smell of burning tobacco didn't incite any cravings, I was able to take pleasure in food and work and accomplishment, and I no longer had any lingering urge. I told my wife "okay, I've done it. I'm a non-smoker now."

I'm an ex-smoker for almost 27 years, the first 2.5 of those saw increasingly irregular failures and ultimate success. I'm told my lungs are probably snow-white healthy and free from tar now. Now I'm old enough to have other reasons to sleep poorly, but cravings are not a part of those.

So What?

That's a nice story, maybe, but what the heck is it doing on the Agile Otter blog? Isn't this a software blog?

Well, yes it is.

The point is that organizations and people are also addicted through years of habit including abuse, blame, control, and success theater.

Maybe they've got a real powerful three-packs-a-day waterfall habit, or maybe it's overtime addiction, or belief in motivation through fear.

Maybe they've got a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in that they really have made peace with outrageous schedule pressure and cubicle life and isolation from each others.

Maybe they've given up being teachers and become filters instead -- consumers of people rather than producers.

Whatever it is, they have relied on it and have attributed it with their successes. They have been at peace with it.

And now circumstances or choices have demanded a change.

These organizations may be trying to move to Agile methods. But they're struggling. The people in the organization are struggling. They'll make mistakes. They'll backpedal and sometimes backslide.

The most important thing when struggling is not to stop. You might fail today, but this isn't your last day. You can always give up trying next week, so keep at it now.

Struggle on, brave soul. Let's not quit quitting.

And the rest of us, well, we can give brave souls a little grace. Maybe if we quit kicking the losers, we might see more winners.

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