Let’s talk about Binaries. Neither the zero and ones our mind instantly thinks of, nor the files we’ve compiled some time ago. We’re about to talk about perspectives and views. How they affect our behavior, our engineering and our engineering culture.
Our Binary Mind
The most dominant one in the western way of thought is the Binary perspective, also called Dichotomy. Whether we do so consciously or not, we tend to categorize everything in our lives into two categories. It’s either this or that. It’s either good or bad. It’s either true or false. It’s either zero or one. A visualization of it would be:
In order go get a glimpse on the downfalls of a Binary split, let’s trouble our mind with the following:
- Let’s try and put “it is not so bad” into the bad category. We’d fail because we’ve just stated it isn’t so, literally!
- Let’s try and put “it is not so bad” into the good category. We’d fail again because there is no good in “not so bad”.
The conclusion would be that “it is not so bad” does not perfectly fit into either category. If that is so, the split into only two categories was wrong to begin with. We’re incorrectly dividing life itself, mistreating it. It is such a successful and powerful perspective because it fits our minds’ processing habits, it’s natural tendency to split into two. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the above mind trick, the Binary perspective does not fit reality at all. It covers reality.
It is a subject deeply and scientifically explored by none other than the Nobel prize winners, Professor Daniel Kahnmen and Amos Tverzky. I recommend reading the summary of their work in Kahnmen’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Similarly, it is also deeply explored in eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Yoga, Zen and Dao. The binary perspective is considered one of the sources of personal suffering. It causes us to blame ourselves or to be blamed for when we don’t fit into either category. We are constantly trying to put ourselves into the “good” category and fail. As engineers, we always strive to put our solutions into the “good” category, trying to do “good” work. Not only we don’t know what this category exactly means, we’ve just noticed that the category itself is meaningless. In a future series we’ll see how it can block our innovation and career, but for now we’d better be familiar with Jim Collins’s thoughts of it being a well known blocker for leadership and management (Built to Last : Successful Habits of Visionary Companies).
Nothing is a Spectrum
A supposedly more advanced western perspective is that everything is a spectrum. It might be a better fit to reality, but does not fit our binary thinking mind. The result is a bit of a mess.
Our binary thinking mind looks at a spectrum and translates it to:
- Bad is a single point on the edge that you must never be and you must avoid at all costs.
- Good is a single point on the opposite edge where you must be at all times and at all costs.
- It is stressful because there are endless categories in between
- It is stressful to reach such a far away point
No suffering has been reduced. Blame still exists while we’re not on the “good” side, only now it’s a very tiny point at the end of the spectrum. Instinctively we understand it isn’t so, so we believe there must be a range of “good”:
It may fit reality better, but to our binary thinking mind it’s only a transpose of the binary perspective as once again only two categories exist! Only to add another disagreement about where the divider between two meaningless categories crosses. A much ado about nothing that stresses our mind even further.
Division itself, much like the categorization, is also considered to be a source of personal suffering, as the line does not stay put for long. For us engineers, we suffer for no reason when we look back at our code. We did some coding, ending up with a satisfying “good” result. A year later, although the code itself remained constant and unchanged, once we look at it it is suddenly on the “bad” side. “I can’t believe I wrote such a bad code” we’d tell ourselves. It’s not us to blame, it’s the divider that has moved 5 inches to the left and we are still blaming ourselves for it. “I should have done better”.
The divider is not only time dependent, but place as well. We may be writing exquisite code for one company one day, and the next day we’d move to another company. By the new company’s standards our code is garbage. It is a very stressful situation to be in that may result in another self-blame of “I’m not good enough”; “I’m not as good as I thought” or “I don’t belong here”. Maybe that’s why so many of us experience The Imposter Syndrome.
The Middle Way
A less stressful perspective exists in far-eastern ways of thoughts, specifically in Buddhism. It is called “The Middle Way”. It isn’t about being exactly in the middle – it is about avoiding the edges and resting in between them.
As it’s leveraging our binary mind, it fits it with barely any stress. And it better fits reality as well because the spectrum element exists as well. As such, it promises to ease up our lives and lead to better decision making. Alas, a divider still exists but in the next chapter we’ll see it is a more flexible one.
The binary split of good v.s. bad still exists but instead of forcing ourselves to be in the “good” all the time, we’re practicing avoiding the “bad” in advance:
- The left “bad edge” is what we should not consider or do at all
- The right “bad edge” is too much effort into something that is unachievable to begin with (“Perfect is the enemy of the good”)
In western terms, it is both a perspective and a daily practice, which prevents us from becoming extremists. It keeps us moderated, always in between extremes by not falling to extremes. To demonstrate it and The Middle Way’s outcome, let’s review history & progress. Humanity’s progress rate to be more exact. Why a too slow rate is “bad” and why too fast of a rate is “bad” as well.
There were times in history when all kinds of progress and thoughts were rejected and prohibited. Let’s think of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who has single handedly caused many scientific breakthroughs, only to find himself under house arrest for the rest of his life. Think of Alan Turing (1912-1954) who have suffered so much because it took society too long to understand that there is nothing wrong in being gay. I guess we may agree that stagnation is not good.
On the contrary, throughout human history there were many revolutions. Let’s think of the French Revolution. It is quite a consensus that its consequences are the rise of political liberalism and democracy as we know it today. But it has also resulted in the Regin of Terror where 16,600 people were executed by the Revoluationary Tribunal only for thinking different. I guess we may agree that the violent parts of revolutions are not good. Unfortunately history is full of them. Just pick yours.
Our binary thinking mind would not look for something in common between the two, because it is stagnation v.s. revolution. One must be “good” and the other must be “bad”. The Middle Way pushes us to find what the common is because they are both not good. They are both bad because people are being murdered for being who they are, their thoughts and beliefs.
If the binary perspective’s output is disagreement, then The Middle Way’s output is agreement. We can agree first on what is bad and that should open us up to talk about everything that is ‘not bad’. We could have an easy, non enticing talk about non-violent revolutions, progress and disruption.
Is it possible to better our engineering skills and culture with The Middle Way, by having a better framework that leads to agreement?
A Beneficial Practice
As an engineer and specifically an industrial & software engineer (and also a Zen practitioner) good and bad are not technical terms. And are definitely not quantifiable. Let’s first do something annoying with The Middle Way:
That is over-engineering and under-engineering (or any other tuples such as over-specification and under-specification). Funny thing is that there is no term for what is in between. Just imagine a conversation I would have had with an employee of mine or a colleague:
Me: “The secret is to just do engineering!”
They: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Just don’t go over and don’t go under. It’s that simple.”.
As a software zengineer (see what I did there?) that is meaningless and confusing to me. I doubt if it’s even marginally any better than “do good engineering and don’t do bad engineering”. And “engineering” is not quantifiable as well.
In order to have a more fruitful conversation, we’d need a term we can agree on. For me, the term beneficial constitutes a relationship between effort and value that others may instinctively understand and is somewhat instinctively quantifiable (at least for me, if not find a term your surroundings accept as such).
This is supposed to be more agreeable, as we should be avoiding execution of non-beneficial tasks. Question still remains what is considered to be “non-beneficial”. In the next chapter, we’ll start exploring how to turn “The Beneficial Way Framework” into something beneficial and systematic.