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Laws of Character and Personality

laws of character“One of the most valuable personal traits is the ability to get along with all kinds of people.”

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering is a book for those engineers who have more obstacles of a personal nature in organizations than technical. First published as a series of three articles in Mechanical Engineering, the “laws” were written and formulated as a professional code of conduct so to speak circa 1944. Although fragmentary and incomplete, they are still used by engineers, young and old, to guide their behavior.

This is a rather comprehensive quality but it defines the prime requisite of personality in any human organization. No doubt this ability can be achieved by various formulas, although it is based mostly upon general, good-natured friendliness, together with consistent observance of the “Golden Rule.” The following “dos and don’ts” are more specific elements of a winning formula:

(1) Cultivate the ability to appreciate the good qualities, rather than dislike the shortcomings, of each individual.

(2) Do not give vent to impatience and annoyance on slight provocation. Some offensive individuals seem to develop a striking capacity for becoming annoyed, which they indulge with little or no restraint.

(3) Do not harbor grudges after disagreements involving honest differences of opinion. Keep your arguments objective and leave personalities out of it. Never foster enemies, for as E. B. White put it: “One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy.”

(4) Form the habit of considering the feelings and interests of others.

(5) Do not become unduly preoccupied with your own selfish interests. When you look out for Number One first, your associates will be disinclined to look out for you, because they know you are already doing that. This applies to the matter of credit for accomplishments. But you need not fear being overlooked; about the only way to lose credit for a creditable job is to grab for it too avidly.

(6) Make it a rule to help the other person whenever an opportunity arises. Even if you are mean-spirited enough to derive no personal satisfaction from accommodating others, it’s a good investment. The business world demands and expects cooperation and teamwork among the members of an organization.

(7) Be particularly careful to be fair on all occasions. This means a good deal more than just fair upon demand. All of us are frequently unfair, unintentionally, simply because we do not consider other points of view to ensure that the interests of others are fairly protected. For example, we are often too quick to unjustly criticize another for failing on an assignment when the real fault lies with the manager who failed to provide the tools to do the job. Most important, whenever you enjoy a natural advantage or hold a position from which you could seriously mistreat someone, you must “lean over backwards” to be fair and square.

(8) Do not take yourself or your work too seriously. A sense of humor, under reasonable control, is much more becoming than a chronically sour dead-pan, a perpetual air of tedious seriousness, or a pompous righteousness. It is much better for your blood pressure, and for the morale of the office, to laugh off an awkward situation now and then than to maintain a tense, tragic atmosphere whenever matters take an embarrassing turn. Of course, a serious matter should be taken seriously, but preserving an oppressively heavy and funereal atmosphere does more harm than good.

(9) Put yourself out just a little to be genuinely cordial in greeting people. True cordiality is, of course, spontaneous and should never be affected, but neither should it be inhibited. We all know people who invariably pass us in the hall or encounter us elsewhere without a shadow of recognition. Whether this is due to inhibition or preoccupation, we cannot help thinking that such unsociable chumps would not be missed much if we just didn’t see them. Like anything else, this can be overdone, but most engineers can safely promote more cordiality in themselves.

(10) Give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when you can afford to do so. Mutual distrust and suspicion generate a great deal of unnecessary friction. These are derived chiefly from misunderstandings, pure ignorance, or ungenerously assuming that people are guilty until proven innocent. You will get much better cooperation from others if you assume that they are just as intelligent, reasonable, and decent as you are, even when you know they are not (although setting the odds of that are tricky indeed).

In a closing section of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, King makes the point that “It is a mistake, of course, to try too hard to get along with everybody merely by being agreeable or even submissive on all occasions. … Do not give ground too quickly just to avoid a fight, when you know you're in the right. If you can be pushed around easily the chances are that you will be pushed around. Indeed, you can earn the respect of your associates by demonstrating your readiness to engage in a good (albeit non-personal) fight when your objectives are worth fighting for.”

As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet when Polonius offers advice to his son, “Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.”

Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

The “last lecture” is common with a lot of professors on college campuses. Professors are asked to consider what matters most to them. If you've ever sat in the audience for one of these lectures you can't help but wonder what wisdom you'd want to impart to the world if it was your last chance?

Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, gave such a lecture. Only he didn't have to imagine it was his last act because he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“That is what it is. We can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’ll respond. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

The Last Lecture is a summary of all Pausch had learned and all he wanted to pass along to his children. The lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” wasn't about dying rather just the opposite. It was about dreams, moments and overcoming obstacles because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.

I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left. I talked about honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear. And I tried very hard not to be boring.

On his childhood:if you have a question then find the answer.

[M]y dad had this infectious inquisitiveness about current events, history, our lives.

In fact, growing up, I thought there were two types of families:

1) Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner.
2) Those who don’t.

We were No. 1. Most every night, we’d end up consulting the dictionary, which we kept on a shelf just six steps from the table. “If you have a question,” my folks would say, “then find the answer.”

The instinct in our house was never to sit around like slobs and wonder. We knew a better way: Open the encyclopedia. Open the dictionary. Open your mind.

On his father's advice:

My dad gave me advice on how to negotiate my way through life. He’d say things like: “Never make a decision until you have to.” He’d also warn me that even if I was in a position of strength, whether at work or in relationships, I had to play fair. “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat,” he’d say, “doesn’t mean you have to run people over.”

Echoing one of the Five Habits of Effective Thinking, Pausch writes:

As a college professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore, always to their detriment: You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

That’s an expression I learned when I took a sabbatical at Electronic Arts, the video-game maker. It just stuck with me, and I’ve ended up repeating it again and again to students. It’s a phrase worth considering at every brick wall we encounter, and at every disappointment. It’s also a reminder that failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential.

On encountering obstacles:

The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Complaining doesn't work.

Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.

We're all aware that time is finite but few of us live our lives as if we know this simple truth. Pausch put a lot of effort into managing his time well and because of that he was able to pack a whole lot of life in. Here is what he says about time management:

Time must be explicitly managed, like money. My students would sometimes roll their eyes at what they called “Pauschisms,” but I stand by them. Urging students not to invest time on irrelevant details, I’d tell them: “It doesn’t matter how well you polish the underside of the banister.”

You can always change your plan, but only if you have one. I’m a big believer in to-do lists. It helps us break life into small steps. I once put “get tenure” on my to-do list. That was naïve. The most useful to-do list breaks tasks into small steps. It’s like when I encourage Logan to clean his room by picking up one thing at a time.

Ask yourself: Are you spending your time on the right things? You may have causes, goals, interests. Are they even worth pursuing? I’ve long held on to a clipping from a newspaper in Roanoke, Virginia. It featured a photo of a pregnant woman who had lodged a protest against a local construction site. She worried that the sound of jackhammers was injuring her unborn child. But get this: In the photo, the woman is holding a cigarette. If she cared about her unborn child, the time she spent railing against jackhammers would have been better spent putting out that cigarette.

Develop a good filing system. When I told Jai I wanted to have a place in the house where we could file everything in alphabetical order, she said I sounded way too compulsive for her tastes. I told her: “Filing in alphabetical order is better than running around and saying, ‘I know it was blue and I know I was eating something when I had it.’”

Rethink the telephone. I live in a culture where I spend a lot of time on hold, listening to “Your call is very important to us.” Yeah, right. That’s like a guy slapping a girl in the face on a first date and saying, “I actually do love you.” Yet that’s how modern customer service works. And I reject that. I make sure I am never on hold with a phone against my ear. I always use a speaker phone, so my hands are free to do something else.

Delegate. As a professor, I learned early on that I could trust bright, nineteen-year-old students with the keys to my kingdom, and most of the time, they were responsible and impressive. It’s never too early to delegate. My daughter, Chloe, is just eighteen months old, but two of my favorite photos are of her in my arms. In the first, I’m giving her a bottle. In the second, I’ve delegated the task to her. She looks satisfied. Me, too.

Take a time out. It’s not a real vacation if you’re reading email or calling in for messages. When Jai and I went on our honeymoon, we wanted to be left alone. My boss, however, felt I needed to provide a way for people to contact me. So I came up with the perfect phone message:

“Hi, this is Randy. I waited until I was thirty-nine to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.” I then gave the names of Jai’s parents and the city where they live. “If you call directory assistance, you can get their number. And then, if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”

We didn’t get any calls.

In the end, “time is all you have,” writes Pausch. “And you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

The Last Lecture is a wonderful and heartfelt book, and one that you'll want to revisit regularly.

Just In Time Information Gathering

We're becoming more like factories.

Just-in-time is a production strategy aimed at, among other things, reducing the need for excess inventory. Parts are supplied only when needed in the amount needed. While it makes a business more capital efficient, it also makes it more fragile.

We've adopted a similar strategy for information gathering. We're so consumed by noise and busy work that the only time we really seek out signal is when we need it the most: right before we make a decision.

This creates a host of problems.

The worst time to look for information is when we need it to make a decision. When we do that we're more likely to see what's unique and miss the historical context. We're also more likely to be biased by what is available. And searching for information at the time of need is an indication that you have no idea what you're doing.

“Pattern recognition,” says Alice Schroeder, “creates an impulse always to connect new knowledge to old and to primarily be interested in new knowledge that genuinely builds on the old.” It helps knowledge snowball.

If we can't connect the current situation to something we already understand, we might reason that it is not in our circle of competence and thus we shouldn't be drawing conclusions. If we can, however, connect it to something we previously understood then we're less likely to draw conclusions on the basis of “this time is different.”

There is merit to thinking about information gathering as a logistics problem.

The “Pursuit of Ignorance” Drives All Science

what can you ask

“One never notices what has been done;
one can only see what remains to be done.”
Marie Curie

“Scientific knowledge increases at an exponential rate.
Curiously ignorance does not similarly decrease.
The basic activity of science is in fact confronting ignorance,
and often producing more of it.”
Stuart Firestein

You’d think that a scientist who studies how the human brain receives and perceives information would be inherently interested in what we know. But Stuart Firestein says he’s far more intrigued by what we don’t. “Answers create questions,” he says. “We may commonly think that we begin with ignorance and we gain knowledge [but] the more critical step in the process is the reverse of that.”

… So I’d say the model we want to take is not that we start out kind of ignorant and we get some facts together and then we gain knowledge. It’s rather kind of the other way around, really. What do we use this knowledge for? What are we using this collection of facts for? We’re using it to make better ignorance, to come up with, if you will, higher-quality ignorance.

Still curious? Read Firestein's book Ignorance: How It Drives Science.