2020 Was The Year I Copied Myself

As we put this tire fire of a last year in the rear-view, I want to be thankful for something big I got out of it. I didn’t go the steady course in 2020. You wouldn’t have recognized me; I grew my hair out, I invested in crypto, I flew with Concorde pilots. I bought a Dremel tool.

2020 was also the year I got serious about my habits, my responses, my motivations. I decided to put myself under a magnifying glass to get more deliberate about doing more of what made me happy, and less of what didn’t.

  • I turned off all notifications on my devices.

These revelations didn’t happen by accident, they were deliberately discovered and fast-feedback iterated to decide which ones were worth doing. How? The magic combination: A bit of Luck, a bit of Deliberateness, and a strong Why.

Wherein Our Hero Has Three Things

The Luck: I had a performance coach assigned to me through work this year, and a career coach reached out at the same time. And, with all that was going on in the world, I had reconnected with my therapist (you can decide whether you think of that as good luck or bad luck).

The Deliberateness: I decided to assemble these folks into a proto- “transformation team”, along with my wife, and my manager, to help me with these discoveries. I would bring relevant challenges and observations to more than one of them, getting their perspectives on each. This let me see the challenges through a different but related lens from each person’s perspective, and spot trends that were ascendant that I could either keep or throw away.

And — The Why:

The most critical component of all — I had a reason I needed to do this: my own employees. Managing two employees of my own and coaching half a dozen others, as well as leading another dozen in a non-profit group. I don’t recall the moment of crystallization, the apple-meets-head kinetic idea generation that drove all the rest of the downstream effects but speaking candidly? It was probably death.

Oh Come On, You Knew We Were Going to Mention Covid

Our family lost two of its very best this year. And many more I loved got sick, or knew someone sick, and life — the being alive part — seemed less a sure thing than it ever had been for me. Now, it was a matter of risk reduction, of trying to not die, as an active pursuit, something you took steps to do every day.

And, like many, I started to wonder — what would people do without me? Family, friends? Wills were updated, we caught up more, talked more. People said “I care about you” a lot more.

And, professionally? What would my employees do without me? My mentees? My volunteer group? Is there something I could do to make them more successful without me (and, by extension, make them more independent, more decentralized, more ready to attack problems without my guidance)?

The fact I was asking meant two things:

  • I didn’t have such a mechanism.

So — I prepared a mechanism.

In effect, I prepared to copy myself.

Welcome, Virtual Charles!

“Virtual Charles 1.0” was built, as a framework for reflecting out how I work, how I think about problems, how I connect, collaborate, develop and lead. You wouldn’t believe how much trouble I had with this.

For years I’ve thought of myself as a reclusive “mad scientist” type (who now has the hair to go along with it), prone to independent and unpredictable flashes of insight. Combine that with our natural tendency to forget how to teach what we’ve learned and done by rote so many years, and I was a survivability stewardship disaster in the making.

Nobody knew how I did what I did.

So, I wrote it down. In doing so, I created a guide that anyone could use to do what I did.

I created a copy of me.

Oh, Big Deal

It sounds small. I get that.

It took me years to understand what “work under the curve” meant — and it matters here.

The real value of writing down your principles — how you work, how you think — is the thought that goes into them. You’re forcing your brain to think, your mind’s eye to look at a place it doesn’t normally think and look. It may not want to.

Breaking that habit has value. Seeing clearly has value.

Writing is the way to force it.

From the start — not knowing how you work — to the end when you have something written down, it’s the work under that curve, all the thinking you do, that matters. That’s the big deal.

When I found behaviors that didn’t make sense — I asked why I did them.

When I found reactions that happened withought thought — I asked what caused them.

I asked my coaches. My boss. My wife. My therapist, and I began to see a clearer picture of what were healthy and useful behaviors, and what were snap reactions, limbic system responses, old trauma shutting me up and shutting me off.

I’ve got work to do, improvements to make, and thank goodness I’m still here and still alive in 2021 to do it.

And So — Here’s my Source Code.

The visibility that helped lead this off, at the heart of it all, was when I tried to write myself down. When I tried to create a copy of myself. I’ll close out by listing out my own Principles (a part of Virtual Charles I can safely share outside of work), but I want to extend a special thanks to Rich D’Amico for his invaluable guidance this year. We only had a short time, Rich. Thank you for all you did.

The General Principles of Charles

A Principle is a rule or philosophy that guides our behavior. Taken as a group, Principles form the way we would generally approach problems as a whole. What you should know about Principles — they aren’t separable, tradeable. The one at the top is just as important as the one at the bottom; you abide them all, as best you can, not sacrificing one for another.

Understand Slowly.

We often deal with rapid requests. Moving forward without understanding produces worse outcomes. You can move fast once you understand what is needed, and why. So, slow down. Ask ONE more question in your WebEx meeting. Dive a little deeper. Give them the understanding that you understand. Leave room for them to say the one thing they’re worried about and don’t want to bring up — it’s often the key to everything.

Explain Contextually.

Human beings are storytellers, not calculators. Pages of facts are great but nobody reads them, nobody knows how to prioritize them, nobody can fit them into their world just on their own. You need to provide context. In person, that often means starting with “let me explain how we got here”, which feels like a time sink, but it magically gets everyone on the same page. On Email and Slack, always, always be watching for the right time to get on a get on a call and talk things through to prevent a firestorm — if you think it’s about to happen, it’s already happening.

Prototype Miniaturely.

The best work doesn’t go from 0 to 500 pages all at once, don’t do that much work. You’re always seeking feedback from others, so do the minimum needed to prove out an idea, and ask “am I on the right track”? The goal is the quickest path to molecular heat on an idea — you’ll know it when you see people “get it” and start contributing without being asked. Prototype quickly and messily to get to that point. Perfect can come way later.

Delegate Deliberately.

Delegation of tasks has a cost, it’s not a cure-all for overload. Understand the scope and duration of what you’re delegating and why — do not delegate “one-offs” unless there are learning opportunities or the delegate is uniquely qualified to produce exceptional results. Do not delegate without explaining context. If you get back excessive worry, fear, or an endless set of “What if” questions, consider whether you’ve really prepared your delegate appropriately. They may need to understand more about the “why”.

Respond Maturely.

We are in the middle of difficult conversations. We must not react, we must respond and seek to drive the business forward and help the organization use good judgment together, even when it’s hard. Use empathy. Seek to understand. And, do not be a pushover. You serve the business, not whoever yells the loudest or thinks you owe them. Finally, we do not use rules or policies as a shield from responsibility or accountability. If we’ve contributed accidentally to a bad situation, we make it right, whether it’s our job or not.

Learn Constantly.

We will never know all we wish we did, but we need to try. Understand more about the business, about the technology, about the people and relationships, and use your own senses and curiosity to guide you toward the next learning. Admit you don’t know things when that’s the truth, and own it, rather than let fear and pride keep you quiet and unlearning. Google everything, and show gratitude toward your teachers, even if you resent the lesson.

Measure Meaningfully.

A measurement is “a thing that reduces uncertainty”. Many measurements are worthless, and they tend to be the ones easiest to measure. “Close more tickets this month” is a measurement recipe for misery. When measuring, understand how the business is affected, and consider how to balance, not how to maximize, because every group’s success exists at the intersection of several opposing forces and in 99.99% of cases cannot sacrifice all other considerations for the sake of a single overriding success criterion (that tends to leave bodies and burnt bridges).

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Charles N. Cox

Game Development Special Executive — Founding Member of the Union of Orbital Constructors 509th