Why I Became A Psychotherapist

Very soon, I will be semi-retiring from IT to become a therapist. I’m often asked why I’m leaving a lucrative field where I’m heavily recruited daily for more work so that I may enter the field of psychotherapy. The answers are complex. No matter how much I write, much will be left unsaid, but I will try to answer the question of “why I became a psychotherapist” in this post.

Ian Felton - Psychotherapist

Hamman (2001) writes that there are five wounds that those who become therapists try to heal. The first is a capacity to believe. According to Hamman, this isn’t a belief in God, per se, but a capacity of belief that allows one to bring one’s entire being into life. In other words, it’s something internal rather than external. I relate this concept to my own nihilistic struggles as the result of chronic developmental trauma and its effects and my fight to continue to be present. I also relate it to some of my philosophical conclusions that if I can conjure something within myself then it exists. In other words, if I truly love, truly have faith, truly am honest, truly am empathetic, then since I am part of the universe, then the universe must also have within it love, faith, honesty, empathy. I don’t have to find these qualities anywhere but within myself to prove that these are qualities that are contained within existence. In other words, I can force upon the universe to exhibit the qualities I want to believe in when I manifest them within myself. Being a therapist better helps me to conjure the qualities that counter the nihilism that is all-too-willing to take me.

The capacity to imagine means that the therapist can penetrate beyond the physical, subjective world into that place not yet manifest. In Daoism, this would be the Dao, the formless void where all forms come from, the mother of all. Hamman describes how D.W. Winnicot describes three worlds, the autistic, the illusionistic, and the realistic. Health is found in the illusionistic world. This is the realm the psychotherapist seeks to explore. Unlike the uncontrolled fantasy and omniscient thinking in the autistic world, and the logical, hard, undeniable facts of the realistic world, the world of illusion explores controlled fantasy, inspiration, and symbols. Being a therapist means I can live more in the world of safety I create as a writer and musician, and live far less in the painfully sterile world of Information Technology.

The capacity for concern, according to Hamman, means reconciling the guilt of being a creature that both loves and hates, creates and destroys. As a wounded healer, I’m very aware of my shadow, the source of much of my creative energy in writing and music. By being a therapist, I will more actively work to integrate my shadow into my consciousness, my writing, my music, and my work with clients. By integrating my shadow myself, I can better help my clients to stop rejecting parts of themselves. If I block myself from going to these places, I’m limiting my ability to be a guide for others. Only when I accept my capacity for violence, destruction, weakness, self-preservation, and so on, can I face and hold the shadow of the Other. Orange (2011), when quoting Emmanuel Levinas, claims the face of the Other says one thing: “You shall not kill me.” When we don’t integrate our shadow, we limit our capacity for concern, and as a result, we categorize our clients, keep them at a distance, and “kill them.”

Fourth, as a therapist, I will work on the capacity to be alone. Hamman describes this as the ability to contain ambivalent emotions within oneself—to be a container. Being attuned to my own emotions while containing the emotions of the client will certainly be an epic achievement of maturation. Hamman points out that the capacity to hold erotic feelings is vitally important when seeing clients long-term when there is sexual transference and countertransference. Duly noted. This pursuit of emotional maturity inspires me to spend as much time working with clients in this capacity as I can without burning-out. If I’m emotionally drained, no matter my level of experience, I feel like it will be much easier to slip into states of emotional attachment with client feelings and needs rather than manifesting the capacity to be alone. As a result, I feel like I want to be diverse in my career choices once I begin practicing. I hear of many full-time therapists with 30 clients a week and I wonder how well they can be doing. I don’t want to over burden myself with client hours for the sake of income, when I can perhaps balance my income needs with some continuing efforts as a software consultant, writer, musician, cat-hugger, etc.

The final capacity that Hamman describes as motivation for those who become therapists is the capacity of object usage. Without reading this section of the paper, I imagine that the ultimate capacity of object usage is to use oneself. And, in fact, after having read this section, Hamman describes Winnicott’s views on object usage as being pivotal in establishing the feeling of being real, of being able to enter relationships with clients and objects. If the psychotherapist doesn’t develop the capacity of object usage “the therapist may use the defenses of splitting, projection, and projective identification to manipulate relationships, whether they are personal, professional, or spiritual.” It’s easy for me to see how much I’ve fumbled through relationships as a result of not having fully developed this capacity. I can project into the future and recognize immense developmental gains by exercising this capacity on my journey as a psychotherapist.

By developing these capacities, the therapist attempts to manifest realness. “Realness is not possible without the capacity to believe, the formation of a creative imagination, experiencing reparation in one’s own person and in one’s key relationships where one does not try to manipulate the other person,” writes Hamman. This is something I truly want. This search for realness is my selfish reason for becoming a psychotherapist.

I will never forget the fact that what people need the most can be found in what I learned in basic counseling skills class. People have feelings and needs and it’s my job to explore them with the client in a safe space, where I hold their emotions. I will walk this unique journey with each client, not muddying the path with maps that only worked in a certain territory, a territory that I’m not currently in with the client. As much as our Western society wants to control and predict everything, life is still uncontrollable and unpredictable. When life is experienced as uncontrollable and unpredictable by us all, doesn’t it just hurt clients even more when we promise them all of that will change once we get through the manual or when the model says we are finished? Life is circular and rhythmic. I believe my therapy should also be circular and rhythmic. It’s my job to be soft and centered with the client and to stay in touch with these rhythms coming from the client. If I do that, and do no harm, I just might succeed as I continue to grow as a psychotherapist a become more and more real each day.

References

Hamman, J. J. (2001). The search to be real: why psychotherapists become therapists. Journal Of Religion And Health, 40(3), 343-357.

Orange, D. M. (2011). The Suffering Stranger. New York, NY: Routledge.

Being Watch Commander

I’ve never been much of a leader, at least not in any stereotypical sense. However, I do know what it’s like to be around those in positions of leadership and how I’ve felt around them. Mature, thoughtful leadership in IT that works to build up the team feels better than lead developers that work to form moats and silos around themselves for leverage.

As I’ve grown older, I have found myself on teams where I can mentor, or lead the team in certain ways. I’ve tried to be the mature, thoughtful type, rather than the moat-building type. It not only works better for me and what I value, but I can sense that the team benefits more from that approach. One doesn’t have to be the most technically adept to be a leader. If you are someone with influence, please consider some of the following. It may pay off even more than building an impenetrable ivory tower around yourself.

If you haven’t read the first post, I recommend reading it first. Otherwise, keep reading.

The Coding Samurai: The Way of the Computer Warrior

Watch Commanders

“What’s this?” asked Mitsuhide, bursting through the door of Oda Nobunaga’s council chamber to see Nobunaga’s page standing beside him.
“The note in your hands tells you what it is,” said Nobunaga. His page, Mori Ranmaru, smiled widely.

“I’m no longer Watch Commander? Then who?” asked Mitsuhide.

“Mori Ranmaru,” said Nobunaga, nodding toward his page.

“Your wakashu? He’s still a boy,” said Mitsuhide, dropping the paper in his hands.

“Not any longer. He can seek his own wakashu now. If only you’d had a son, perhaps he could have learned from Mori Ranmaru’s sword. He learned much from me,” said Nobunaga.

“The men will not follow him,” said Mitsuhide. “He’s not qualified.”

“They will follow him because you will make certain they do,” said Oda Nobunaga. “Now tell me the name of your watch commander.”

Mitsuhide gritted his teeth and looked coldly at Mori Ranmaru. He turned his gaze toward Oda Nobunaga, softened his eyes, bowed, and said, “Mori Ranmaru.”

Lao’s commentary

The Coding Samurai listens to those around him, regardless of either person’s status. Listening is one of the most important skills of leadership and should be practiced from the start of one’s career. Only by listening to as many people as possible can you make the most accurate assessments.

Leaders who take on a mindset of always being right, who stop thinking and only dictate commands to those under them, will alienate themselves from those they are responsible for. When they aren’t present they will be mocked and ridiculed and find they are no longer effective. They become dimwitted as they no longer believe that they need to research, analyze, and communicate. They believe in the divine right of their position and so foolishly turn off their brains. Arrogant and bullying behavior isn’t leading, it’s abusing power.

The Coding Samurai in a leadership role has a responsibility to manage the mood of the team. If the team needs encouragement, it should be given. If the team needs to be pressed, the leader must press them. If the team needs incentives, the leader should be creative in getting them to achieve their goals.

Leaders must also share responsibilities and delegate power. When team members are empowered, they take ownership and think more. In these scenarios, the leader trusts their team members and supports them, helping them with resources and political issues. This tactic of sharing power and responsibility will lead to the group being more effective and much stronger than a group who only takes orders.

I wasn’t a born leader, but once I became a professor, I realized that there were rooms full of youth looking to me for guidance. I had to practice patience, compassion, and humility. I had a student who always seemed distracted and wore a stupid smile. Initially, I wrote this student off as a dimwit. It wasn’t until I had this student again for a senior project that his genius became apparent to me—when his work had already been mentioned by a Nobel Laureate. Another professor had already gleaned the potential in this student and had taken him under his wing. From this I learned to restrain myself from looking down on others and to treat people with equanimity.

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Ian Felton has more than twenty years of professional experience writing software for organizations such as NASA, Mayo Clinic, Thomson Reuters, and many more. He is the author of, “The Coding Samurai - The Way of the Computer Warrior.” His blog, The Psychologist Coder, explores IT through the lens of psychology. Ian is also a published author of haibun, a prosemetric Japanese form of writing, mainly centered around travel and journeys to far-off places. In addition to bass guitar, writing and wildlife photography, his interests include practicing meditation, Chinese, and several Chinese martial arts. He’s also a graduate student pursuing a Master of Arts in Psychology and Counseling Services.

The tyranny of the 'shoulds'

Throughout my IT career, I recollect long periods of time on projects where frustration abounded. In fact, every project I’ve been on has had so many things wrong with it, that anyone could justify chronic frustration. Every IT environment has one or more of the following issues: poor code coverage, badly designed code, heavy-handed bureaucracy, vague requirements, meaningless tasks, broken tools, co-workers who are lazy, misrepresent themselves, hog the spotlight, and so on.

I think I knew somewhere deep inside that I experienced far more frustration than seemingly most others around me, but I just assumed it was because people didn’t grasp all of the problems that existed. When intense frustration exists because of issues like this in the work-place, it’s because of a neurotic thought process. Karen Horney, an early pioneer of psychology, and student of Freud, described this process as “the tyranny of the shoulds.” In 1950, in Neurosis and human growth: The Struggle toward self-realization, Horney wrote:

Forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are; this is how you should be and to be this idealized self is all that matters. You should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody, to be always productive–to mention only a few of these inner dictates. Since they are inexorable, I call them “the tyranny of the should.”

What Horney describes is a situation where one is locked in the illusion of an ideal and cannot face the reality of this world we actually live within where things are far from perfect, with deeply flawed co-workers and organizations. Horney explains that the more the neurotic person chases their fantasy of perfection and idealism, the more intense the frustration grows (Olsen & Herganhahn).

A person builds up an idealized image of himself because he cannot tolerate himself as he actually is. The image apparently counteracts this calamity, but having placed himself on a pedestal, he can tolerate his real self still less and starts to rage against it, to despise himself and to chafe under the yoke of his own unattainable demands upon himself. He wavers then between self-adoration and self-contempt, between his idealized image and his despised image, with no solid middle ground to fall back on.

Horney describes how most people have successes and failures as well as dreams. The difference between the neurotic person and others is that the neurotic person experiences mostly failures since they can never live up to their ideals. They also experience much more frustration since their aims are less changeable than the aims of others (Olsen & Herganhahn).

Tyranny of the Shoulds

Albert Ellis is the creator of Rational Emotive Therapy. He found that people find improvement with their situation when irrational beliefs are challenged and replaced. Horney found that the more that people held irrational beliefs, the more depressed and unsatisfied they were with their lives (Olsen & Herganhahn).

In the workplace this can result in an inability to accept the reality that no matter where one goes, there will be problems. They can either grow into immense frustrations as they do in the neurotic personality, or they can be accepted for what they are. Accepting the problems doesn’t mean not trying to improve things, it just means that there will be things than can’t be changed than can be changed. The neurotic thinker can find relief by learning to cultivate a willingness to let go of the idealized image of the workplace that they project onto the office space each day.

One way of doing this is by making a list of issues and creating a hierarchy of most frustrating to least frustrating. For example, a list might look like:

  • Slow CI builds over 40 minutes
  • Poor test coverage
  • Vague requirements
  • Wrong use of code patterns
  • Using tabs instead of spaces
  • Misspelled words in code

So now with this list, the goal will be to start with least frustrating issue on the list and begin to work on letting go of the idealizations and frustration. The next time a misspelled word appears in code, one could first recognize they are feeling frustrated, feel the tension in their muscles, and then take a few deep breaths and work on releasing the tension. One could try looking at the situation humorously and trying to say something like, “Oh, a misspelled word. I remember when I used to get so upset when I saw those in code.”

Working on issues like this isn’t easy, and there’s typically many underlying issues that need addressed to solve the problem of neurotic idealization, but if you’re suffering from “the tyranny of the shoulds,” you have to start somewhere. Recognizing “the shoulds” is the first step. Doing some cognitive behavioral modification is the next step. Try some different techniques and see what you find effective. Start with the least frustrating things and work your way up the list. Any change takes a lot of diligence and commitment, but if you are having problems, then you should work… I mean, then you may want to consider how much unnecessary suffering you’re putting yourself through and then consider exploring ways to make it better.

Good luck.

Ian Felton, The Psychologist Coder

References

Horney, K., Neurosis and human growth: The Struggle toward self-realization, 1950

Olson, M.H. & Hergenhahn, B. R., An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Eigth Edition, 2001

Book review: Escape From Evil, by Ernest Becker

Immortality, the desire for a perfect world, Becker argues that these desires compel humans to do most of the evil they do, not only to each other but the earth. Beginning with hunter-gather man, Becker explains how in precivilized cultures, the concepts of sacrifice and scapegoating were used to try to appease the gods. These were man’s earliest attempts at controlling nature and coercing it to do what man wanted. Eventually, some would take on the role of shaman, or chief, and be the conduit for the villagers to seek the god’s blessings.

"Escape From Evil" by Ernest Becker

Sprouting from ancient shamans and chiefs; kingship, religious states, and eventually money, all took turns in being in the service of man’s attempts to fend off death. Becker looks at genocide as the technological amplification of ancient scapegoating–sacrificing the lives of some to appease the gods. He elaborates on how modern society still clings to those who they see as heroes to save them from their fears and the threats of death.

Becker summarizes his points most concisely in the leading paragraph of his conclusion:

“If I wanted to give in weakly to the most utopian fantasy I know, it would be one that pictures a world-scientific body composed of leading minds in all fields, working under an agreed general theory of human unhappiness. They would reveal to mankind the reasons for its self-created unhappiness and self-induced defeat; they would explain how each society is a hero system which embodies in itself a dramatization of power and expiation; how this is at once its peculiar beauty and its destructive demonism; how men defeat themselves by trying to bring absolute purity and goodness into the world. They would argue and propagandize for the nonabsoluteness of the many different hero systems in the family of nations, and make public a continuing assessment of the costs of mankind’s impossible aims and paradoxes: how a given society is trying too hard to get rid of guilt and the terror of death by laying its trip on a neighbor. Then men might struggle, even in anguish, to come to terms with themselves and their world.”

When Becker speaks of expiation, he is speaking of the guilt that he believes many feel for the very act of existence. He argues throughout the book that people have sought to alleviate this guilt many ways, through blood sacrifices, scapegoating, and projection. Becker argues that men do not kill out hate, but out of heroic bloodlust. It is because men kill with lust that he believes the evil that men do is less likely to be corrected.

It’s because humans cannot accept their animal nature, their insignificance, and oblivion after death that so much evil comes into the world. As he says, “man is not human.” Examine the war on drugs, its desire to create a utopian society with no perceived weakness by a reliance on substances, and the subsequent effects. It has left a wake of shattered lives and no progress has been made at all.

Consider the appeal of Trump, a man who truly embodies the hero system Becker wrote about in his book. As the hero for the downtrodden in America, Trump represents a strongman who can vanquish evil from the lands. With his demonization of outsiders, and reckless promises we see parallels of when Becker wrote about the need to “fetishize evil,” to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. With Trump evil is in the Mexicans, the Muslims, Hillary Clinton, and the media. Here, Trumps’ supporters feel that now evil can be located, named and vanquished and Trump is the hero to do it. Becker’s book, written before his death in 1974, argues that it’s this very process that results in most of evil in world.

“Men defeat themselves by trying to bring absolute purity and goodness into the world.” This can be levelled as criticism of the left as well: their purity tests, thought policing, and other extreme measures being used in the service of purity and goodness. The left has killed millions in the past to achieve these ideological aims, and no doubt they will again. No matter which side you look at, when people take violence into their hands “to make the world a better place,” they will continue to perpetuate the evil they claim to be eliminating.

Escape From Evil on Amazon

The Coding Samurai: Big Talkers

I once worked with someone who was always trying to convince me of his supernatural powers. I won’t get into the details, but needless to say, I was neither convinced, nor impressed. Whatever technical skills he had took a back seat to his ridiculous self-aggrandizement.

Subtle or overt, communication that comes across as boasting isn’t received well by other people, particularly by colleagues. Then, why do it? Bragging comes from insecurity and there’s plenty of that to go around. While dealing with braggards can be difficult, realizing they are hurt somewhere inside and their words are a reflection of that can make them easier to tolerate. I don’t encounter this too much where I work in Minneapolis, but the culture here is much different than other places and I would expect big talk to be found rather easily.

If you haven’t read the first post, I recommend reading it first. Otherwise, keep reading.

The Coding Samurai: The Way of the Computer Warrior

Big Talkers

Akechi Mitsuhide sent the servants from the kitchen into the dining hall of Azuchi Castle where Oda Nobunaga entertained the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

“Tonight the cook has prepared a special dish, made from fish I selected this morning. You honor us so much, Tokugawa Ieyasu, that I had the servants serve the meal on my family’s ancestral plate ware,” said Mitsuhide.

“Thank you, Mitsuhide. Please join us,” said Ieyasu. “Your lord and I were just discussing the Imperial Court.”

“The Imperial Court—no, the Emperor himself—should fear the Demon King, Oda Nobunaga,” said Nobunaga, taking a deep drink from his glass.

“Perhaps my lord has had too much to drink,” said Mitsuhide, stunned by his lord’s words.
“Perhaps Akechi Mitsuhide would like to be the one sitting here,” said Nobunaga.
“Of course not, Lord Oda,” said Mitsuhide.

“But would the people call you Dairokuten Maou, Demon King of the Six Heavens,” said Nobunaga, standing up from his chair, “or would they call you the Rotten Fishmonger of Jubei?”
As Oda Nobunaga finished speaking, he took the plate of fish from in front of Mitsuhide and threw it out the castle window. Mitsuhide wept inside at the sound of his family heirloom breaking on the bricks below.

Lao’s commentary

Being a big talker in the workplace will detract from one’s accomplishments and stop people from associating with you. Big talkers are known for always thinking they know best and making sure everyone knows it. They criticize plans and ideas, seemingly never finding value in anything that doesn’t come from them. If someone presents a solution to a problem, the big talker will give three reasons why it won’t work. If someone else accomplishes something important, the big talker will say they have accomplished something greater.

Sadly, many big talkers haven’t accomplished much. They excel not at creating but at tearing down. As a result of their insecurity, they believe that subtly attacking those with more influence will allow them to gain favor with enough people so that they may rise up. People who have contributed greatly and have been part of great successes understand that big talk doesn’t accomplish anything, and so they avoid it.

In work environments, concerns over budgets, deadlines, and the decisions being made by the higher ranks breed talk among the workers trying to figure out their fate. This type of talk is normal and understandable. Also, sometimes when a team is trying to decide on a way to solve a problem and a debate emerges, one does have to speak from one’s accomplishments and say, ‘I solved this type of problem before and had great results with this method.’ This may sound to some like big talk when in fact it’s not.

One of the more embarrassing moments in my career came when I took part in disparaging a man who began coming to work late most days. His work grew sloppy and he asked out-of-the-ballpark questions in meetings. While getting coffee with a coworker, I felt the need to call him by his new nickname, Slothman. My coworker looked at me with anger and shared the fact that the man was her friend and was receiving chemotherapy for a brain tumor. The speech of the Coding Samurai is used to build up, enlighten, and accomplish team goals—not to tear down others and their ideas.

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BUY THE BOOK ON AMAZON

Ian Felton has more than twenty years of professional experience writing software for organizations such as NASA, Mayo Clinic, Thomson Reuters, and many more. He is the author of, “The Coding Samurai - The Way of the Computer Warrior.” His blog, The Psychologist Coder, explores IT through the lens of psychology. Ian is also a published author of haibun, a prosemetric Japanese form of writing, mainly centered around travel and journeys to far-off places. In addition to bass guitar, writing and wildlife photography, his interests include practicing meditation, Chinese, and several Chinese martial arts. He’s also a graduate student pursuing a Master of Arts in Psychology and Counseling Services.

Book Review: The Illustrated Happiness Trap by Russ Harris & Bev Aisbett

The Illustrated Happiness Trap is the simplest route to understanding a modern mindfulness-based therapy called ACT.

The illustrations bring a playfulness to the essence of ACT, which is to teach people to defuse and unhook themselves from their thoughts, give their feelings space, and learn various ways to find more meaning in life.

The book can be quickly undertaken, though it’s probably better to spend at least a week with it so as not to skip the practice that is suggested with each exercise in the book such as practicing defusing thoughts. In this particular exercise, Dr. Harris guides the reader to “pick an upsetting thought, and silently repeat it, putting these words in front of it: ‘I’m having the thought that…’”

The idea is that using this awareness practice of identifying what is in our head and clarifying that it is a thought and nothing more, we can begin to have some space between our thoughts and ourselves. Dr. Harris continues, “When we defuse from our thoughts we realize they: are nothing more or less than words and pictures, may or may not be true (we don’t have to believe them), may or may not be important (we pay attention only if they’re helpful), are not orders (we don’t have to obey), may or may not be wise (we don’t have to follow the advice), are never actual threats, no matter how negative.”

The Illustrated Happiness Trap continues to gently walk the reader through illustrated explanations, metaphors, and exercises that can help anyone gain more comfort with their thoughts and feelings. Even if you feel you are doing great, The Illustrated Happiness Trap is worth reading just for the fun, interesting perspectives on our minds, and how we can improve our relationship with it.

Russ Harris & Bev Aisbett, The Illustrated Happiness Trap

Russ Harris & Bev Aisbett, The Illustrated Happiness Trap on Amazon

Managing Self-Expression at work

When I wrote this section of The Coding Samurai, I was primarily imagining people who brag at work, whether subtly or overtly. People who brag are trying to get attention, or power, but more often than not, it turns people off. When I think about communication, I think about connecting with others. Bragging automatically puts a wall between you and the other person. Rather than moving closer together, the person whose self-expression is bloated with self-praise finds themselves building moats instead of bridges. This likely isn’t the path to success in the workplace.

If you haven’t read the first post, I recommend reading it first. Otherwise, keep reading.

The Coding Samurai: The Way of the Computer Warrior

Self-expression

“Look at how beautiful I’ve made this bonsai, Father,” said Tama as Mitsuhide arrived home on his horse for lunch.

“I can still see you in this bonsai,” said Mitsuhide, pointing at a scar on the tree’s bark. “There should be no trace of the artist in the bonsai. Only display your work when your touch can no longer be seen.”

Tama looked at her father, disappointed. “It would make me happy to have your approval,” she said.

“You honor your father, Tama. Don’t be discouraged, but if you rely upon others to give you satisfaction in your work, you lose the power of self-respect. If you put your heart and soul into your work, it will be self-evident to those who matter.”

“I understand,” she said.

Lao’s commentary

Self-expression is vital to the human spirit. However, at work, self-expression must be tempered. Refine how your personality and feelings are conveyed as well as the timing of when to convey them.

Regularly congratulating oneself in front of coworkers won’t have the desired effect, which is to be appreciated. It’s far better to point out the merits of others, which will create trust and rapport. Even if managers and coworkers don’t give the praise one feels entitled to, don’t try to elicit praise or brag about your accomplishments. Others have their own agendas and are mainly concerned with how your efforts make their jobs easier.

Accept compliments and criticism alike with grace. Being complimented for a job where you didn’t try your hardest can have negative consequences. You might start believing that you don’t need to try your hardest to get praise and, as a consequence, stop trying to do your best. Likewise, don’t dwell on criticism, as it’s just one person’s perspective. Find any value you can in the feedback and move on.

The Coding Samurai lets his personality shine mostly through craftsmanship. This doesn’t mean walking around stone-faced and unemotional, which would likely only alienate you from your peers and others. Show playfulness, ingenuity, smarts, and wit through your work. At the office, this is where your spirit will be most evident, not in chitchat and trips for coffee.

Don’t forget that you must be appreciated for your long-term efforts and talents. Plenty of managers and organizations confuse the humility of The Coding Samurai with weakness. I once had a manager who always came to me with big problems before presenting “her ideas” to upper management. This attention felt really good for a while until I realized that I was getting the same cost-of-living raise as everyone else on the team and she was getting a 15 percent annual bonus. Careers might seem long, but wasting too much time in an ungrateful environment can wreck the trajectory of a promising career path.

If you liked this, please consider sharing this post with your network. Thanks.

BUY THE BOOK ON AMAZON

Ian Felton has more than twenty years of professional experience writing software for organizations such as NASA, Mayo Clinic, Thomson Reuters, and many more. He is the author of, “The Coding Samurai - The Way of the Computer Warrior.” His blog, The Psychologist Coder, explores IT through the lens of psychology. Ian is also a published author of haibun, a prosemetric Japanese form of writing, mainly centered around travel and journeys to far-off places. In addition to bass guitar, writing and wildlife photography, his interests include practicing meditation, Chinese, and several Chinese martial arts. He’s also a graduate student pursuing a Master of Arts in Psychology and Counseling Services.

Agile with values Workshop: Part three - tying it all together

We’ve come a long way since the first post of this series, where I discussed the difference between values and goals, and how only focusing on the latter at the expense of the former results in lower satisfaction and well-being. In the second post, we did a workshop on identifying personal values to carry into the workplace. The second workshop involved creating a team working agreement and using the sprint retro as the venue for evaluating whether the team is working according to their values or not. In this final post in this series, I will tie this all together and paint a picture of how this all fits together. For the bulk of this post, we will look at a fictional team, their values, their working agreement, and how they use it in their retros. We’ll also discuss how they create action items and put them in the sprint either as part of stories, or stories of their own.

An example team’s values

Imagine a small team of four developers, a QA tester, and a scrum master. They all sat down and did the first workshop to identify their own personal work values. After doing the first workshop, each person had their own personal list of values that they wanted to carry with them to the workplace and put into their work. As with everything, not everyone was completely sold on the idea, but after going through it, even the ardent naysayer admitted that it helped them clarify some things.

An agile with values team knows what they are doing

Later in the sprint, the team members were involved in making the team working agreement using the workshop in part two. The core values that this team selected during the second workshop include: quality, performance, humor, and honesty. To summarize in one sentence what this team values, we might say they are a group “that works to build high-quality, high-performing software, in a fun and open environment.”

Their working agreement

After identifying their team values, they constructed their working agreement, and here it is!

  • Only check-in code that has performance metrics that meet our criteria
  • Be honest regarding estimates and feedback
  • Take time to lighten the mood if things are getting too serious
  • Don’t leave before verifying check-ins deployed successfully
  • Team activity on Fridays
  • Get mentored on how to write faster code and queries at least once a week
  • Someone SPIKE on improving performance once per sprint
  • If you break CI and leave before fixing it, you buy the team treats

An example retro

In a recent imaginary retro, this team put the team working agreement on the projector (or holographic display if you’ve read The Coding Samurai). They went through each part of the agreement and talked about successes and places where the team slipped and could refocus their efforts.

For example, because the team had a deadline, they decided that they wouldn’t spike on a performance gain. Even though the entire team agreed to skip the task, it moved them further away from their goals. It doesn’t take long for a lack of commitment to the working agreement to result in things going back to status quo—a valueless, goal-driven team that lacks meaning, purpose, and culture.

In this team’s retro they mainly focused on how the team worked according to the agreement. However they also brought up other issues that needed to be mentioned even if they didn’t relate directly to the agreement. The working agreement isn’t intended to create a barrier to comprehensive dialogue about the sprint, it is intended to focus it, to give people plenty of touchpoints to address, and to be able to objectively examine the sprint. It can’t encapsulate all of the important discussions, nor should it.

Action Items

At the end of the retro, the team agreed to make action items as a result of examining the sprint against the retro. Since they skipped a performance spike, they decided to do make-up spike and create two stories for the upcoming sprint. They also decided that last week’s Friday activity event was so epic that they would canonize it on the wiki. They made an action item for that, too.

Summary

On the outside, a values-driven development environment might not look incredibly different than a typical agile environment. However, what happens on the inside, if you had a lens to see it, would be much different. People have a clearer understanding of the culture and the things that the team values. During the week, as the work gets done, through the process of building the software, team culture is generated. In an agile with values environment, it’s the work itself that builds team cohesion and meaning, not treats and mandates. And the best part is it’s free as long as the team tasks some time up-front to do the workshops and then sticks to the working agreement as a follow through. The changes slowly build up over time and before the team knows it, they have created something special.

Until next time,
Ian Felton - The Psychologist Coder

P.S. If you’d like me to come in and help you with agile with values with one of your teams, contact me.

Agile with values workshop: Part two - team values

In my previous posts, I talked about both values and goals. Both are useful, but goals without underlying values leave people feeling hollow. This feeling is regularly felt by development teams where the only focus is task completion with no concern, or only lip-service to quality, mentoring, honesty, and so on. My last post detailed a workshop to get in touch with your personal values. In this post, I’m going to continue the workshop by helping development teams weave values into the process.

On a recent contract, I remembered having the distinct feeling that the team was operating in an organic way. Not the meaningless kind of “organic” thrown on snacks by commercial farms these days–but a truly natural and mostly harmonious manner of working. The contract ended and I had time to reflect on what key elements led to our team creating the culture it did. I concluded that our reliance upon and commitment to working according to our team’s working agreement led to much of the success in our dynamic. The essential components of a team working agreement are the team’s values.

Team values make work more enjoyable. Just look at them.

Our working agreement had several sections that included general agreements, meeting agreements, software development agreements and more. Each section focused on the important contracts we needed to make with each other so that we could function at a high level. Everyone contributed to the bullet-points that made up each section and we decided as a group to adopt or reject them. When new team members came in we would review the working agreement. Not only did this give the new team member an orientation to our way of working and allow them to alter it, but it also refreshed our minds as to what we found important to our team. Each person on the team largely internalized the exercise and brought that to work each day since everyone had input and therefore had an incentive for the working agreement to live in our interactions and efforts.

For the most part, management didn’t interfere in our working agreement process or try to influence it. Their hands-off approach was critical. Any seeming corruption of the working agreement by those in-charge would diminish the desire of the team to truly adopt it because it would no longer be “our” working agreement; it would be slightly more “their” working agreement.

How to build the team working agreement

The team working agreement workshop begins by everyone taking sticky notes and writing down the values they would like the team to operate under. When everyone is finished, each person takes their stickies and puts them on the wall. If someone sees their value, or a very similar value on the wall, they place their sticky next to it. For example, if I have a sticky that says “truthfulness,” and “honesty” is already on the wall, I place my sticky next to it.

When everyone is finished there will be clusters of values on the wall. The biggest clusters are the values that the team cares about the most. These are the values that will be focused on in the next part of the workshop. The values that only came up once or twice shouldn’t be completely neglected or thought of as unimportant. Just like in the individual workshop, people can come up with a long list of helpful values, but only a few can realistically be focused on, otherwise the entire exercise gets watered down with too many concepts.

In the next part of the workshop, everyone gets to participate in another round of team agreement creation. Keeping the team’s biggest values in mind, everyone will write down values-driven behaviors they would like the team to engage in. Once everyone has written down three to five things (or one if you have a team bigger than six or seven developers), each person will again place their stickies on the wall next to the value cluster that they feel most represents that particular sticky. For example, if a team value is “quality” and my sticky says “fix broken build/bugs/tests before adding features,” I will place it next the “quality” stickies.

Once everyone has placed their stickies on the wall, the entire team can see a set of actions and behaviors that team members care about and align with the team’s values. Take it all in–your team has come a long way toward deciding what kind of values will drive the team and defining behaviors required to fulfill those values.

The final part of the workshop involved someone projecting their screen and putting all of the team agreements into a document, wiki page, web page, or whatever format your team will find most useful. Be creative and do what works. There’s no right way. Once all of the team member’s ideas have been captured there is a final vetting process. By default, everyone’s ideas get included. Now have someone read out each idea one at a time. Only if there is team consensus that an idea isn’t a good fit for the team should it be taken out of the team working agreement. Once the process is complete, your team should have twenty or so items in your team agreement that spell out very specific ways that team agrees it will work. Your team has now made a working agreement according to its unique philosophy and values.

Once the agreement is in place, your team will need to identify any missing resources required to let your team function according to your values. If you don’t have a CI server, for example, and your working agreement requires one, efforts will need to be made to make that happen. Once the team has made a punch-list of required resources, the team will need to negotiate with whoever is responsible for obtaining them.

The most important actions come after creating the team agreement

What goes in the working agreement is far less important that how the working agreement is maintained. My team fostered the working agreement and referenced it regularly in our interactions, especially in retros. Our retros were, in fact, reviews of how well we worked according to our agreement. This can’t be emphasized enough. A working agreement isn’t a new concept, but fostering it and developing it like a child is the part that is often overlooked. It must be brought to life and that requires effort. Usually one person will light the torch and take it seriously enough to keeping blowing air on the embers. But unless a second person, and a third, and eventually all team members take turns helping it to become real, the team working agreement will be just another stupid page on the wiki.

A team working agreement has another benefit–it’s far easier to give criticism in a way that doesn’t come across as personal. If someone leaves without fixing a broken build, if “don’t leave without making certain your check-in doesn’t break the build,” is part of the team agreement, it’s very easy to say, “Hey, our working agreement says not to leave without making certain your check-in passes.” People receiving criticism around the working agreement being broken are less likely to feel singled out or picked-on. They helped create the shared culture of the team and so criticism isn’t just someone’s personal taste.

A team working agreement doesn’t solve all problems. People can still be assholes. Managers can still ask for things that violate the working agreement. Many interactions and individual actions will occur that aren’t in-line with the team working agreement. However, it’s far better to strive for the ideal, knowing it will never be reached, than to have no ideal at all. The team working agreement is an anchor in some circumstances and at other times a beacon that points the way forward. Use your working agreement often and without hesitation.

In the final post in this series, I will tie together all of these workshops and concepts and attempt to paint a picture of what agile with values looks like in real life.

Ian Felton – The Psychologist Coder

P.S. Here are examples from my team that your team can borrow from if you’re having a tough time coming up with things

General Agreements

No hit-and-run sprint planning: All team members should be confident in story requirements and acceptance criteria if they may be expected to work on the story.

Have a good understanding of what we are solving and who the audience is. Don’t leave backlog meetings confused about this.

This is a safe-to-fail environment.

Tell the truth. Accurately assess task status. Bad news doesn’t get better with age. Accurately estimate tasks even if it means displeasing people. Don’t feed people the answer they/you want to hear.

We succeed or fail as a team. Pay attention to the entire body of work for the sprint and not just the stories assigned to you. If you notice somebody struggling with a story or heading down the wrong path, ask if they need help rather than just watching them fail. Completing the whole sprint is a team responsibility.

Get explicit, non-coerced agreement on decisions. Voice dissent rather than silently disagreeing.

Developer Agreements

Commits and pushes to the origin feature branch should be small and frequent. If you wouldn’t give up CTRL+Z, you shouldn’t be committing only when you’re finished with a task.

Fix failing tests. Do not comment out or delete. Do not reduce code coverage thresholds.

To do comments should always reference a JIRA story code that explains the work to be done.

Technical stability over strong opinions (introducing new tools and frameworks are a last resort).

If the sprint is finishing early, pull any critical or blocker items from the backlog first, otherwise pull from the tech debt epic.

Maximize our existing tools before creating one-off processes or adding additional tools.

Merge or decline any outstanding pull requests before creating any new ones of your own.

Plan ahead and leave everything in a good state before stopping work or moving off-site. This includes making certain that all pull requests are merged or declined and builds succeed as well as closing the loop on any outstanding communication.

P.P.S. If you’d like me to come in and help you with agile with values with one of your teams, contact me.

Book Review: What Does It All Mean by Thomas Nagel

This intro to philosophical discussion takes on several basic philosophical questions. Nagel walks the reader through several common avenues of philosophical analysis until leaving the reader with several questions to answer for themselves. In this review, I will take on some of Nagel’s questions.

Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean

How do we know anything?

Solipsism posits that the only thing that exists is our minds. But we don’t know that. We know that it is all we can experience, but not all that is. Skepticism doubts that any external world exists. But again, there is no way to know that. Is it meaningful to believe that only one’s own mind exists? No. Is it meaningful to assume that the world outside is something completely different than what it seems to be? Possibly.

We know that our sense organs are quite different than many other animals. However, we all seem to be measuring the aspects of the environment that we need to in order to survive in our bodies. Each type of body is adapted to survive in a niche of the environment. We can make a conjecture that the external world is the sum of all the senses of all the organisms that exist. But as a human, we can still only experience a sliver.

If it’s possible that my mind is all that exists or that the external world is something drastically different than what I perceive, I have no way of proving it to myself or others, so it’s a waste of time and energy to hold that position. I also can’t prove that anything DOES exist outside my mind, so is it alright to go on believing in the external world anyway? The definition of “alright” is up to each one of us and I say it’s alright. Regardless, I can understand that as a human, society and culture are constructed by tacit agreements or other agreements among humans. I don’t have to believe in an external world, but I can believe in the consequences of actions that come from my own mind as I perceive it. The consequences of not believing in an external world can have severe consequences. If I jump off a cliff I will find out quickly whether the external world exists or not. It’s not a wager most people will take. It’s likely not just alright to keep believing in an external world, but necessary to continue to experience my mind. In fact, if my mind is all that exists, then my mind tells me quite often about dangers and things I should do to avoid my mind ending. Indeed, if the external world doesn’t exist, since my mind seems to want me to believe quite strongly that an external world full of dangers exists, then it’s quite all right to continue to believe in it.

Other Minds

How do you know that all the beings around you aren’t just elaborate robots? Instinct isn’t knowledge. There isn’t any way for one to know that any other being has any inner experiences at all.

What can you really know about the conscious life in this world beyond the fact that you have a conscious mind? You can’t really know at all. There is no way to know what people, organisms, and inanimate objects experience. However, from reading books and listening to people, one encounters thoughts which very much appear to be the result of self-reflection and inner reflection, which takes place as a result of consciousness. While the existence of books and speeches that seem to be encoded with inner reflection enter my sensory world quite often, this is still no evidence. Nevertheless, that these thoughts appear from others’ mouths and hands compels one to lean more on the side of other humans having consciousness and an inner world.

Is it possible that there might be much less conscious life than you assume, or much more? Just as some stars shine more brightly than others, it does seem that some lifeforms have much more consciousness than others, and as a result, some creatures and objects have much less consciousness. This isn’t evidence, but merely a statement based upon the distribution of characteristics within the universe concerning, height, weight, intelligence, life span, size, and so on. Within species, there appears to be a wide-range of possible manifestations of characteristics. Consciousness is likely similar.

The Mind-Body Problem

Is the mind purely physical or is there some spiritual component? Nagel talks about the taste of chocolate and how it is distinct from the chemical and electrical signals in the brain. A symphony orchestra plays music, but is the experience of music something non-physical? If the experiences we have as humans require a spirit separate from the physical aspects, why are there physical aspects at all? If the spirit requires the physical components of neurons and eyeballs, then the spirit is dependent upon the physical and thus physical itself. We can reduce this problem by taking various disabilities into account. Are blind people lacking in spirit? Are deaf people lacking in spirit? If not, then the physical experiences we have, have nothing to do with spirit at all and this includes our thoughts which are also just neurons firing with moods modulated by chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.

The other way of saying that everything is physical, is also to say that everything is spiritual. Why can’t physicalism be turned around and stated as if there is no dualism, then everything is spiritual even if it has a physical aspect to it. This seems to be a stretch though, since there is quite a lot of pain, suffering, disease, abuse, neglect, boredom, forgetfulness, and so on. How can spirit be forgetful? If everything is spiritual, what is the purpose of acquiring decades of experience and wisdom only for dementia to erase it all? A physical explanation makes far more sense where our bodies are here for the purpose of sexual reproduction (a physical process) to pass on physical genes and then be done with it. Everything about our nature as humans, points toward our bodies needing to be useful long enough to have and raise a few children and then the world no longer needs us around. Regardless of how each person experiences our inner world, we can objectively see how the environment treats other organisms and that physical processes wear down and destroy everything about each being, including the parts that some ascribe to being spiritual.

Free Will

Is everything, including our thoughts, and every action we take in every circumstance inevitable, or determined before it happens? Existentialists believe that we aren’t determined. It is up to each of us to discover meaning in our lives and work to become the people that we want to be. Even if everything is determined, it seems clear that it is determined that most people will not believe that everything is determined simply because of the psychological jail that is created as a result. If everyone believed that everything is determined people would not feel guilt, remorse, hope, responsibility, and so on. The fact that almost everyone feels all of those things is proof enough that if the entire universe unfolds in a determined way, that unfolding includes humans believing that their actions, thoughts, and feelings are not determined. It seems as if most of life is determined though: who we are born to, the times we are born into, the environment around us, geopolitics, and the economy. However, in each moment, we have several options, even if they are very small. Even the existence if a minuscule percentage of choices still constitutes choice. So while we are not absolutely determined, it appears our free will is considerably small.

Death and the Meaning of Life

Thomas Nagel ends the book by taking on two topics: death and the meaning of life. He mainly contrasts religious belief which accepts an afterlife and the worship of a god at face value without question. Of course, these conclusions aren’t acceptable for a philosopher as there is no evidence of, but plenty of evidence against this position being tenable. Here is where Nagel introduces humor, and suggests that if one is able to take oneself not very seriously, then death and the meaning of life aren’t such bitter pills to swallow. It’s only when we cling to these concepts with such seriousness that we feel we must have a purpose, that we must live on forever, that these problems become too hard to handle. I have to agree that if there is an antidote for existential angst, humor must be an ingredient.

An eastern take

After asking all of these questions and spending all this time thinking about what is and what isn’t, there is still another valid philosophical angle. This one comes from Buddhism. In Buddhism, spending time on questions like this is considered a waste. Since we know that we cannot know, Buddhists say that time should only be spent on working on the present moment. Buddhism isn’t interested in metaphysical speculation, only in the pursuit of conquering his own mind without wasting time on unimportant and unnecessary philosophical puzzles. Zen Buddhism is concerned with what is going on around us and the simple, practical matters about life. This is summed up in this tale:


A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied, “I have eaten.””
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.


From the perspective of Zen, all of these questions are a waste of time and only get in the way of our development.

But we can ask many questions about the Buddhist perspective as well. Does Buddhism have any motivation to encourage its followers not to ask questions? Just because someone who was called “enlightened” said some things, does that mean they should be listened to without question?

All religions draw lines in the sand and encourage followers to stay within the boundaries of dogma. Buddhism is no different. Not only does Buddhism encourage followers to deny their desires and urges, but also to deny themselves the pondering of metaphilosophical questions. Where’s the fun in that?

Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean on Amazon

Agile with values workshop: part one - individual values

In my previous post, I talked about both values and goals. Both are useful, but the pursuit of achieving goals without manifesting underlying values leave people feeling hollow. This feeling is regularly felt by agile development teams where the only focus is task completion with no concern, or only lip-service to quality, mentoring, honesty, and so on. In this post and the next, I’m going to present workshops to aid in weaving values into the agile development process. I call this “agile with values.”

The first agile with values workshop relates to the individual. Our goal (see what I did there) will be to identify a set of values that we want to exhibit at work (and maybe in our lives in general). On the flip-side, we will identify our values’ opposites as a way to warn us when we have strayed away from them.

Concentrating on our values and carrying them with us throughout the development process gives us a sense a purpose, even when we consider the goals and tasks of the sprint to be pointless, going in the wrong direction, or against MVP. While our work-values might be the same as the values we care about in other contexts, this may not always be true. In this workshop, we’ll focus on our individual work-values.

The iceberg model of our minds shows how values drive our behaviors.

How to identify values

Each one of us has to answer to the question “what are my values”; no one knows better that us. But that isn’t very helpful guidance. Here are two questions to ask yourself that will help you to identify the values you want to carry with you at work.

  1. How do you want to experience your time at work? (Feeling constantly challenged? Feeling ahead of the pack? Stay at the fringes?)
  2. What kind of person do you want to be in the workplace? (A leader? A skeptic? An innovator?)

There are no wrong answers, but how you answer will mean that some values will bubble up to the top more than others. For example, if you want to innovate at work, “easy-going” probably isn’t a great value to keep in the front of your mind. However, if you want to get along with everyone, then “easy-going” is a great value to exhibit.

Right now, answer the two questions. I’m going to do the same thing.

Here are the answers to my questions:

  1. I want to experience work feeling disciplined, respectful, contributing, attentive, and equanimous.
  2. I want to be a contributor at work, but not the guy everyone comes to for every question. I want to be laid-back and for people to feel like they can be honest with me because I will listen and not judge them.

It doesn’t matter if your answers are anything like mine in essence or format. Maybe some of your answers for number one sound more like my answer for number two and vice versa. It doesn’t matter. Answering these questions hopefully helped you identify some thoughts around your important values and that is what matters in this part of the workshop.

List 10 values

Now that you’ve thought about those two questions, write down ten values that you believe will help you in being who you want to be at work and how you want to experience work. If you aren’t certain what can be values, think about them as standards, principles, or even character best practices. They can be one word or a short phrase. Some examples are: respectful, being creative, not taking crap, and so on.

Make your list now. I’m going to do this as well.

Here are mine:

  1. Disciplined
  2. Equanimous
  3. Balanced
  4. Focused
  5. Attentive
  6. Open
  7. Assertive
  8. Creative
  9. Engaged
  10. Humble

Keep all of these values written down somewhere, but pick the top three that you feel are most important. We’re going to narrow our list down because it will be impossible to keep all of these in mind as we start our practice of working according to our values. Our ultimate goal is to internalize our values so that we don’t have to remind ourselves of them constantly. Until then though, we need to remember them, so come up with a simple way to remember your top three values at work.

My top three are: balanced, creative, and disciplined.

I’m going to remember mine with these three letters: B-C-D, which obviously stand for: balanced, creative, and disciplined. Remember yours whatever way works for you. Try acronyms, a memorable phrase, or imagery, for example.

You may also find it works better for you to winnow your list down to only one value. Imagine the power of fully embodying your most important value. This is incredibly difficult to do, but practicing your signature value to its core can yield amazing results. Consider, for example, how Gandhi aimed to live his value of non-violence to its core. Imagine the outcome of spending even a fraction of your focus developing your signature value.

Identify opposing values

Each of our values has opposing values. For example, using my top three, I can identify that the opposing value of balanced is unbalanced. The opposite value of creative is uninspired, or unimaginative. Finally, the opposite of disciplined is undisciplined, or disorganized. When you sense your opposing values creeping into you, it’s a warning sign that you have strayed away from what you’re trying to personify. If, like Gandhi, you want to exhibit non-violence, if you sense that you are being angry toward someone, being sarcastic to them, or feeling hostile toward them, it is a sign that you need to find a way to start living your value of non-violence again.

Now it’s time for action.

You have a list of values, and a way to remember your three most important ones, exercise these values as much as you can the next day at work, and the next day, and the day after that. But how do you exercise them?

Committed Action

Come up with a few actions you can do throughout the week that are the manifestation of the values you’ve decided on. If being creative is a value, commit to applying a new pattern to solving a problem each week. If being disciplined is a value, commit to using a timer each day and working until the timer goes off. If being engaged is a value, commit to making at least one suggestion in each meeting. Keep track of how you are doing and commit to new actions as you grow.

While you work, pay attention to your internal feelings and thoughts and be on the lookout for the opposites of your values. By working according to your values, you are no longer at the mercy of external goals and circumstances that have been decided for you and are out of your control. Working according to your values doesn’t mean that stress will go away, or disappointments, and other negative experiences, but you will likely suffer less from those events. At the end of the week, if you worked according to your values you will likely feel a sense of pride and meaning, which is something that can’t be taken away from you even if a manager is ranting about velocity, bugs, or any number of other gripes.

In the next agile with values workshop we will work on finding your team values with a team working agreement.

Until next time,
Ian Felton - The Psychologist Coder

P.S. If you’d like me to come in and help you with agile with values with one of your teams, contact me.

Book Review: The Book by Alan Watts

In just over 150 pages, Alan Watts attempts to replace traditional explanations about religion and the meaning of life with something that he hopes that once read will be discarded. I believe he accomplishes that. “The Book” is entertaining and makes an impact, yet once read, quickly seeps into the background like a good cup of tea.

Alan W. Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Watts emphasizes that we are all a manifestation of something spiritual. We aren’t just egos in sacs of skin and bones. Watt’s Hindu-inspired philosophy says that we are the embodiment of the divine even when we are at our worst. This is the hardest pill for me to swallow in “The Book.” I don’t find any solace in the belief that when god takes the shape of a sadist, it’s just so it can help play a part in balancing out a cosmic drama that nevertheless is more positive than negative.

The second chapter of the book felt very disjointed, although it makes a few salient points. Watts peeks into the future where technology makes us more connected but worse off. This incredible insight into how society would change as technology advanced can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, it feels like the entire second chapter belonged in a different book.

The middle part of the book takes on the illusion of the ego, the falseness of societal constructs, and other falsehoods we create as we plod along through life. Watts writing style involves a lot of tangents and most of the time they prick the mind to elicit an insight easily taken for granted. We have indeed scrubbed the world of all its magic and this is what Watts wants us to rediscover. He wants us to drop our clinging to human supremacy and logical positivism and let ourselves have some space for something unknown to find its way back into our lives.

That organisms only exist as part of an environment, that society is constructed, that nothing is solid–Watts 1960’s exposition is a kind of puerile introduction to advances in quantum physics and postmodern philosophy. That isn’t to say “The Book” is without merit. Although the content of “The Book” is a mish-mash of philosophy, eastern religion, and science, many in our society today are still in the dark about the ideas presented by Watts. If one still has yet to step out of the certain, the known, and the definite, and has an urge to wade out into the ocean where all that we’ve been taught as accepted truth breaks down, pick up “The Book.” It’s full of it.

The Book on Amazon

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