Commit and figure it out

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Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan, Yosemite National Park. Free solo means without a rope. Copyright National Geographic.

Down the rabbit hole

I’ve been on a little voyage of discovery recently. Would you like to come with me?

A few weeks ago, I watched Free Solo, which is an excellent – and nerve wracking – documentary about Alex Honnold’s incredible achievement of climbing El Capitan’s 3,000ft Freerider route in Yosemite without a rope.

However, this isn’t an article inspired by Honnold directly, despite there being a wealth of inspiration to absorb from how he dreamed, practiced and mastered this monumental climb. Instead, I was intrigued by the equally fascinating path of the filmmaker, Jimmy Chin.

As I researched the background of the film, I went further down the rabbit hole. This had us watching Meru, another of Chin’s movies, co-directed by his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Going deeper still, I peeled through Chin’s adventure photography and read about his climbing.

So, with interest piqued, as a Christmas present, we bought a subscription to Masterclass, which hosts his photography course. About ten years ago I was an avid photographer, but the passion had waned over the years. I was curious to rekindle that passion.

The course was excellent. Aside from the functional camera tuition and detailed walkthroughs of his shooting and editing process, there were insights into how he ended up getting paid for shooting mountaineering expeditions.

Humble beginnings

Jimmy Chin in a promotional shoot for Masterclass. Image owned by them.

Growing up in an Chinese immigrant family in America, Chin jokingly remarked that his parents didn’t recognize any career other than a doctor, solicitor or financier. Contrary to their expectations, after he finished studying, he took a year off and lived in a van in Yosemite National Park, living frugally whilst climbing. One year became many years.

After taking some climbing photographs with a friend’s camera that he fortuitously sold to a magazine, he used that money to buy a camera of his own, becoming a journeyman adventure photographer: climbing, shooting, and learning. As the camera transformed into his main passion, he identified his adventure photography idol: Galen Rowell.

Eager to learn from the master, Chin drove across California state to show up unannounced at Rowell’s office. He didn’t come down to meet him. However, he hung around the building lobby doggedly for a week, and as a reward he got a couple of hours of time from his hero. Rowell handed him a picture of an unclimbed rock shard in the Karakoram range. His expedition photography career began.

Through Rowell, Chin got his big break when climbing legend Rick Ridgeway telephoned him. This was because David Breashears – the mountaineer and filmmaker – had dropped out of a National Geographic expedition to document the calving grounds of the Tibetan antelope across the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet. He needed someone to fill in for David.

Chin had never filmed anything before. All of his work and practice had been in still images. He asked if they were comfortable with letting an amateur filmmaker have such a challenging role. Ridgeway’s reply was surprising considering the magnitude of the task:

“That doesn’t matter. Commit. Figure it out.”

He did.

In addition to filming the expedition, Chin got his first two-page photographic spread in National Geographic magazine. It was a frame of Galen Rowell traversing a snowy ridge. The photograph was printed as a tribute to Rowell, who tragically died in a plane crash a number of weeks later.

Sometimes life comes full circle.

Human ingenuity

There’s a lot to be said about the attitude of committing and figuring it out. It implies trust. It’s a challenge. It’s a chance to do something exciting and new. The mindset doesn’t have to be restricted to lofty challenges such as Chin’s filmmaking expedition to Tibet. There are plenty of times in your life and career, big and small, where it can be the best option. There are times where it might even be the only option.

Think about it on a smaller scale.

I work for a technology company. In our industry we are rarely ever building the same thing twice. We can attempt to plan and estimate each new project ahead of time, but in the same way that Chin hadn’t ever made a movie but knew how to use a camera, we just have to apply what we already know to each new and challenging project whilst hoping for the best, readjusting our course as we go along.

Human ingenuity transcends uncertainty. It’s what has made humans the most successful species on our planet. We just find a way.

Some more work situations: changing careers is a prime example of committing and figuring it out. Who can tell whether that new company or role is right for you? What if you only have your best guess and your gut feeling?

What about deciding whether to retrain, despite being decades into your career, feeling comfortable, financially secure, yet unfilled? Is it wise to risk it all?

What about conceding to your hatred of daily commuting unhappiness and subsequently working for yourself at home, despite not being guaranteed a steady source of income?

Commit and figure it out.

I’m not going in any more

My old school, Sutton Grammar. Photo with credit to Tony Monblat on Flickr.

I faced a commit and figure it out dilemma fairly early on in my life. It was the day that I quit one of the country’s best schools in the middle of my A Levels.

I was fortunate enough to go to Sutton Grammar, which is a wonderful school full of worryingly smart people. One notable recent student discovered an early stage test for Alzheimer’s before he was 15. Sutton was notoriously hard to get into, but I did, and it was also challenging to do well in, but I did. I achieved well in my GSCEs and continued on to the sixth form to study for my A Levels.

I picked the subjects that I was best at. A mixture of science and politics. However, as each day went by, a nagging feeling was surfacing. What did I actually want to do with my life? Was I really sure about what I wanted to study at university? What if this all wasn’t for me?

Despite being in one of the best schools around, and despite the high proportion of students that get accepted to Oxford or Cambridge, my choices were beginning to feel gravely wrong.

I felt like I was on rails and I couldn’t course correct. I was worried that I’d end up at a university I didn’t want to go to, studying something that I didn’t want to do, to end up in a career that I didn’t want, and I would be secretly unhappy ad infinitum. Despite the unhappiness, it would have been extremely foolish to quit such an advantageous situation.

But one night I did.

After being unable to sleep, again, after hours of counting buses rattling past, I looked at the clock. It was after 2AM. I’d had enough. I got out of bed, softly trod out on to the landing, and entered into my parents’ bedroom.

“Hey.”

They stirred and my Mum turned over. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m not going in any more. I’m sorry.”

“OK. Let’s talk in the morning.”

I didn’t have a plan. But my parents trusted me. We informed the school and they were sorry to see me go.

I got a part-time retail job to tide me over. I felt liberated.

I spent my free time learning to play some musical instruments, exercising, reading, and began tinkering with programming. The tinkering turned into a passion, and I would often see the sun come up before I realized how long I’d been absorbed in it.

I applied to a college for a fresh start. I went on to study computer science at university. It was hard work, but it felt right. In 2011 I got my Ph.D. I then went to work for a local startup that’s now doing pretty well. I’m still there, because it also feels right.

Sometimes you just have to commit wholeheartedly to the alternate path, and figure it out as you go along. And if I can, so can you.

Fear and the lack of structure

Typically we worry when there is no structure, no plan, no answer. But that’s where the interesting things lie. Jigsaw puzzles can be fun, but they’ve already been worked out for you; all that remains is for you to carefully put the pieces together for an unsurprising result.

The best parts of life and work are where there really isn’t an answer; where there’s no complete picture on the back of the box to replicate. Instead, you need to get inventive. But being inventive is impossible without failing, and creating environments where everyone can regularly fail is important.

When I said to my parents I wasn’t going into school any more, they gave me a space to fail. I did, a lot. But it worked out. I’ve written before about creating environments where failure is encouraged. We owe it to ourselves to fail in work and life.

The safety net

You will often face situations as a manager or leader where you have to acknowledge uncertainty and just commit and figure it out. Being able to help others with this dilemma is even more challenging, but ultimately highly rewarding.

That’s because steering through uncertainty goes beyond working out how to deliver some particular project, or build some new whizzbang that needs shipping for your customers. It is also needed at times where you sense your staff are at an impasse with their careers and have no way out but to quit. Or, even worse, to stick it out whilst feeling deeply unhappy.

There’s often another way.

Instead, you can create opportunities for them to do something completely new within the environment that they already know well, with a safety net that you can build in case it doesn’t work out.

Here’s some ways you can help propel staff into challenging uncertainty whilst keeping them at your company and happy:

  • Create new roles from emergent behavior. We had a number of talented senior engineers who were becoming experts on particular areas, with their knowledge being required from many teams in addition to their own. Rather than allowing them to get overwhelmed by this in combination with their team’s demands, we created the Principal Engineer role and gave them more freedom and autonomy to work with the projects they find most interesting. That works well for us, and for them. And because they’re highly intrinsically motivated, they do brilliant work.
  • Encourage internal promotion as much as possible. Instead of always relying on external hires to fill roles, why not take more chances on those that are already with you, regardless of whether or not they have the exact skills? It’s a challenge and career opportunity for you as much as it is them: you have the responsibility of mentoring, guiding and coaching their way through it.
  • Encourage retraining and sidestepping. Make your company an investor in people rather than an investor in their skill sets. Allow the chance for staff to try out new roles in a safe space. Grow people holistically rather than just their technical acumen. We’ve had application support staff train to be engineers, engineers retrain as data scientists and IT staff move into QA. We’ve even had commercial staff retraining in product design.

With all of these situations you take a shot with someone, commit to it, and figure it out as you go along. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to be a success, which is why you need to install a safety net.

My favorite way of doing it is operating in a 30-60-90 day (and beyond) framework, where you both agree upon milestones to achieve as you approach those time boundaries. You can use both quantitative and qualitative measures; whatever works best for you and your staff.

This framework is used with an important “ejector seat”: if at any point either party feels that it isn’t working out, then they can go back to their old role with no fuss or bother.

That situation is not failure to perform. It was just a hypothesis that you were unable to prove. This time. Whether it works out or not, you’ve given someone a shot at acting upon their desire for change in their life, without risking everything else. That’s a big thing to do.

In summary

Helplessness is an awful feeling. The belief that one’s life is on rails and can’t change; that you want to do something entirely different but can’t take that risk emotionally or financially; the dread that you’re too far down one path to even consider another. It’s hard.

But often it’s not the only way. Human beings are remarkably clever, and when gently nudged into taxing situations with a safety net underneath, they often find ingenious ways of adapting and overcoming the difficulties.

You’re rarely as stuck as you think you are. Take a leap. Do the same for your own staff. Talk to them about their desires. They might not even know that applying for your open senior role is a possibility.

After all, if my parents were able to trust me dropping out of a fantastic school to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life, then I think we owe the same to others.

Commit and figure it out.

4 Comments

  1. Andy Hume says

    Really enjoyable read, thank-you. And an outlook I’d definitely champion, though as you say, the right conditions are important.

    I guess my “dropping out of school” moment was my career change about fifteen years ago. Up to that point I made a living playing the trumpet in orchestras. That had been the focus of my life from about the age of 13/14, from Saturday music school, holiday courses, to music college, to moving abroad age 21 for my first full-time professional position. I was on those rails for about twelve years – but I loved it, until maybe the last year or so.

    That last year, I think I knew I’d reached my rung. I’d moved back to the UK and would I guess describe myself as an “average london freelancer”: some of the work was amazing, with things I’ll always be proud of – the majority was becoming increasingly tedious, difficult, and boring for me (for all kinds of reasons), and I could no longer imagine riding these particular rails for the next 40 years.

    So I turned to what had been a hobby. I was in the right place at the right time: with the direction/growth of web technology, with a company willing to take a chance on me, with a safety net of my parents and girlfriend. I was worried that it looked a bit like “giving up” at the time (so many musicians fall by the wayside, and I’d never wanted that to be me) – but in hindsight I’m incredibly proud that I’ve been able to have two careers (so far), two sets of very different experiences, and an outlook that makes me believe I could have a third if the conditions were right (don’t tell my pregnant wife I said that).

    On a smaller scale I’ve experienced the same thing at Brandwatch. I joined to work on JavaScript architecture/tooling (as evidenced by my job title still!), but within months was doing something quite different that I’d never done before. The company gave me that safety net, and it gave me a new lease of life in my tech career – one I don’t think I’d even noticed I needed at the time.

    So, um, yeah… Commit. Figure it out. I love this.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Andy. I had absolutely no idea about your backstory! You’re a really talented engineer. I would have assumed you’d have taken the straight CS path out of university and so on… how wrong I was.

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