A fistful of radishes

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The man pulling radishes

pointed my way

with a radish.

Kobayashi Issa

I first came across this haiku when I was reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. Something about it really captivated me. 

What was it about? 

An image comes to mind of walking through fields, lost, trying to navigate to the nearest road. Upon noticing that a man is bent over working the ground, the traveller shouts out the name of the destination that she is trying to find, seeing the farmer pop up with a fist full of radishes. He waves one in the general direction.

I researched this poem further, and I found some exploration of the theme on the Poetry London website. Here, it is interpreted through the lens of teaching poetry: the farmer pulling the radishes is the poet, and the traveller is the student learning the way.

When learning poetry, we can only see a poem through the lens that we have inherited: the context of our own lives. In the case of the farmer, the embodiment of the practitioner and the teacher of poetry, his bias is clear: he grows and harvests radishes, and uses them to instruct; he teaches what he knows. There are many things that he does not know that he does not teach. But is he aware of this?

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash.


When thinking about this haiku, it made me consider my own role as a manager, and even though it still feels uncomfortable to say so at times, a leader. When I am asked for my opinion, I am aware that it carries weight. But am I also always aware of my own inherent biases? 

I carry a number of biases, without malice. These are biases that I must work at keeping in check. Here are some that come to my mind.

  • By trade I am a backend engineer, with a PhD in compilers. My view on solving technology problems often steers from this skillset first, and not necessarily from other methodologies and technologies that may be better suited. What am I missing out on when I think of the solutions to problems, or give my advice to others?
  • I am quite confident in front of groups of people, but others may not be. Am I preventing others from talking?
  • I like to be decisive and tend to think fast without necessarily knowing all of the details. Others are slower, more analytical thinkers. Do I drown them out?
  • I am a white male in technology. I am inherently part of the gender and diversity problem in our industry. Do I have any biases that I don’t even know about that prevents people that aren’t like me progressing? How will I even know?

I struggle with these kinds of “checking myself” issues daily. There are ways, however, that we can combat our own biases. The best way is by surrounding yourself purposefully with others that are not like you.

Some of the most productive and effective relationships that I’ve had with my staff are when they are totally unlike me. Even abrasively so.

Slower thinkers challenge my expediency. 

JavaScript engineers, data scientists, delivery managers and QA engineers all force me to think about problems from different angles, in the best interests of different groups of people. 

The opinions of the most reserved staff often reveal the best and most cerebral parts of a discussion. 

Ensuring that we have excellent female managers, technical leads and interviewers has made our culture more inclusive.

The only way I’ve found to tackle your own biases, which are rarely malicious, but always apparent, is to surround yourself with people that are different, able to challenge you, and are equally aware of their own biases. 

The conflict and debate force better outcomes.

If you surround yourself with others who are just like you, then you’re stuck with a fistful of radishes.

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