Accept and Affirm When Things are Bad. Only Then Can You Truly Make Them Better

A former colleague talked about his experience applying for jobs:

I wrote a bit about this on Twitter, but thought it could be a useful post. You can see my original reply and the conversation on Twitter.

I think that this forced universal positivity will kill your ability to reflect and improve. Too many leaders (and I have been guilty of this in the past) believe that we can fix all problems with encouragement. I myself haven’t fully moved past this.

I think it relates to accepting things for what they are and to the Buddhist Noble Truths. It’s much easier to diagnose overly optimistic / forced positivity in others. Once in a while, when I’m doing it I catch myself. But most often it’s in retrospect or it’s when I see someone else do it. When I catch it in myself or in others I try to refocus the conversation. Step back and re-read our shared goals. What’s our vision and mission? If that’s the case, are we truly achieving it? Am I, or are we deluding ourselves with vanity or proxy metrics?

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their true names.”

Maybe Confucius or something

Lying to yourself and others that things are great seems like a good strategy. I mean, if we’re positive about it, it’ll be easier to climb over this actual obstacle. We won’t despair, we’ll keep marching on and eventually we’ll get there, right?

But if we don’t see things for what they are, if we don’t find the truth and tell the truth, we’re postponing the pain and suffering. And not just postponing but increasing it. When we’re finally forced to come to terms with the outcomes we’ve helped create, the pain of having wasted all this time and energy in the wrong path is crushing.

We can only build good relationships with neighbours by calling things by their name.

Paraphrased from Angela Merkel

That being said, that’s not a free pass to just shit on everything you see. Some use radical candour as radical honesty, but the key part is to care. Radical candour, the book, talks about caring personally and challenging directly. I think, in many cases, you can’t care personally. You can care about the mission of your organization, if you deeply care about a mission and challenge directly…. You can perhaps shorten the amount of time spent lost in the wilderness.

I say and write all these things like I know what I’m doing. that I’m able to at all times act in the way I wish I could, as some sort of Aristotle or Buddha, asking questions to people and helping them come to the realization of the truth themselves.

But as a human, I exist in the real world, I’m right at times, wrong at times. The real world is messy and unclear. We don’t have a scorecard at the end that tells us if we optimized for the outcomes we aimed to achieve.

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Shakespeare

The First Noble Truth

In Buddhism, the first noble truth is that “all existence is dukkha” with dukkha usually being translated to suffering. But can also be understood as being incapable of being satisfied. That while there is the “common” suffering of old age, illness and death, there’s also this yearning or craving for more that we can’t satisfy.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

Albert Einstein

We keep having these expectations and these hopes. We expect that this new shiny thing will bring us happiness, a new game, a new car, a new “thing”, a new relationship, a promotion, a bigger house, a vacation, etc…

But it never does. We’re always wandering and craving for these impermanent things and transitory states that are ephemeral. We continually grasp at the shadow of happiness, and are left disappointed.

Success is Mostly Luck

I mentioned that there’s a belief we hold dearly in western society and that is that the world is a meritocracy.

But most success is luck. There’s a great video by Veritasium (You should watch all his videos) that explains that more deeply. But basically, even if luck is only 5% and the rest is 95% skill. The people with the most luck with out. And it’s a bit easy to see if you think about it. There are millions(1)if not billions of people who work their butts off. Only a few are really successful. The reason is luck, and the ramifications of the Egocentric Bias.

I know 12 minute seems like a long time, but it’s really good.

Or if you want to read a too long version of it there’s a whole book on it(2)or just read a few quotes on it that’ll give you the gist of it.

Also, turns out I already wrote about this

“What chance has made yours, is not really yours”

Seneca….maybe

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. if not billions
2. or just read a few quotes on it that’ll give you the gist of it

How Much is a Headache / Migraine Worth to You?

I get migraines, regularly. I have one right now since mid-morning and I’m just now feeling better enough to use a screen(1)as in it’s now more like a headache than a migraine. Still painful but I can read stuff Recently the Botox has been working pretty well at keeping them more in the “headache” range in terms of pain and greatly reducing the frequency as well, often down to less than one a week(2)From 3-4 a week.

COVID has thrown many things up in the air and has made getting Botox from my Neurologist more challenging to schedule. I’m currently about 6 weeks past due for my most recent treatment and the last 2 weeks have been painful. I thankfully have an appointment in 9 days, but I suspect the next 14 days will be challenging.

Apart from Botox I also have meds for my migraines. After a lot of trial and error and many many rebound headaches(3) A shitty side-effect of many 5-HT meds (triptans) is that it’ll cure your headache, but cause another in ~24h I use Frova. I only get about a 50% success rate when using Frova, but it’s the only one of the Triptans that didn’t consistently create rebound headaches.

Frovatriptan(4)the generic name of Frova costs just under 20CAD a pill in Canada, in the US, a quick google seems to indicate that it should cost about $30USD without insurance.

So on average, it costs $40 to stop a migraine. Thankfully my insurance covers 80% of this(5)As much as people say the benefits at the government are good, the health plan isn’t that great, my previous plan covered 100%, but that means it’s still $8 per migraine.

As I’m sure you can guess, Botox ain’t cheap either. It’s basically $900CAD for the medication itself, and then another $150CAD injection fee. 80% of the 900 is covered, but no part of the injection fee is covered.(6)Now there’s some fun stuff that happens here where sometimes you can qualify for a rebate from the manufacturer of the name brand, where they pay part of your portion. I’m not sure how they position this, but basically they get the insurance to pay more than the generic would cost but re-imburse part of it to the patient. All that to say, it’s usually around $100 that I pay instead of the $180 that would be the 20% So basically it’s 250$(7)see calculations in previous footnotes for why it’s not $330) every 3 months.

Again, this is with insurance. I also take 2 other medications for the migraines as daily preventative, but those cost less((“Only” about $60 a month.

For some reason we still don’t have a national pharmacare plan.

I don’t know how much is should cost to fix a migraine, but it probably shouldn’t be close to $8 000 a year. There should never be a $8 000 barrier stopping you from being able to participate in society.

Canada is the only country in the world with a universal health care system that excludes prescription drugs. It’s time to fix that.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. as in it’s now more like a headache than a migraine. Still painful but I can read stuff
2. From 3-4 a week
3. A shitty side-effect of many 5-HT meds (triptans) is that it’ll cure your headache, but cause another in ~24h
4. the generic name of Frova
5. As much as people say the benefits at the government are good, the health plan isn’t that great, my previous plan covered 100%
6. Now there’s some fun stuff that happens here where sometimes you can qualify for a rebate from the manufacturer of the name brand, where they pay part of your portion. I’m not sure how they position this, but basically they get the insurance to pay more than the generic would cost but re-imburse part of it to the patient. All that to say, it’s usually around $100 that I pay instead of the $180 that would be the 20%
7. see calculations in previous footnotes for why it’s not $330) every 3 months.

Again, this is with insurance. I also take 2 other medications for the migraines as daily preventative, but those cost less((“Only” about $60 a month

Books are too damn long (Seeing Like a State)

I’m reading (actually listening) to Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed because everyone keeps raving about it, and while it is an interesting book and it does a good job at setting the premise, and is great at showing the hubris behind believing one can mast complex systems (as opposed to complicated systems) it has the same problem most books have, which is that it’s needlessly long.

Now, of course, this was exacerbated by the fact that I was listening to it in the car and it’s not really easy to skip ahead.

But still it has the same problems I find in many books, it takes a chapter to repeat over and over the same point. Yes with varying anecdotes and the like, but it’s the same thing. And it’s not like there is more “proof” in the extra pages in each chapter, it’s just repetition of data points and examples.

I feel like most books could be cut by 80% but then have links to supporting evidence and supporting examples.

I loved the part about the architecture disasters of trying to instill order by Le Corbusier vs the embracing of complex systems of interdependence by Jane Jacobs.

But it just belaboured the point. It went on and on about the visuals from the sky metaphors and just kept repeating itself. I got it, your premise is that this is bad and this is why. Giving me 3 more anecdotes about how it was bad in other circumstances is not actually giving me real evidence of this, so I’m not going to change my perception of the truthiness of what you’re saying based on you repeating it 4 times with 4 different examples. That’s not actually giving me real evidence, it’s just showing me more cherry-picked examples to prove your point.

What it should do, it give the premise, give an example to understand context and get a sense of the ramifications of the premise and then, if you have any, link to supporting evidence in the annexes. No one needs to read the same thing 4 times.

I suspect part of the problem is that, if this was a 50 page book instead of a 500 page book, people wouldn’t pay $15 for it. One thing I like about Sam Harris(1)note that this is not an endorsement of Sam Harris, I disagree with some of his opinions is that his books are “short”(2)relatively speaking, around 100 pages for Lying (Which is an interesting read about how you should just tell the truth) and Free Will((I’d suggest also reading the critical review by Daniel Dennett and Harris response). Taking away your thoughts on the content and the arguments in the book, I much prefer this method of reading and understanding someone’s thoughts vs the traditional model of a book.

I suspect there are reasons (be it just that the system is set out that way, that people won’t pay for content in different forms, this is a proven form, etc) But I feel like there needs to be something that’s a bit longer than Blinkist, but shorter than a 16 hour audio book / 500 pages of repetitive text.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. note that this is not an endorsement of Sam Harris, I disagree with some of his opinions
2. relatively speaking

Buying Toilet Paper / Poverty is Expensive / Financial Success as a Virtue

So I bought toilet paper recently, because it finally came back on sale (for context to anyone reading this in the future, for some reason there was a run on toilet paper at the onset of the pandemic). But all that to say, we hadn’t needed to buy toilet paper since January. Part of that is because when stuff is on sale I’ll just buy a ton. It’s not like we might stop using toilet paper, or that the toilet paper is going to go bad or there’s a new version of toilet paper that will make all previous ones incompatible until you install a new firmware on your internet connected toilet.

But there’s a big privilege in that. I’m able to wait until the toilet paper goes ~50-60% off and stock up. I can even wait for it to go on sale at Costco (which is why I end up with 100+ double sized rolls and don’t need to buy it for months).

In my early 20s, I wasn’t doing so hot financially(1)this is an understatement, it was a disaster, I remember once buy a 4 pack of toilet paper at giant tiger because well, there wasn’t any room on my credit card for any more. I couldn’t do the smart thing and buy it on sale in bulk. So I paid wayyy more per roll, which is ironic because I needed the money a lot more now than before. Poverty was very expensive.

Somewhat related, we have a belief as a society, one we hold onto dearly, that the world is a meritocracy. And don’t get me wrong, in some ways it is, yes, on average, if you work hard, you’ll on average do better than someone who doesn’t.

But the deck is stacked. Not only is the deck stacked, but we then use it as an excuse for discrimination / moral judgment. We don’t have as many people being outright discriminate, we kind of sneak it in via proxy, and often that proxy is an economic one.

We had (and still have) many systems in place that made it so certain groups weren’t able to build wealth, be it via underfunded schools (to say nothing of the residential schools clusterfuck(2)I don’t even feel like clusterfuck is a good enough adjective to describe that shameful history), racist or classist policies for housing(3)some of you might think this is mostly related to the US since we hear about their stuff more often, but no, CHMC also helped racist shit, unequal access to healthcare(4)I wouldn’ tbe able to make any money if I didn’t have my meds, and many other ways I’m not even aware of.

And this is going to sound like a broken record, but this is one of the reasons I support a basic income. It’s not going to fix all that shit directly or undo the damages of the past. But it at least ensures everyone has a floor with which they can build on and it’s a good start to fixing the race and gender wealth inequalities.

There is no reason we have poverty in Canada, as Martin Luther King said:

Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.
The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.
[…]
The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.
[…]
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.
The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. this is an understatement, it was a disaster
2. I don’t even feel like clusterfuck is a good enough adjective to describe that shameful history
3. some of you might think this is mostly related to the US since we hear about their stuff more often, but no, CHMC also helped racist shit
4. I wouldn’ tbe able to make any money if I didn’t have my meds

Wisdom vs Knowledge

I feel like I write this blog post every few months. Or maybe I don’t actually write / publish it, it’s hard to know what I’ve been thinking about writing and what I’ve actually written(1)https://stephboisvert.ca/2018/04/08/wisdom/(2)https://stephboisvert.ca/2014/01/11/know-thyself/.

At some point in life you start to learn about self actualization & self transcendence and the paradoxical way that self actualization leads to self transcendence. Somehow, having a better realization of one’s self leads to a realization that there is no real “self” without everything around it. We aren’t this “self” in a vacuum, we are part of something bigger.

It’s a bit like if you think about the human body as a collection of cells. While yes, the cells are all distinct and unique(3)Just as everyone named Chad is “unique” but really they form tissues that form organs that forms a body.

The cell has no concept of me. It doesn’t understand what a “Stéphane” is. And yet, there is no Stéphane without cells.

Anyway, the original subject of this post wasn’t supposed to be on self actualization and that, but rather on how often we come to learn things, usually waves hands in the air “deep meaningful things” about the state of the world, consciousness or ourselves. On how to be compassionate or on how to self regulate or on how we always alternate between the victim, the saviour and the villain.

But that wisdom is ephemeral. We forget. Someone cuts us off in traffic and we forget about the actor observer bias and we just muter to ourselves about their incompetence.

It’s not enough to “know” stuff. We need to live it. We need to integrate it in our daily lives. And to me, that is true wisdom.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. https://stephboisvert.ca/2018/04/08/wisdom/
2. https://stephboisvert.ca/2014/01/11/know-thyself/
3. Just as everyone named Chad is “unique”

Maybe the government shouldn’t be “Agile”

Folks in government love to have disclaimers everywhere that their opinion is not necessarily the one of their employers and the view presented here and their personal ones. I’ve always found that a bit tedious and unnecessary but since I’m going to post something slightly related to “Digital Government” I though I might as well just drink the whole kool-aid.

There was a good question asked on Twitter

But when reading some of the answers and from lurking at the #GCDigital hashtag, I’m not sure it’s the right question.(1)Also, to actually directly answer the question, I think it’s near impossible to be the “real” agile [as opposed to the “wagile” doing sprints inside a waterfall]

I posted a thread on twitter about it, because I think that’s what the cool kids are doing these days, but wanted to unroll it here. (And fix some formatting)

So my answer:

I wonder if that’s actually the right question. At times, it seems we’re focused on “Agile” and “Digital Transformation” but those things are meaningless. They are, at best, proxies of what the true goal should be.

In my opinion, the real goal is to deliver better services to people.

That’s it, point blank. All the other stuff, “Agile”, “Digital Transformations”, “Microservices”, “Cloud Native”, those are all distractions.

We sometimes get so focused on adopting the “best practices” from tech vendors promising the new buzzwords in nice packaging or trying to imitate other tech startups that we lose sight of the real goal.

Facebook has been agile, they use all of the tech buzzwords and all of the metrics and user research etc. So does Clearview, so does Twitter. The outcomes of those companies is not what I would want the Government of Canada to look like.

So why not focus on what we really want to achieve?
How can we serve people better in the government context?

I haven’t encountered anyone who was like: “If only I could fill out my EI claim on a serverless edge computing platform that had machine learning, was secured via the blockchain and developed via agile methodology”

The focus shouldn’t be how on do we try to change this massive institution’s project methodology to one that has been successful in the private sector.
Rather, I think it should be, how do we, in the given context(2)Let’s not pretend the GC is like a private enterprise. We have restrictions and parameters that, for better or for worse, are different from private enterprises serve people better? What will tell us that we have served them better? And from there, iterate on practices we think will achieve that outcome.

Because that’s the only really important part of agile. How do we iterate on processes that help us achieve our goal.

And the goal isn’t to be agile, the goal is to serve people better.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Also, to actually directly answer the question, I think it’s near impossible to be the “real” agile [as opposed to the “wagile” doing sprints inside a waterfall]
2. Let’s not pretend the GC is like a private enterprise. We have restrictions and parameters that, for better or for worse, are different from private enterprises

The ramifications A.I.

This is a bit of a cutesy title as A.I. or machine learning or deep learning or whatever the “buzzword du jour is” is just a fancy algorithms.

You’ll find countless books, presentations, articles and more on the dangers of algorithms but it’s always interesting to see it in action.

As many have demonstrated, the AI often just reinforces existing biases and power structures. A very simple example is Facebook. Most of the traffic to my site comes from Facebook, and posts have 2 real trajectories in terms of views. Either it will get ~10 views (usually something like plant pictures, or how it’s not that bad). Or it will get ~80-100 views, and those with > 50 views usually have a few things in common, they are usually negative, on negative topics, or gossipy.

What is that Facebook is showing my post to a few people, see how they react and then, if there’s some engagement, they start to show it to a wider and wider circle of folks. In effect, the posts you read of mine is impacted by the Facebook algorithm.

Having worked with many news organization, it’s understandable how they came to worship the algorithm and employ (mostly) snake oil SEO folks to try to appease the gods.

Anyway, that’s what I tell myself when a “good” post doesn’t get as much traffic 😉