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Nov 14, 2008

Reality Check

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was writing on problem solving, and mentioned a small problem we were able to solve, and the sense of satisfaction it brought. Well, guess what – it did not work. Once we asked more people involved in it, the solution turned out to be impractical. We had to develop another one later, and it turned out to be wrong also. Now we are on a third version, and the newest seems not as elegant as the first one, but it shows a better promise… We'll see.

The reality check comes in two forms: first, you have to run your solution by all people who are involved. They just see the aspects of the problem you do not necessarily see. The ability to overlook things is endemic to human beings. We don't want to ask ourselves a question that we suspect is not easy to answer. So, reality is other people. While not everyone is equally gifted in the solutions department, most people are great at imagining why something won't work. And it is a lot less expensive to imagine possible problems than encounter them in reality, and then fix. And because we all have different jobs and different experiences, involving more people helps to prevent many blunders.

The reality is also in trying it out, and being ready to adjust. We lived through many changes in the last two and half years, and this much is clear: any change needs tweaking after it is implemented. There is change fatigue, when you just want things to settle down. However, if problems keep coming up, they should be addressed. And then there is a level of a good-enough process. You can improve things endlessly, but at some point, the cost of change outweighs its potential benefits. If you can't fix it any more, it ain't that broke.

And finally, reality is the limitations we all have as people. The job interviews, which we had a plenty last two weeks, are a reminder. Every time we talk about a potential candidate and find some small flaws, I always think about myself, and my own flaws. I also think about my colleagues – it is great to work with all of them, and we have so much energy and fun, but it is not to say that they all are perfect. There is no such a thing as a perfect person, which really what makes people interesting. In every one of us, there are just certain limits that cannot be transcended. A very good solution may not work just because of the people who implement it.

Nov 6, 2008

The eventness of being

The eventness of being (событийность бытия) is a term invented by Mikhail Bakhtin, my favorite philosopher. It does sound rather highbrowed but it really isn't. If you have ever had goose bumps just from realizing that something is happening around you, you know what it means. Nothing makes life more real than its eventness, its ability to progress, to change. However you voted, you probably felt the significance of the event, when Obama walked on the stage on Tuesday night. Some felt joy, while others were disappointed and threatened. Yet if you did not feel the eventness of our existence, you're probably dead inside.

The eventness of being is easier to notice and appreciate when we have time to prepare, like it was with the elections. It is actually happening, you think, because you had imagined something like this before. 9/11 was an event that was hard to miss, too, although no one was preparing for it. it is the magnitude and the visual images that made it so real and unforgettable. Yet we often ignore the eventness of being when events are smaller, and less dramatic. Many of us enjoy stability, and comfort of knowing what will happen tomorrow. This is probably built into our DNA. Yet there is another kind of pleasure in life that comes from the new, the unexpected. When the waves of events wash over your body and soul, try to feel the tiny vibrations of the changing world.

It is easier said than done, because we like to control our destiny. Many people take it too far, and get extremely uncomfortable when things go not as anticipated. I don't enjoy it, when things go wrong either. But I must admit that there is a part of me that marvels the unpredictability, even when things are going wrong. You learn something new about the world when things go wrong. And I always feel sorry for people who just cannot take anything unexpected. Because they don't see the eventness of being, they have to attribute the unexpected to human will: good things happened because someone did a good thing, and bad things are happening because someone is incompetent or ill-intended. This is the view of the world that is very hard to live with. Any small deviation from the norm will look like evidence of poor judgment or ill intent, and will require that the guilt is assigned to someone.

Contrary to what some people may believe, I don't have anyone particular in mind. These are ramifications on human nature; they apply to all of us, maybe in different degree. I am certainly not always in touch with the great vibe of the eventful world, although it is my habit to try. It is tempting to attribute successes to myself, and failures to someone else, even though my mind knows both are largely accidents.

Here is a very small event that sent chills down my spine. My daughter's department (she just started grad school) has a tradition: every Halloween, they gather around Bronisław Malinowski's grave and read their favorite passages from the great anthropologist's writings. I was just there, thinking about the eventness of being, about this guy who died in 1942, and was thinking about the "imponderabilia of everyday life." He discovered the participant observation method, by accident, of course. And - I don't quite know how to explain it – this all really happened, and here is his grave, and here are the people that read his work. The life is a flow of happenings; it is not a list of projects.