Sunday, January 1, 2012

Let 2012 be the death of Superman!

Christmas break is a wonderful time for reflection on the year that's been, heck that's the reason we often find ourselves starting the new year with resolutions.

New Year's resolutions come in for a lot of stick.  But really the driving force between many good ones is a retrospective of the year.  I'm organising in January a meeting with our team as a reflection on 2011.  I think it's best summed up with “we achieved a lot of things in 2011 we can be proud of, but the idea of 2012 just being a repeat of the same ways of doing things is enough to make me cry”.  And yes, those were my words!

If I had to sum up something for myself which has to die, it is the myth of Superman.  In a nutshell it's the idea that anything is possible if all we put into it is a superheroic effort.  If we fail, we're not working hard enough.  It feels like something that harks back to the 80s mentality of “successful people make their own success”.

In actual fact as we all know the truth is often more that if we try to do more, we just burn out, get tired, end up making more and more mistakes, and actually deliver less.

Most of us who are professional seek to have a desire to “go the extra mile” (so 80s in itself), to try and move heaven and earth to make the impossible or ambitious happen.  We want to be the superhero who says “I can save you” to our project leaders.  This in itself isn't a bad thing.  We've all worked with naysayers and jobsworths who when presented with a problem will just shake their head, and cluck their tongue like a plumber who's about to present a really big bill.  These kind of people can be awful to work with and can be defeatist before you've begun.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to take on something ambitious.  We should feel stretched, challenged and engaged by our work.  As testers we are problem solvers, and we rise to a challenge.  Nothing is worse than just testing-by-numbers repeating scripts and formulas which were set down years before you - it's boring, and you feel undermined as a tester because you're not really doing anything creative or bringing something new to your work (PS – why haven't you automated such a project).

However the difficulty with taking on a challenge is to know when you're over your head, and having the courage to admit it.  This year as I've said I had a period of two months where I took a lot on at work.  And rather than do a few things well, I did a lot of things kind of poorly, struggling to keep my head above water.

The irony was although my managers were giving me these tasks, it was me who was putting myself under pressure to accept everything and try and "get on with it".  Superheroes like Superman don't admit defeat, even in the face of Kryptonian multitasking which is robbing us of our ability to do anything well.  They just try and plough on and still play the hero.

I've read two things this week which has reinforced a rather important message to me ...

Firstly was the mission statement for the 2008 season of training at Farnborough Rugby Club (I discovered whilst tidying up my office).  It's a wonderful document, stirring and inspiring (there are few corporate ones which manage that).  But within it is talks about building success through each player “looking to themselves to see where they need to develop, and where they need help, and looking to coaches and fellow players to achieve that”.

The other was a short story of mine, “The Saga of The Stone”.  It's a short story of a true life incident which happened to me in 1991, where as a young student I'd gone out for a night walk on the Moors, and had an accident.  Although I got myself out of immediate danger, I ended up coming out of the Moors the wrong side (20 miles from home) and suffering from hypothermia.  I was too determined and proud, and it took a lot for me to just ask for help / rescue from a local Church vicar.  In the epilogue I summed it up “it's okay when you're lost to ask for help”.

I think the Rugby club probably said it best.  Players were asked to identify themselves where they needed help, so they could become better.  It wasn't about admitting weakness, as much as building future strength.

So that's my resolution.  No more Superman, just my mild-mannered alter ego.  When I feel swamped, I'm going to say “I need help”.

Could it be that simple?


  1. I really enjoyed this blog and I love the advice provided on knowing when to ask for help and how to ask for that help. We do not need to be superheros trying to accomplish everything on our own. Instead we should tap into the strengths of our co-workers and other people to help us shore up the areas we are weaker. I also like the Rugby example where we take personal accountability for assessing what we need to further our professional career. Overall, an excellent blog!

  2. That is a great thought of asking for help when you need it. The first step as pointed out by the mission statement of the rugby club is to identify where you need the assistance. If you take the rugby example further. You can't get the ball on your own in the scrum, you need the support of the others to move forward.

    Even Superman had to ask for help sometimes (Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, Batman).

    Love your writing style - so concise and straight to the point.

  3. Nicely explained. Here you described the well written article from your in-depth knowledge. Truly impressive and nice information

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