Staying Sharp

©2003 Gerald M. Weinberg,

I’m not the kind of person who hangs out in nightclubs. In fact, the last nightclub I can remember visiting was in Miami Beach in 1957. What I remember about it is what the stand-up comic said.

After warming up the audience with some rather gross remarks, he commented that early in his life he had learned the motto he had lived by every since:

Sound mind; sound body …
… Take your choice!

How funny to hear it articulated so clearly, but many of us did make this choice early in life. Somehow we got the impression that athletes are stupid and software developers are flabby – and that we must make choose one or the other. Actually, though, a reasonable level of physical health increases the effectiveness of my intellectual work. Increased effectiveness then produces more slack time in which I can pursue healthy practices. So, good health tends to produce better health, at the same time that it produces better mental health.

But this syndrome works both ways. Poor health tends to produce poorer health by diminishing work effectiveness, which in turn causes work to pile up. Piled work causes me to overwork, consume junk food in haste, and generally ignore my physical well being. Eventually, my health becomes even poorer, and the cycle continues unless I can manage to break it in some way. I become, literally, stupid – “in a stupor; deficient in alertness; lacking in the power to absorb ideas.”

But this kind of brain dysfunction is merely the grossest kind – akin to the effects of being struck on the braincase by a piano leg. The brain is a complex problem-solving device whose functioning we still only vaguely understand. We know that the piano leg will put the brain out of commission, as will sickness. But we also know that a computer can be put out of commission with a sledgehammer, or by pulling the plug. What interests me now is some more subtle elements of my brain. Those subtle elements make people want to hire me as a consultant, treat me like royalty, and pay me large sums of money.

My interest in subtle brain factors drew me to reading an article about “personal chemistry.” The author’s list suggested some of these success factors:

Articulate: writing and speaking fluently in at least your native tongue.

Thoughtful: weighing a question for a few seconds before responding.

Bright, informed, sparkling: difficult to define, but obvious if a person doesn’t have it.

Breadth of interest: able to carry on an intelligent conversation without permitting embarrassing gaps because of lack of interest or education.

Unfortunately, the author seemed to suggest that you can somehow wipe a veneer of “chemistry” over your otherwise dull, boring self. For instance, he says, “brief reflections give the impression that you have good judgment” – not good judgment, but the impression of good judgment.

At this level of analysis, brain chemistry consists of a set of rules. For example, “count to three before you answer a question, so people will think you are thoughtful.” In the typical steamy working environment I usually encounter, however, this kind of veneer peels quickly, revealing all my ugly lumps and hollows underneath. No, if I truly want to be more articulate, thoughtful, bright, informed, and sparkling, rules won’t suffice. I have to devote some time and effort to the job.

My acquaintances who don’t work with computers tell me that software people are the dullest people they know. I have a hard time believing this assertion. We all know that computers aren’t dull – they are an endlessly fascinating subject. But let’s face it. There is more to life than computing, and more parts to our brains than those we use in our professional work.

At AYE Conferences, I’ve repeatedly seen that problem-solving behavior becomes stereotyped when people work in a closed situation. Once they find one or two tricks that work well, they tend to adopt those to the exclusion of all others. I wish we presenters could take more credit, but most of the effectiveness amplifying that takes place at AYE seems to come from exposing the participants to the problem-solving styles of other participants.

My consulting problems are growing more difficult. Systems are growing more complex; needs are growing more demanding; because of past successes, my expections run high. If I remained at the same level of problem-solving effectiveness, I’d soon accumulate a deadening backlog of unsolved problems. With a little slack time, I have some possibility of “outside” activities that stimulate those parts of my brain I don’t ordinarily exercise at work. Without such activities, my problem-solving effectiveness would grow ever more narrow and specialized. New problems would then become unsolvable problems.

My brain is a muscle. Like any muscle, it requires stimulation to remain healthy. If I’m locked into a pattern of work, work, and more work, my brain soon stagnates. Paradoxically, if I want to be more effective at work, I must be less single-minded in my devotion to work. Anything I do that stimulates new segments of my brain will make me a better programmer, or tester, or analyst, or manager, or writer, or consultant.

Many technical folks, seeking this kind of stimulation, enroll in university courses. Some are successful, but some are not. Perhaps the course is dull – not stimulating at all – yet they persist because their employer is paying the tuition and they are embarrassed to quit.

Or, the course may be too “relevant” to their work – more of the same bland diet they consume every day on the job.

If you want to keep your brain healthy, you might do better seeking your stimulation outside the formal education system. For instance, change your TV-watching habits, not necessarily to something more “intellectual.” Or, if you never watch TV, a little tube time might prove a stimulating change. If you don’t read anything but manuals, pick some paperback at random on the way home and read it – but stop if it’s dull.

If you read frequently, read something different. Or, stop reading for a few days and just open your eyes and ears and nose to the world around you. I find that natural settings always make my brain sparkle.

If you must attend courses or conferences, participate in something your employer would never pay for. That way, you can quit if it’s dull and move onto something healthier for your brain. Sound mind; sound body – it’s not a choice, it’s a mandate.

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