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Volume 10 Issue
I Mostly Ride Downhill
Issues | Linux
Productivity Magazine ]
“Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?" -- George Bernard Shaw.
By Steve Litt
He was six feet two, skinny, black as coal with a round, young face. He
was breaking down boxes in the lobby of the post office. Next to him
was his bicycle. The seat was jacked up all the way, but even so, it
was too low for my five foot nine frame, let alone his six feet two. I asked him if
the low seat made it harder to ride, and in a pleasant Jamaican accent
he said "no, it's fine, and besides, I mostly ride downhill so it
doesn't matter anyway."
The part of me that graduated engineering school wanted to shake him.
"What do you mean you mostly ride downhill -- are you on a journey to
the center of the earth?", my mind shouted silently. Can you imagine
having a guy like this troubleshoot your equipment? After making a
couple more minutes of smalltalk, I excused myself, jumped on my own
bicycle, and rode home. I never got the guy's name. I'll probably never
see him again.
I love my bicycle. The seat is adjusted perfectly for my body. This
one speed with a powerful coaster brake works rain or shine. The deep
paperboy basket carries huge quantities of books to be shipped at the
post office. Whipping down the bike lane on highway 436, my mind turned
to the guy with the low seat. "I mostly ride downhill". What is his
motivation for such a statement? Suddenly, I got it, and at that moment
I knew this guy had inspired my next Troubleshooting Professional
Let's temporarily look beyond the logical problems with his statement.
His perception is that he mostly rides downhill. Is that harmful in his
situation? He doesn't design bicycle gears or brakes. He just rides his
bike to deliver whatever he ships at the post office, and when he
pedals, he thinks he's going downhill. What's the harm? He's happy.
Look at all your friends and acquaintences. You probably know at least
one who, on life's metaphorical roadways, thinks he usually rides uphill. Assuming the only two choices are thinking your usually ride downhill, and thinking you usually ride uphill, which is the better choice?
What we're really discussing is optimism and pessimism. Which is better for what situations? It's not a trivial question.
So kick back, relax, and read how optimism and pessimism interact with troubleshooting.
And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your
Beware of the Optimism Fascist
By Steve Litt
We've all met them. You have a serious problem, and they try to make you feel better by trivializing it. You and your wife are having problems conceiving a child, and they tell you "it must be God's plan for you" as they walk their four children in the park.
Your boss makes you work 80 hours a week, never thanks you, never gives
you a raise, and tells you "sure you can take a vacation if you
complete all your work." They
tell you to appreciate having a steady job, and they'd like to talk
with you longer, but they have to pack for their annual Cancun
You're in the hospital with cancer, and they
tell you to be thankful for life's blessings. They've never been sick a
day in their life, even though they smoke, drink, take drugs and are 50
They're called optimism fascists,
and their function in this world is to make others feel guilty about
being saddened by serious adversity. They're masters of trite
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with the philosophies expressed in the preceding three sayings, if they come from within!
But when some fool, without a clue what it's like to have your
problems, recites them to you, they're less than useless. Such people
are optimism fascists. How dare they imply you're ingrateful for what
you have. How dare they add guilt to the problem you already have.
- When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.
- When one door closes, another one opens.
- Every cloud has a silver lining.
The best self-help advice I ever got was from my mother. When I was a
teenager and had what I then considered to be serious problems, she
told me "Steve, nobody can expect to be happy all the time." From that moment on, at least I didn't feel bad about feeling bad.
of the Perpetual Pessimist
By Steve Litt
"Hey Jim, I just got a new job with a 50% higher salary!"
"That's nice, but I'll bet they'll work you 80 hours a week."
We've all met them. They're perpetual pessimists. No matter how well
things are going, they find that one problem. And when they find that
problem, it's not something to be quickly solved, oh no, it's something
that will completely roadblock life. Where they go, happiness vanishes,
innovation departs, and productivity plummets.
Unless they're very close friends or very close family, vanquish these
people from your life. They may need help, but unless you're a
professional therapist, you can't help them. If you try, they'll likely
pull you down with them.
By Steve Litt
Pessimism isn't always bad. In fact, it's built into the Universal Troubleshooting Process.
That's right, Step 2 of the Universal Troubleshooting Process is "Make
a Damage Control Plan". In step 2, you think of the things that can go
wrong, and decide what safety precautions will prevent those things
from happening. For instance, in repairing a car, you make sure never
to have the oilcap off while you work, because if a nut were to fall
into the oil fillpipe, you might have a 10 hour job taking the engine
apart to remove it and then putting the engine back together.
Looking for the bad that can happen is a good activity if it's used to
anticipate and prevent problems. However, it becomes a bad thing when
you fixate on the bad and overlook the good. It's a fine line. Practice
Steve Litt is the author of four books on the subject of troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.
By Steve Litt
The preceding article stated that pessimism was built into the
Universal Troubleshooting Process as step 2. Optimism is built into the
UTP also, as step 9, "Take Pride".
Step 9 is too big a topic to discuss here. It's the subject of the 24
page story "The Hallmans Had a Hard Life" in my latest book, Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting. What can be discussed here are the basics. There's also some more info on taking pride here.
After every accomplishment, take at least a moment to savor your
victory over the problem. If it's a big problem, take longer. A couple
years ago I finished a 2 week project and finished it well. To take
pride, I took a 4 hour walk. I still remember it as one of the high
points of my life. I can still visualize and feel it.
It's essential to take pride immediately after accomplishment. We all
have a balance sheet containing percieved victories and percieved
defeats. A net surplus of percieved victories makes of us serene. But
when percieved defeats substantially outnumber percieved victories,
it's a prescription for burnout. Victories uncelebrated are victories
forgotten. Celebrate every victory. Take pride.
By Steve Litt
Optimism can be dangerous. Go to any convenience store and you'll see
the same people, paycheck after paycheck, blowing their money on
lottery tickets. They have no retirement plan -- they're going to "hit
It's not just the lower classes. How many managers have you seen who
hear about a new technology from their golf buddies and ram it down
their technologists' throat? When their technologists point out
instabilities or missing functionalities, the boss tells the
technologists to "be positive".
The dot com crash of 2000-2001 was helped along by dangerous optimism.
New owner-technologists were so confident of their assent to the upper
class that they used venture capital to buy upper class trappings --
the Ferrarri, the office building with a swimming pool and tennis
court, the mansion. With that money no longer available as working
capital, they ran out of cash and couldn't finish their projects, or
couldn't market them when finished.
Look at any furniture store ad: "Pay nothing for two years!" What in the world
would give someone the impression that if they can't afford it now,
they'll be able to afford it in two years? Sure, two years from now you
might make twice the money, but you might also be living in a
Hooverville tent city in an economy with 40% unemployment. Only
dangerous optimism would motivate someone to buy now and pay nothing for
We can't really fault consumers though -- look at their federal
government. The US current debt on 6/3/2006 is about 8.3 trillion
dollars. Right now interest rates are low so our nation can still
handle it, but if interest rates go up much more, we're toast. But the
government is confident of the future -- they just borrow more.
Meanwhile, they seem to have forgotten that the way we conquered the
USSR was not militarily, but simply by forcing them to spend beyond
their means. Year after year deficits are dangerous optimism.
Optimism is generally good, but manic optimism can be extremely dangerous.
By Steve Litt
Now we get to the heart of the matter. Used correctly, optimism works. It makes perfect, rational sense.
Nobody's done a better job explaining how to use optimism than the
Reverend Robert H. Schuller, author of "Tough Times Never
Last, But Tough People Do". Reverend Schuller wrote that book to help
people devastated by the 10% unemployment of the 1982 recession.
Schuller's "Possibility Thinking" is to human performance and self
improvement what the Universal Troubleshooting Process is to
troubleshooting. Every chapter of parts II and III of this spectacular
book gives step by step processes by which you can gain optimism in
tough situations, and use that optimism to succeed.
It's impossible to
list all this book's methodologies in this article, but my favorite is
the chapter called "Count to Ten and Win". In it Schuller suggests that
if you need to get something done and don't know how, you write out ten
possibilities on a piece of paper, and start investigating. Chances are
one, with suitable adjustments, will pan out. When you think about it,
isn't this the self-improvement equivalent of the Universal
Troubleshooting Process's Troubleshooter's Mantra, "How can I narrow it
down just one more time?" Both move one from paralyzed despair to
action. Schuller is the master of rational optimism, and every
human in the English speaking world should read his book, "Tough Times
Never Last, but Tough People Do."
When you think about it, the Universal Troubleshooting Process is built
on a foundation of rational optimism. Implicit in all my teachings is
that if it's a reproducible problem in a well defined system, that
given an adequate Mental Model and test points, the right attitude, and
adherance to the UTP, you will solve it. It's just a matter of how quickly.
One could state the case for rational optimism using indirect proof,
where one starts by assuming the negative. Imagine thinking the problem
can't be solved. If that were your thought pattern, why in the world
would you even try? Until the inevitable defeat overtook you, why not
waste your time with video games, substance abuse, promiscuous sex,
gluttony, and television? I'm sure we all could agree that such time
wastes would guarantee the expected failure.
But look around. People succeed all around you. They do so by not
wasting time. They do so by taking action. Yes, it's true, sometimes
they break bones, go to bankruptcy court, go to prison, lose friends,
and even die, but many times they succeed. Look at your life. You've
had successes. Look back on them, savor them, and most important, ask
yourself how you did it. You know it was more than just luck. It was
action spurred by rejection of unnecessary pessimism. No excessive
video games, substance abuse, promiscuous sex, gluttony, and
television. Just belief, study, decision, action, adjustment, and more
of the same. If rational optimism didn't work, there would be no success,
but success in fact exists. Therefore rational optimism must work.
Just for fun, research how the following people succeeded, and the challenges they faced doing it:
In researching their rise, you might need to look deeper than
Wikipedia, but for each of these, there's an inspiring story. The other
thing to remember is these are just the famous people. Look at your
life, and you can name many personal acquaintences rising above
significant challenges to achieve success. Use them as role models and
justifications for optimism.
- Colonel Sanders
- Steve Jobs
- Bill Clinton
- Abe Lincoln
- Steven Spielberg
For instance, when I was 27 my buddy Dave said he was going to ride his
bicycle 235 miles from Chicago to Cedar Rapids Iowa. As a veteran of
several bike tours with many 100+ mile days under my belt, I was pretty
sure it was impossible for mere mortals like Dave and me to do over 200
in a day. I could have simply said "good luck, I think it's
impossible", but instead I took it as an opportunity, saying "I don't
think it can be done, but if you're going to do it, I'm going with
you." That's how I rode my first and only 200+ mile day.
I'm not even remotely pretentious enough to compare myself with
Reverend Schuller, but I'd like to add a rational optimism technique
straight out of the Universal Troubleshooting Process: Step 9: Take
Pride! Part of optimism is the simple act of recognizing and appreciating
turns out well. Beyond the appreciation, part of taking pride is an
evaluation -- where were you brilliant, and where can you be even more
effective next time. Such evaluation leads to continuous improvement in
your performance, and ultimately, success.
Then there's retrospective taking pride -- take pride in what you did a
long time ago. This is handy when the present is particularly bad, and
you've lost confidence in yourself and your abilities. Remember past
successes -- how you overcame challenges to achieve those successes.
How you felt when the going was tough. Sure, today's situation is
different, and you don't have the comfort of hindsight to tell you
everything will turn out OK, but you can review moments of competence,
and learn from them.
When taking pride retrospectively, it's important not to let it become
a naustalgic wallow -- "back then things were so wonderful, and now
everything's hopeless." Instead, gather hope in the fact that your
character has seen you through hard times before, and you can do it
Correct use of optimism can unlock your fabulous future.
Steve Litt teaches courses on troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.
Skepticism, Cynicism, Optimism and Pessimism
By Steve Litt
Skepticism is a good thing. Without skepticism, you'd have been fleeced
in every get-rich scheme that came along. Chain letters, pyramid
schemes, multilevel marketing of dubious products five times the price
of their competitors, real estate methods dependent on continuous
market escalation, and of course, the lottery. There's an old saying,
"don't look a gift horse in the mouth", but I bet the residents of
ancient Troy wished they'd done just that.
Skepticism involves looking below the surface, especially when
something sounds too good to be true. Those utterly without skepticism
are doomed to poverty.
Cynicism is chronic skepticism adopted as a life philosophy. It's
usually not productive. It causes low morale, inaction (why try -- I
can't change it anyway), and unhappiness. None of these things produces
success. Occasionally cynicism produces angry revolutionaries who
realize the hopelessness of "working within the system", and find a new
and better way. That's a good thing, but all too rare. In my opinion,
long before one gets to the point of cynicism, he or she should start
doing something about those things he or she doesn't like.
Optimism has already been discussed in this TPM issue. Optimism is a
tool. Like all other tools, those who use it well achieve impressive
success. Those who misuse it fail, sometimes catastrophically.
If you define cynicism as disbelief plus anger, then pessimism is
disbelief plus depression. No success can grow from pessimism's barren
soil. Without even the anger component that spurs a few on to
revolutionary accomplishment, pessimism strangles buds of young,
Bottom line -- be a skeptic and an optimist. Protect your jewels with
good, healthy skepticism, and derive energy and inspiration from
optimism. Fortify your optimism with patience, because true success
seldom comes with the first attempt.
Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed. You can email Steve here.
How to Be a Successful Optimist
By Steve Litt
George Bernard Shaw once said "Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?"
Mr. Shaw is already half way there, because he asked the right
question. He doesn't ask "why is my business a failure?" He asks "why can't
my business be a success?" The latter train of thought brings questions
like "what if I advertised differently?" "What if I found a way to make
the product cheaper?"
The first step is to recognize that success is possible. It won't be
easy. It might not be exactly the success you had in mind. It might
take a long time. But it's possible. People poorer than you, less
connected than you, less intelligent than you, less physically robust
than you, and even possessing less drive than you have succeeded.
Now that you've recognized that success is possible, take steps to make
it more probable. Ask yourself (and others) the various ways you can
achieve. When you meet an obstacle, as all strivers do, ask yourself
how you can go around it, bust through it, or work it to your advantage.
The road to success is seldom smooth. Have patience, look at setbacks
for what they are, setbacks, not Mount Everest. If you need to drop
back and regroup from time to time, do so, but keep the spark alive in
your mind. Success delayed is not success denied.
Consider the career of Ed Asner. Born in 1929, he kicked around in
radio announcing, off-Broadway plays, industrial short subjects, and
bit TV appearances. Not for a few years, but for over twenty. At age
forty he was still picking up small parts wherever he could, watching
younger actors like Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Clint
Eastwood pass him on the way to the top. Then, in 1970 at the age of
41, Asner was cast as Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore show, going on
to star as Lou Grant on that show and the Lou Grant show until 1982.
It's never too late. If Ed Asner's 41 seems young to you, read a
biography of Harland Sanders.
Most of all, keep in mind that optimism makes sense. It makes you work
harder, makes you question more, keeps your eye on the ball.
Optimism and Troubleshooting
By Steve Litt
Counting registry elements, a modern Windows PC has tens of thousands
of components. Add in applications, and it could easily reach a hundred
thousand. Network a thousand application loaded PCs, and it you could have
a hundred million components. Now here's a challenge for you -- troubleshoot
down to the bad component!
Modern troubleshooting requires optimism approaching blind faith, yet
it's done all the time. It's done with properly organized system
knowledge, a productive troubleshooting process, and an optimal
attitude. Troubleshooting is sometimes fast and sure, sometimes slow
and jerky, but it usually gets done. The rational person believes the
problem will be solved.
Troubleshooting Professional Needs Theme Ideas
By Steve Litt
This is the tenth year I've published Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, and I'm running out of theme ideas.
I've written about the
UTP, The Attitude, intermittence, bottleneck analysis, toolsmanship,
and generic problem solving. I've written short stories, dense and dry
treatises, and humor. I can't think of what else to write.
Which is why I need your help. Please email me with topics you'd like to see covered in future Troubleshooting Professional Magazine issues.
Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed. You can email Steve here.
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