Two of the most important people of my life have recently died. My grandfather, who was like a second father to me, died in 2019. My father died recently, at the end of 2021. After both their deaths, there were the respective festivities that christianity prescribes. And I felt they both were lacking an honest look on the lives of the deceased. This forced me to reflect on how I as an humanist and atheist reflect on someone’s life.
I’m going to outline the general principles here, that can be applied to reflecting on anyone’s life. I’m also going to bring them into the context of my fathers life – a life well lived.
Impact on Themselves
First, let’s examine the person’s relationship with themselves. How did they treat themselves? What were their personal goals? What did they sacrifice to achieve their goals? What can we learn from all that?
My father lived 150%, one might say he was burning the candle at both ends. But that also means he lived fully, in the moment, not in the future, which is a virtue I still strive to mirror. I feel he had achieved all his personal goals and was at peace with himself when he died – even though he was only 61 years old. He derived too much pleasure from buying things – which led me to try to suffocate that same impulse in myself.
Impact on Individuals
Now their relationship with us and other individuals. While reflecting, this maybe the most important perspective to us personally, because it also includes the impact this person had on us. What did we learn from them? What did they want for us? How did they shape our relationship?
My father showed me – by example – the boundless joys to be had listening to and making music. He also taught me how to make up my own mind and come to decisions quickly, not idle for too long. I think my father wanted me to become an independent and confident person, and only when necessary, pushed me in a direction to help me get there. He also showed me that it’s possible to be a family person that supports their kids, a passionate doctor who found his calling in helping people and still retain a strong personal identity.
Impact on Their Communities
Time to zoom out one step and look at more than individuals. What direct and indirect impact did the person exhibit on their communities (be they local or digital)? What communities did they inhabit and how did they change them? Did their actions inspire examples? How did they treat strangers whom they might never meet again?
My father was a bit of a recluse regarding the immediate local community of his village. But when it mattered, when the four neighboring houses were filled with refugees (from Syria, mostly), he not only donated heaps of money to help, he also took it upon himself to personally be there for them, finding old bikes and making them road ready for the refugees, giving them the gift of a much higher freedom of movement – amongst many other helpful activities. That phase of his life made me insanely proud of him. As the seven-year president of the local sailing club, he tried to foster an environment of positive competitiveness and skill growth.
Impact on Society
Another zoom-out. Let’s look at the rest of humanity – society as a whole, and the person’s impact on it. What role did they play to move society into the future? Which cog in which machine did they represent? How did their utopia look like?
My father was a doctor by calling. He played that part very well, always stayed reasonable and science-based and thus also moved his profession by practice into a more science-based future. He spent most of his considerable income on music and art, and became somewhat of a local art beneficiary for at least 10 years – and through that small role, helped society move into a more beautiful future.
Impact on the Environment
And lastly, let’s not look at the impact on humans any more, but the impact on everything else. How did they contribute to a more sustainable way of life? What did they do for the environment? Have they changed their impact on the environment over time? In which areas were they exemplary?
Politically, my father supported the progressive instead of the backward-looking, the reasonable over the fearful. Other than that, there is not too much to say about my father on this topic.
No person can shine from all perspectives. I imagine everyone’s lifes as a branch with five leaves. But differently from nature, a persons branch has five differently sized & shaped leaves. Some people exerted their impact mostly on individuals. Some forewent individual relationships to pursue higher goals for society or the environment. Which means that maybe one of their leaves looks quite wilted, because the person spent no time to nurture it.
I’m convinced that any reflection of a person’s life should forego the wilted leaves and rather not mention much instead of delving in a person’s shortcomings – with the exception of shortcomings that one can draw a useful lesson from.
Maybe the content of a person’s clover leaf also helps us understand a person better in retrospect. It definitely helped me to understand my father better.
The discussion about how to deal with climate change consists of two rough perspectives: one of sacrifice (we need to reduce travel, purchase less, …) or one of techno-utopianism (creating ways to keep doing what we do, without negative impact). While the techno-utopian extreme might seem desirable, the extreme position of sacrifice would be suicide, which isn’t quite so desirable. As always, the solution we truly find is probably one in between: some regulation to avoid stupid waste of energy, but also create a lot of new opportunities.
What I often miss in the discussion, though, is this: What are we doing this for? What’s the point? I don’t like the goal of saving the planet. I don’t care much about the planet – what good would earth be, if no human lived on it? Without anyone to conciously experience the beauty of life on earth, the planet’s not worth much in my view. The ultimate goal, why we fight climate change, should be to preserve experience in all of its beauty. Here are a few examples of that beauty:
- Risking one’s life just for fun, doing extreme activities.
- Driving a Porsche 356 through Antarctica.
- Try to learn everything there is to know about everything in the universe.
- Dedicating one’s life to learn a weird, complicated musical instrument.
- Building a miniaturized brick castle from millions of parts, spending many years doing so.
- Meditating on the side of a mountain for 20 years.
- Spending one’s life travelling the planet, meeting a plethora of cultures.
- Organizing huge events where millions of people meet & share experiences.
- Paddling a canoe across the Antlantic Ocean.
These quirky and weird experiences often don’t seem to have a point, as it’s visualised beautifully in The Culture Series, where other (alien) races miss the point of The Culture (= humanity). Not having a point is – in my view – exactly the point of it all: realizing the full range of (human) experience.
One thing I don’t like to complain about is screen time. I believe others complain about too much screen time, because of what they associate with the screen. Maybe it’s work they don’t like. Maybe it’s some software that frustrates them. Maybe it’s because they consistenly think faster than their computer. Especially in COVID-times, it’s kind of understandable that people are fatigued by their “screen”.
I like to think one step further, though. Computers aren’t just what we associate with them right now. Computers can do almost anything and therefore, screens can be your window to everywhere and everything. Today, using only my various computers and screens, I did all of these things:
- Watch a man-made rover land on Mars.
- Learn about the history of a coat of arms.
- Get to know nine new people from four different countries.
- Play a (wooden/paper) boardgame via webcam.
- Did a workshop creating a new process of collaboration for a project team.
- Interviewed two job applicants.
- Become a wizard and cast fireballs and mind control spells.
- Learned how to cook my dinner, with step-by-step video instructions.
- Travel to another universe.
Given sufficient curiosity, it’s hard to see how a screen can be something bad. But I get it. If you don’t know now to use it, you might end up refreshing your social media feed all the time. Don’t be that person. Be that other person, that owns a window to everything, and knows how to navigate that infinite cosmos of knowledge.
It does feel a bit weird to have a family motto – after all, that’s something that was common hundreds of years ago. But not unlike a common vision for a company, a family motto can strenghten the connections between its members.
Our family motto is “Im Kerne sind wir Sterne”, which translates to “We’re stars at our core”. My wife and me chose this motto, because it works on so many layers for us. First, it connects us to ourselves and to the cosmos. It helps us have the right perspective on things. Second, it makes us reflect who and what we are at the core, and what we care about. Third, it shows a scientific curiosity about everything. If we ponder about what we are made of, we’ll have many interesting questions that arise from that, and this deep sense of curiosity is something we wish to not only remember every day, but also foster in our children. Fourth, it’s a nice combination of deep wonder at the cosmos, but without any supernatural connections, building on a humanistic foundation instead. Fifth, that motto highlights the potential in each one of us to achieve great things, to become a star – not in the sense of popularity, but in the sense of providing enlightenment to others.
I’m very happy with that motto. It’s simple, but it also allows a lot of room for interpretation and deeper questions. I even hope it got you thinking!
The most obvious way for me to evaluate my skills is to compare myself with others. The most obvious way to figure out where my company stands is to compare it with our competitors. And of course, the most obvious way to do these comparisons is also the least beneficial way, if growth is my goal.
Every person and every company is so different, regarding our specific experiences & skills, that comparisons are always unfair, and it’s hard to draw actionable conclusions. Also, if I compare myself to others all the time, I will always walk right behind them.
If I want to lead and achieve sustainable growth, I need to compare my current self to my past self. That way, I can make sure that I continuously grow my character & skills, no matter what. That’s also the only way to outgrow, for example, my company’s competition.
It’s probably uncontroversial to say that busywork is detestable. By busywork, I mean work that keeps me busy, but won’t move things forward. A few examples: sitting in a meeting without contributing, obviously superflous; starting something without learning from or finishing it; producing something that is never needed.
As a recent second-time father, I have to up my productivity game — again. One of the keys for me is to weed out busywork, so that only productive work remains. Doing that, I realized that I’m probably not the only one at interfacewerk who’s sometimes busy with busywork. Since I’m deciding about a decent amount of my teams work, I’m now trying to come up with some guidelines to find which activities are busywork and which aren’t. Here’s what I came up with:
It’s unclear, what goals is being furthered by the activity. If that’s the case, the activity should be examined and it should be clarified what goal this activity is moving us towards. Hint: “to keep things running“ is insufficient, there has to be a higher goal.
The activity has skipped one or two necessary steps. If there is research needed to figure out if the activity is worthwhile, do the research first. This pattern is common in software development, and I call it “premature implementation” there.
The activity takes more investment that it’s worth. A common pattern in administrative or strategic work, where the investment isn’t easy to keep track of. Basically, each hour spent has a cost (and additionally, an opportunity cost), and this investment has to produce an outcome that’s higher in value (in the long term).
The activity involves more people than necessary. Oversized meetings are commonplace, but I’d also say that many software development teams are too big for their own good. Small meetings are quicker, cheaper and more efficient. Smaller teams are nimbler, can come to quicker decisions and faster releases.
As a final note: I vowed to never reply “busy“ when somebody asks me how I am, because “busy” is not a state of mind that I should be in — “focused” is prefarable.
With remote work becoming more and more prevalent, many bad practices — especially regarding meetings — of office culture now invade our remote work cultures as well. This is an outline for a better way of working together.
- Working towards a shared vision over strictly following plans & deadlines
- Flexible work time over fixed office hours
- Continuous sharing of work progress over rare, big presentations
- Thoughtful, text-based discussions over meetings that favour the loudest
- Distributed ideation over requiring spontaneous epiphanies
- Deep & meaningful socialising over superflous small-talk in meetings
Let’s elaborate these principles a bit.
A Shared Vision
Problem: Nobody is ever going to die because an arbitrary deadline — thought up by their manager — wasn’t met. Rigid project plans and deadlines require synchronous, factory-style collaboration and suppress creativity.
Solution: Create a shared vision that’s visible to everyone, show each team member a path how they can contribute to that vision, then trust each team member to make or facilitate the right decisions. This allows for out-of-the-box thinking, the freedom to find the best way of doing something, not just a way to meet the deadline. Timeboxes can help a team to achieve more focus, otherwise it might get distracted too much.
Flexible Work Time
Problem: Fixed office hours — in schedule (9 to 5) as well as amount per week (40) — stifle creativity and zombify knowledge workers, because the best time for creativity varies highly between people and the amount of productive time varies highly by task.
Solution: Attract the brightest and most creative people to your company by offering flexibility in both dimensions (scheduling of work as well as amount per week).
Sharing Work Progress
Problem: If you’re calling a meeting to get a status update, your ticket system is shit and you don’t trust your team(-mates).
Solution: Develop trust in your team, nurture your ticket system (also by setting it up so each type of status is clearly visible), and you’ll always know the current status of everything. Short recordings (audio, video, screen) help a lot, also for documentation’s sake.
Caveats: Your team will need to learn how to nurture the ticket system and always keep it up to date. They also need to learn to share everything, especially their challenges, which doesn’t come natural to most. But once they do learn these, you’re golden!
Problem: Synchronous discussions in meetings always suffer from a lack of preparation and documentation, therefore the same discussions will be held repeatedly, if not by the same people, then by different people in the same organisation. Synchronous meetings almost always go overtime, which leads to rushed and therefore bad decisions. If that wasn’t enough, synchronous meetings also discriminate against quieter, more introverted people and against parents who can’t always join because of other duties.
Solution: Asynchronous, text-based discussions using the right tools (not a chat system) lead to better results (even though it might take longer), because participants have time to think, introverted participants will also be heard and it will improve your team’s writing skills, which will also improve their thinking skills. If most of your organisation’s decisions are made in synchronous meetings, there is a lot of potential for using asynchronous, digital tools to facilitate deeper discussions — and therefore better decisions. Again, timeboxes for discussions help to make sure you’ll reach a conclusion.
Caveat: In some cases, a well-prepared, well-moderated fate-to-face debate or workshop using good methods can also have productive results.
Problem: Ideation and gathering of requirements is usually done as a meeting in the form of “lets get everyone involved in a room so we don’t forget anything”. But what if they don’t think of the right requirement in the moment of the meeting, since they came unprepared or are unfocused because something else is on their mind at that time? What if the scribe (did you even appoint one?) forgot to write down something important?
Solution: Asynchronous methods are much better for divergent collection of ideas/requirements, in fact, well-organized in person meetings usually use asynchronous techniques like brainwriting. Selection and/or rating of ideas should be done in the preferential voting style where possible, using a way for participants not to influence each other. Using a proper digital tool, this is much easier than in a meeting.
Problem: Socialising is woven into meetings, to the extent that many meetings end up as primarily socialising without much usable outcome.
Solution: Asynchronous chats and text-based discussions are good for socialising, too. There’s almost no better way to really get to know someone than reading a five-paragraph discussion contribution where they’re putting their heart into their arguments.
Caveat: Since we humans are social animals, socialising is a valid reason — maybe the only valid reason — for synchronous, face-to-face meetings. Let’s admit that and dedicate specific times to it. That can be in the form of separate meetings, or in the form of check-ins or check-outs surrounding a meeting.
See also: asynchronousmanifesto.org
I’m a fan of coming up with guidelines to simplify my choices. Those can be rules, like “never lie” or heuristics like “try to own fewer things”. With this kind of simplification in mind, some people go on a rampage and institute rules for themselves (or their kids) that are more like “never eat sugar/gluten/…” or “never buy anything that’s wrapped in plastic”. In their attempt to make life easier, these people have the exact opposite effect. By oversimplifying their life, they make life much harder for themselves and almost everyone around them.
On a political level, many lovers of sustainability consider all types of non-renewable energy bad. This is a simple position to hold, but also one that cannibalizes it’s own goals. In order to simultaneously reach our climate goals and fulfil the energy needs we actually have, generation IV nuclear reactors are by far our best bet, in addition to renewable sources. They can also deal with the nuclear waste from previous generations, solving two problems at once. Opposing nuclear in favor of renewables is an oversimplified position, these days.
So whenever we try to simplify our choices, it’s our due diligence to check if these simplifications have the intended effect. Otherwise, we might move the needle in the wrong direction — for whatever goal we choose to measure.
It’s probably fair to call our nationalism an achievement. Yes, you read me right: at least we’re now caring about more than our immediate kin and neighbors, so our tribe is vastly bigger than it was a few short millennia ago. But of course, a nation-sized tribe is not nearly big enough. Europe is beginning to increase its tribe’s size to supranational, but still smaller than global. So the next goal is the global tribe. Maybe let’s not stop there—and skip the easy steps of Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, and Laniakea Supercluster. Those would all make decent tribes, given that there are additional sentient lifeforms in any of them, and we should probably strive to be part of the respective tribes.
Still, those tribes share the problems of smaller tribes: they arbitrarily separate lifeforms into groups based on chance alone, because the town a person was born in happened to be in a specific country, or the home of a lifeform happened to be in a specific supercluster.
If we want a heroic struggle, and a distinction between insider and outsider, let it be the tribe life against tribe non-life. I’m cheering for life any day. I’d like us to keep experiencing, and that should be our primary concern because everything else follows naturally. I think life is my tribe. It’s the biggest tribe I can think of. If there would be no life, the universe would be an utterly uninteresting place.
There’s one key point that the organic movement has deceived us about: it’s a consumerist lifestyle movement, not a sustainablity movement. Yes, I’m serious.
As my first example, let’s talk about organic cotton, the pride of all organic clothing labels. Cotton is already bad enough for the environment, because it uses far more resources than linen or lyocell. Organic cotton is possibly even worse, though. The use of inferiour fertilizers and non-GMO crops leads to more the water and more land use for the same amount of cotton. Somehow, the organic movement is convinced that it’s fine to keep using wasteful crops, as long as we can label it as organic, so we can feel fine about it. It seems that not changing their own shopping habits is at the core of that movement.
Secondly, avocados, which are marketed as an organic, healthy and sustainable superfood. Like all superfoods, the claims are hugely exagerrated. Avocados are, pound for pound, probably worse for the environment than beef. And beef is already a environmental train-wreck. I love avocados, which is proof of my hipsterism, I guess. But even I have to admit the downsides, which are huge. As an example, avocados spend four weeks in a precisely cooled container just to get them where I want to eat them. And that’s merely a small part of the whole chain of production. A movement focused on real sustainability would value locally grown and seasonal food much higher than superfoods. But that would mean actual restraints that its followers would need to live with.
Electric cars also prove my point, I think. Thanks to persistent marketing, people who care about the environment seriously think about switching their petrol or diesel car for an electric one. Which would mean buying a large, complex product with tons of CO2 emitted for its production. Instead, it would be best to not buy any new car for as long as possible. Constant consumption is the problem, not diesel engines! Buying less would be a real solution. But what organic or sustainable company wants us to not buy their product? Sometimes, sustainable products are an alternative to other products. But generally, not buying anything at all is vastly better.
The organic mindset is one that’s bereft of facts. For the organic movement, pretending to be sustainable is enough, they don’t need to actually check if their ideas really work. Some of them even believe that burying ground quartz stuffed into the horn of a cow will take the place of using real fertilizers. Organic is all about style and not about substance. Conversely, science-based agriculture (including GMOs) is the best we have. Simply because scientists actually check which action or regulation has the intended effect. It’s the only way to make sure we truly reduce our environmental impact.