Be Present

Be present
You could just do it, or create a situation that requires a lot of hand washing. It’s your call…
(image: s.h.u.t.t.e.r.b.u.g, license: CC BY 2.0)

When I was learning how to ride a motorcycle, I decided to take an introductory “safety and skills” class. I’d heard about how dangerous riding was, so it seemed like a good idea. Point of disclosure: taking the class didn’t prevent me from crashing my first motorcycle, leaving a big scar on my knee. You were right, Mom.

When you’re first learning how to ride a motorcycle, turning can be quite mysterious. First, there’s the concept of countersteering, which is very much counter-intuitive. That’s right, you push the handlebars in the opposite direction of the turn. On top of that mind-blowing detail, coordinating the turn with my head, arms, and legs proved to be quite a challenge for me. Feeling out of control, I’d move my head (and field of vision) all over the place, including long glances at the ground in front of me (so I could see where I was going to crash!). I was always veering off past the orange cones set up to mark the course boundary, or coming dangerously close to my fellow students. Seeing my struggles, one of the instructors pulled me aside and said “Forget everything we’ve taught you and just do one thing: look through the turn at where you want to go.”

I tried out his advice on the next turn and—SHAZAM! That one little tip cleaned everything up. The motorcycle magically went where it should; my body and head aligned while leaning the bike just the perfect amount to complete the turn. I did it a few more times and realized that, by simply looking in the right place, I didn’t really have to think about turning at all. What was so complicated before was now reduced to a single thing. Looking through to the end of the turn automatically coordinated all those other actions I was struggling with—and I didn’t even have to be consciously aware of them.

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for other “unifying actions:”: solitary things you can do that automatically bring with them a whole host of other benefits. A “buy one get one free” sale for your efforts, if you will. When it comes to troubleshooting, I can think of no better example of a “unifying action” than being present while you solve problems. If there’s something that will kill your troubleshooting abilities, it’s being in your head at those critical moments where you should be externally focused instead. That’s because the initial phases of troubleshooting are all about collecting information about the situation at hand.

You can start whacking away, trying random strategies, but you’ll be so much more effective if you accept what is freely given and then take the obvious next step. What is freely given? All those relevant facts that are staring you in the face if you were just in tune with the situation. The key details, which will help you select the correct strategy, are out there in the world around you, not floating around inside your head. The other virtues may come into play later on, but being present reigns supreme at the beginning of any troubleshooting exercise. There’s just too much you can miss by mentally being elsewhere. Let me give you some examples of how being present brings with it a whole host of other benefits, for free. Consider:

  • Troubleshooting environments are often dangerous, with exposed electrical circuits, ladders, power tools, heavy machinery, parts strewn across the floor, sharp edges of broken components, etc. In these kinds of places, you must be externally focused and aware in order to be safe.
  • Listening to other people describe their problems requires your attention: important details might need to be teased out with smart follow-up questions. On the opposite end, your critical filter must also be engaged to prevent being led down a rabbit hole. Both of these considerations require paying close attention to what you are receiving from the people around you.
  • The environment will give you clues as to what is wrong: funny noises, odd smells, error messages, indicator lights, the state of nearby machines, etc. Tuning into this contextual information will often make the difference between a timely repair and a painful slog.

I could go on and on, but instead I’ll simply say that every strategy in The Art Of Troubleshooting will benefit from the virtue of being present. Conversely, everything you do will be that much harder if you’re off on another planet.

Later on, there will be an appropriate time to go inside your head and build castles in the sky. Save that for when you’re interpreting the information you’ve collected and during the final phase (“Cleaning Up”), where you learn from a breakdown. Those processes benefit from being inwardly focused and decoupling from the outside world—your ability to concentrate and think will be improved from the isolation.

But, when I’m actually troubleshooting, I’m with you. I’m right here.

*** Questions? Comments? Have a related troubleshooting story that you’d like to share? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section below! ***

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