I’ve been thinking a lot about mindset recently. In particular, trying to figure out what character attributes are helpful for someone in a technical role. So let me start by asking you, personally – which of the following attributes would you use to describe yourself? What about your team mates?
I’m thinking about this partly because I read an article by David C Baker where he wrote that “Cynicism is absolutely incompatible with curiosity”.
I like the sound of that. Let’s all focus on the positive emotions!
And yet… these past few weeks I’ve been preaching an entirely different message in one of our client engagements. I’ve been saying “A technical leader needs to be rigorously skeptical” about everything.
So who’s right?
- David C Baker says we can’t be cynical. We need instead to be curious and hopeful.
- Andrew says we can’t trust too much. We need instead to be rigorously skeptical of everything we hear.
Is it possible that we’re both right?
Let’s dig into these 4 attributes, and figure out the kind of character we should be aiming for (in ourselves, when we’re coaching others, and when we’re hiring).
A cynical person is characterized by two things – a general mistrust of other people’s motives (assuming everyone is always out for themselves), and a jaded negativity about life (assuming that things are likely to go badly).
A cynical attitude is usually a defensive mechanism – it’s hard to be disappointed if you assume that everyone and everything is bad. It’s understandable why someone would adopt that mindset, but it’s clear that it’s not helpful for team culture and you’re clearly not going to be motivated to solve problems or create new products if you don’t believe you’ll be successful.
I don’t think you can be a good technical problem solver without curiosity. The whole act of solving problems is that you start with a puzzle, and you’re curious to understand what’s going on, to perform tests, to review diagnostics and to solve the problem. Curiosity is vital in a technician!
A hopeful person has a sense of optimism about the future. A naïve person assumes that things will go well, and that’s clearly unwise, but you can be hopeful without being naïve. Hope gives you a reason to keep working on a project, a motivation to succeed because you’re excited about what’s possible.
And now we get to the tough part. I argued that skepticism was important, but isn’t that the same as cynicism? Is skepticism incompatible with curiosity and hope?
Of course, I’d argue not. For me, skepticism is about a desire for proof. I am skeptical that this problem is solved until I’ve seen the evidence. This is really important in a technician. It’s not enough to have a theory that you’ve solved a problem (“I changed this setting and everything should be good now!”). A good technician should be asking for proof that the problem is solved. And more than that – a good technician should be asking, “what have we missed?”, “what else could go wrong?”.
But I don’t think this is the same as cynicism. Skepticism helps to protect us against naivety, or laziness disguised as hope (“I hope this is fixed, because I’m too busy to keep investigating”), but it’s also positive. I am curious about what happened, curious about what else could go wrong, and hopeful that we can solve all the problems.
So that’s my challenge for you:
Don’t by cynical, but instead be skeptical, curious and hopeful.
And if you’re in a leadership role, seek to hire others (and coach your team) to be the same.