I woke up so early one morning that I surprised a mouse making her rounds of my bathroom.
She surprised me, too, so I decided against further roaming in the dark house. I fetched Beverly, the calico cat, to protect me, then barricaded both of us in Dani's office, along with a stack of articles I'd been meaning to read.
One set of articles particularly interested me, as well they should. They were a set of views on "how computers affect our lives" - a topic I could hardly fail to find important. Perhaps I would learn how to program my Mac to trap mice, which would certainly affect my life!
Although I was doubly wide awake, I couldn't seem to finish the first article. Even though the essay was one page long, my mind kept drifting away. One sentence, three paragraphs deep in the article, kept losing me halfway through its 47 words. I consoled myself by stroking Beverly, but it didn't help.
Putting Bev back on the floor where she could do a better guard job, I decided to skip the first article and proceed to the second. Both proved wise moves. The mouse appeared from under the closet door, and the second article was almost as exciting as the ensuing cat-and-mouse interaction. (Beverly can't catch mice, but mice don't know that.)
I returned to the first article. No luck. Worse, in fact, than the original attempt, for the second article had set a high standard that the first couldn't possibly match. I pondered what I would have to do to reach the end of this article, and when I glanced there, my eye fell upon the author's name. Let's call him Dr. X.
As it turned out, I knew Dr. X well - to my dismay. I've attempted to read perhaps a dozen Dr. X articles, but I've never managed to finish even one. I once was so frustrated that I measured the Fog Index of a Dr. X article. A Fog Index of 12 is considered the maximum one ought to reach in technical writing. (This essay has a Fog Index of about 10.) Dr. X's Fog Index was 41!
Dr. X's writing reminds me of a third-year sociology graduate student trying to impress professors with superior erudition and obscurity. Too bad, I thought, that I hadn't tried to read Dr. X the previous evening. The soporific effect would have exceeded a glass of warm milk and two sleeping pills, and I wouldn't have risen early enough to see the dreaded mouse.
So what's the point of this story? Curiously, in spite of the deadening effect of his writing, I don't consider Dr. X a failed writer. His writing is so bad I can't really get involved in his subject matter. Consequently, I never associate his abominable writing with his content. Even though I've tried to read a dozen of his works, I've never lost my taste for his subjects.
In contrast, consider Mr. Y, an author who writes on another of my favorite subjects - systems theory. Mr. Y has a typical Fog Index of 18, considerably lower than Dr. X's and well within my tolerance for a subject that truly fascinates me. But there's a different quality to Mr. Y's writing - a quality that's not captured by the simple Fog Index. It's that quality that makes Mr. Y a failure.
What is that quality? Whenever I read his work, I acquire a bad taste about his subject. Whereas Dr. X leaves me unmoved, Mr. Y moves me against further learning. To me, that is the ultimate sin of any writer or teacher.
When I write a book or essay, or teach a course, I have one fundamental measure of failure, which I call Weinberg's Target:
After exposure to my work, does the audience care less about the subject than they did before?
If the answer is Yes, I've failed.
If the answer is No, I've succeeded, and I'm happy for it. Perhaps you consider my goal too modest. Perhaps you aspire to something greater, like making the student learn something, or even love the subject. Oh, I'm not dismayed by such fine outcomes, but I don't think it's a reasonable goal to expect them.
If you think my goal is too modest, reflect back on your own educational experiences - the books you've read, the courses you've taken, the films you've watched. How many have actually met Weinberg's Target? I rarely meet a person who's willing to claim more than one in ten for courses, or one in five for textbooks, or one in twenty for "educational" films.
So Weinberg's Target isn't so modest after all, but there's a more important reason for adopting it as your personal goal. Nobody really understands learning - not well enough to succeed with every student, or even seventy-five per cent of them. Learning, it seems, is a matter of repeated attempts, until one finds a teacher, a book, a film, an approach, a flash, or something that finally gets the point across. I want never to discourage a student's continuing search for enlightenment.
There's a moral here that stretches beyond teaching and learning, a moral that contractors often miss. A long time ago, Robert Burns also surprised a mouse - by turning up her nest with his plough. He told her those words we all know (and can read even though they're Scottish, not English):
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain,
The best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley,
And lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy!
Burns knew nothing of computers, but he was a systems thinker, and he knew that mice and men wouldn't change much in 200 years. My best laid schemes still "gang aft agley," and contracts I take with promised joy sometimes leave me nought but grief and pain. When departing such disappointing situations, I'm often tempted to leave a bit of grief and pain for those who remain. Then I remember that morning with X and Y and the mouse, and Weinberg's Target emerges to restrain my worst scheming.
At such distressful times, I easily forget that I'm not just one individual, but part of a profession, one of thousands of consultants. It's a profession that has its share of Ys whose behavior spoils the profession for others. Even if I've done a lousy job, an X job, I want my clients to realize that if they have a bad taste, it's just me, and just in this situation. I don't want to reflect poorly on my colleagues, and I don't want to spoil them for some future consulting.
So, this is Weinberg's Target applied to consulting:
After I leave,
is the client less likely to hire a consultant than they were before?
I believe this is the minimum we owe our profession.
What Do You Take for Granted?
3 days ago