The Praxis Patch

Picture of vegetables

I didn’t bother planting my vegetable patch in Spring. Between the run up to becoming an empty nester and the theater of work, it never seemed to be worth the effort. Summer came and went with a linear life grating against the cycle of the seasons. Despite my disinterest in it, the patch grew. It became an ugly thatch of weeds. With the first weekend of staring at each other in the absence of children, cleaning up the thatch became a worthy reason to detach myself from the Internet.

As I pulled back the weeds, the unintended consequence of neglect revealed itself. The vegetable patch had taken it upon itself to make its best attempt to be something more than an eyesore. I spent the first hour discovering robust cucumbers and a myriad of tiny red gems in the form of cherry tomatoes pictured above. Despite the decay of diligence in my meager farming skills, my patch had inadvertently still produced something.

Then the inevitable questions. What if I had tried? What if I made made the effort to break out a portion of my day to attend to the patch? Had my focus on creating the perfect patch in prior years sapped the joy of having what the patch could offer? Had the desire to be recognized as a master craftsman of cucumbers detracted from the simple play of puzzling through planting and plucking? Most importantly, if I know I had lacked some form of discipline then what might a new discipline be?

It occurs to me that the same could be said of my own mind. That patch of thought buried in my skull has suffered equally from neglect. The gardens of Google and teaming terracotta tubs of Twitter have revealed a potpourri of ideas that have been growing for years if not decades.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese proverb

With the realization that I have let the time to plant a magnificent tree of knowledge pass, the same questions that vex my vegetables come to mind. Rather than dwell on the despair of the past, I can bring them into decisions of the present.

What happens when I break out a portion of my day to attend to ideas?

I rediscover the joy reading and quiet contemplation. More importantly I have discovered that exploring other folks’ ideas has allowed me to find ways to pull out the weeds of my own cognitive biases. Reading the latest Agile article of X ways to be more or do more Y has been the stock way for me to stay up to date with the market. It has become clear to me that it is nothing more pulling the leaves off weeds. Superficial ideas are not killed off. All it does is allow the light of day to hit other smaller weeds and let them grow. To bear the fruit of thinking differently I must pull the weeds from their root. I must plant something of substance in its place that will eventually form an interlocking canopy of ideas, shading out the weeds. Thanks to all the folks, too numerous to mention, past and present, that are courageous enough to put their ideas on show that I may peruse and purchase their synaptic seeds.

Should I curate the perfect idea?

No. There either isn’t one or I have not uncovered it yet. Best to work with ideas I have rediscovered. Much like the choice of vegetables should align with the season and climate, context rules which ideas and practices might be useful. Were I to move and expect the same succulent success, I’d likely see my garden wither. I have come to understand it is better to know how to think more like a farmer than to be the best farmer. Mindset over Mechanism.

I have also come to realize that while I initially think my ideas are original, it is only because I have not discovered who originally had them. It has switched my perspective from some sad attempt to be the next legend to rediscovering legends lost. Having lost much faith in the Shamen of Software Methodologies, I have found more interesting ingredients from history, anthropology and play. In connecting to lost ideas I feel an odd sense of connection to their originators, dealing with similar challenges of finding purpose in contexts lost in time.

Should I focus on Recognition or Play?

It might be fun someday to navigate the clutter of conferences surrounding software development to one day bring to forth the harvest of my Agile allotment. However I might focus solely on pulling out carrots of comprehension to wave around rather than weeds. They look the same to a distant audience. For now I’ll stick with implanting ideas to be able to appreciate how they grow or wither within different contexts.

What should a daily discipline look like?

Aristotle posited that there were three disciplines:

  • Theoria – contemplation of abstract ideas with end goal being a truth.
  • Poiesis – production with the end goal being the delivery of something.
  • Praxis – the practical sciences of ethical and political life with a purpose towards practical wisdom, knowledge and action.

Poiesis (production) starts with a plan and outcome. The apprentice knows what the master expects to see. With praxis there is a general sense of what is the right direction but there can be no determination of what is the right approach. Much of my work is with complex software systems being worked on by complex human systems. Systems thinking considers problems in terms of how the interactions of the parts, and the parts with the whole and its environment, create the properties of the whole. Praxis then, rather than pontification, production or practice, better captures the mode of my work.

Aristotle also clarified praxis as “activity engaged in by free men”. As I look to integrate a greater sense of play at work I see how praxis aligns with at least one of the properties play identified by Huizinga: “Play is free, is in fact freedom”. I am lucky to work on projects that provide a freedom to experiment. It is in working to towards a better way of working that I find playfulness in praxis that in turn gives context to theory and delivery.

Who knows whether I will plant a vegetable garden next Spring. Something will grow there with my effort or despite it. My real choice is to what degree I will choose to be a part of the growth that occurs. I may have lost the chance to win first prize at the county fair. That’s fine with me. It’s just as fun to play in a praxis patch. Get your gardening gloves on. There’s room for all.

References

Robert J.Allio Russell L. Ackoff, iconoclastic management authority, advocates a “systemic” approach to innovation (pdf)

Smith, M. K. (1999, 2011). ‘What is praxis?’ in the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-praxis.htm. Retrieved: 9/7/2014]

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About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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