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Better To Ask Forgiveness Than Permission and The Larry Wall Experience

Maybe don't be 1001% awesome

Larry Wall is a wonderful human who I had the privilege of meeting.

He came to our college for a summer tech conference and was the keynote speaker.  When we broke out into small groups he was in mine and we chatted a bit.  He was the first internet famous person I had ever met - kind and unassuming, and also the creator of something highly successful.

Larry Wall is the creator of the Perl programming language, one of the original languages that built the web and the Swiss Army knife of scrappy programmers and sysadmins everywhere.  It was a direct influence on many more recent programming languages, including Python and Ruby to name a few.

From what I could see of Larry, both in person and in his creative and lighthearted writings, he's the kind of person who doesn't take life too seriously.  Some examples:

The landing page for his family, tongue-in-cheek'ly "The Wall Nuthouse."

His own homepage, which was where I first learned the word "chartreuse", and I'm still not fully sure what color that refers to.  You can find some of his writings under the "My Ravings" section.

Larry is famous for The Three Virtues of programming:

  1. Laziness: The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful and document what you wrote so you don't have to answer so many questions about it.
  2. Impatience: The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to.
  3. Hubris: The quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about.

But the reason I was thinking about Larry Wall today was that he was the first person I heard the saying "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission."  I just found out today that apparently Grace Hopper first said it, but she's also cool and that could make another letter.

The context Larry used this saying was in making decisions where you aren't fully sure you have everything figured out.  He made some decisions with Perl in which he didn't fully know the outcome, but as these things often tend to do, they worked out.  And instead of waiting until he was 100% sure, he just made a well reasoned decision and dealt with the results.

This can be a helpful strategy in the face of procrastination.  Sometimes the times when I've most procrastinated are when I'm worried about how others will think of me, how what I'm doing could go wrong, or fear that I won't get it right the first time.  Often this can lead me to analysis paralysis, where I'll ponder so much over a decision that I'll just not make it.

Asking forgiveness rather than permission means not waiting until you have 100% certainty about a decision before making it.  This could be in the decision to release a work of art, to start a business, or to offer a new service.

The best of all possible pots

There's an old psychology experiment where an art class is given a semester-long assignment to make clay pots.  Half of the class is told that they are to make 100 pots and their grade is based solely on how many pots they make.  The other half is told that they have all semester to make one final pot to turn in and the quality of that pot determines their final grade.

Apparently the students who made 100 pots ended up creating much higher quality pots by the end of the semester than the students making a single pot, since most of them spent the time trying to be perfect the first time.  The students with lots of low pressure practice got better by making the best pot they could at the time which led to real learning and improvement in the craft.

Note: I'm not saying to do things at a low quality.

Shoddy work is a whole other issue, but many of the creative types or knowledge workers that I know go into the opposite extreme - if my work isn't perfect, and I'm not 100% sure that my course of action is correct, I shouldn't release it.

But this is living with the assumption that life is like grade school, where every act is graded on a scale that puts 70% quality at a C (average) level and the expectation for actual quality work is 90% or higher A work.  Every non-A performance, even throughout the process of the school year, goes on your permanent record and is a moral failing on your part.

The real world, and especially the world of business, is so completely the opposite of this that it isn't even funny.  This is why my business coach Kai Davis is fond of telling me to shoot for a 70% certainty level before making a decision.  70% quality of decisions isn't "average low quality" like in school.  It's a smart way to go about doing things in an environment where you can't know the 100% A++ best possible solution to something until you try.

You still need 70% knowledge to make a good decision.  Blindly making uninformed decisions with a 20% knowledge level is reckless, and asking for permission isn't going to be looked upon kindly.  But if you are waiting until you have a 97% confidence level in your decisions, consider toning that down to an 80% level of knowledge and seeing if things works out.

Just barely better than incompetent?

I recently was at Microconf, the conference for self-funded tech businesses (one of the coolest conferences I know of by the way).  Patrick McKenzie, one of the founding popularizers of bootstrapped software as a service webapp businesses, was giving his yearly highly inspirational and also highly actionable talk.

He moved his hand to about waist height and said (my paraphrase), "This is the level of average competence across the business world."

Then he moved his hand sliiiiiiightly lower and said, "This is the level of 'just competent enough to not get sued.'"

"This is what all of you are competing against."

"And yet," he said, "you are all operating as if you have to be waaaaaay up here" as he moves his hand as high as it will go.

Go forth competent independent business owner, and be awesome!  But maybe don't worry quite so much about being 1001% awesome.  85% awesome is still incredibly awesome, and just a bit more livable too.  You might find yourself getting A++, would work with again-type reviews anyway because business is not a zero sum game.

I send everything I make first as a letter to my mailing list. New letters go out each week!

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