I was recently gifted On Mental Toughness, a collection of ten Harvard Business Review articles reprinted as a paperback. The first article, “How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better” by Graham Jones, takes advice gathered from athletic achievement into business achievement. Let’s explore some of the ideas as they relate to building software.

This post is part of a series where I try to take generic business articles and view them through my lens as an individual contributor software engineer.

While the articles are usually focused on upper management roles, I believe there are many parallels with IC software engineers. Our profession is very intellectually demanding, there are always trade-offs in every choice we make, and our mistakes are likely to affect many people (customers or others in our organizations).

Mental barriers

The article begins using the example of the four-minute mile. For decades, everyone publicly declared that running a four-minute mile was impossible, until someone did it. (This is very similar to the recent advances towards a two-hour marathon.) After one person ran that fast, others quickly followed suit. These days, some of the most elite high-school runners can run a four-minute mile.

Some limits are in your mind, or are ingrained by those around you.

What problems are you facing but not trying to overcome because others’ experience says it is impossible?

Don’t forget to know what is a real limitation, and what is not. Feel free to assume that an NP-Hard problem will not have a polynomial-time algorithm. Instead, see if your specific version of the problem can be solved using heuristics, or the “slow” algorithm is actually fast for you due to some bounded parameter.

Example: I remember working on counting the number of perfect matchings in graphs. This is a well-known P#-Complete problem (if you can solve this problem fast, then you can count the number of solutions to 3-SAT fast, too). Turns out that the reduction required to translate 3-SAT into a perfect matching problem requires an exponential increase in the number of solutions. The reason it is “hard” to count is because there are so many! When focusing on graphs with a small number of perfect matchings, the brute-force algorithm is quite fast.

Focus on your own excellence

To improve, you must focus on what you can control.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Their success is not your failure. I had to remind myself of that frequently in graduate school, when I was first getting my bearings in how to publish scholarly work. Other students (usually from higher-ranking institutions) would publish more papers in higher venues, and I would find my rate inadequate. This led to a very stressful point in my life, where I overworked myself more than ever.

What I realized (eventually) was that there will always be someone who achieves more than me (or you) and from the outside it will look like it was easy for them. This is especially true when looking at an international field of people. In grad school, journals came in every month with authors from all over the world. Now, I see fantastic people sharing their expertise and professional adventures on Twitter. It’s hard to avoid FOMO when presented with the best view of someone’s life.

By focusing on yourself, you can think about what you can control, and what steps you can take to advance your goals. Instead of seeing what others are doing, do the thing that shows your talents the best. Success will follow.

Understand your own success

In order to focus on your own success, you must also reflect and discover what had led to your current level of success.

If you are like me, then a lot of your success has come from privilege. Recognize that, then find the next reason for your success.

Jones mentions this in their section about celebrating victories. While athletes spend time celebrating the big wins, having a bit of fun is not the point of the party. “The very best performers do not move on before they have scrutinized and understood thoroughly the factors underpinning their success,” Jones writes.

If you have a big win, then take the time and enjoy that win! While you are relaxed and happy, think back on what choices you made to influence that success.

When building software, our view of the future can be murky. We don’t always know how difficult things will be. Our code is exercised in situations we never expected. We may be redirected from one project to another, or the project changes significantly one week to the next.

But we can always look back at what we have done. Version control is great for this: you can literally see everything you completed. With good commit messages, you can remember the challenges you faced and overcame. Can you also recall the different options you could have pursued? The priorities you could have set instead? What constellations aligned this time to create your success? Hopefully, you can look back to decisions you made based on thoughtful preparation. You can repeat the success by making those steps part of your daily process.

Working with the best

While focusing on yourself is good, it always helps to have a little bit of competition. Jones mentions how rivals sometimes train together as a way for each athlete to improve. By learning from each other, the athletes each grow more than they could by themselves. At the end of the day, they compete against each other – but also against a lot of others.

There are two things I gather from this idea: have a great team, and work in the open.

Working with high-quality engineers makes everyone on the team better. Code review spreads good habits and spreads knowledge. Working with great people is inspiring. This seems like an idea that is widespread in the software industry.

This is the same when working on an open source project, especially with your competitors. Git is the backbone of most Git hosting providers: GitHub, GitLab, BitBucket, etc. (NOT Azure Repos or Gerrit). The Git client is used by all Git users on their workstations, including most engineers in Microsoft. The Git development community is filled with engineers from all of the companies that rely on Git, even though they compete directly in the space. By coming together and being open about our goals, the community thrives and everyone benefits.

Also, I never thought I’d learn so much minutia about shell scripts that I do after working on Git.

How do you get better and better?

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