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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Entries in arete (5)


Virtue in the Kitchen

My love for cast-iron cookware goes beyond the purely practical and into the philosophical.

A few years ago my friends Ted and Christina got me a large cast-iron skillet. I started out using it for stir-fries, because most home cooktops don’t produce heat to really get a wok hot enough for great stir-frying and the heat-retaining properties of cast-iron help compensate for that. As I got comfortable with it, it became my default cooking vessel, because it did a great job with just about everything. That’s the practical part.

The philosophical part has to do with how cast-iron cookware changes over time. As you use it, it seasons. It becomes more non-stick, easier to work with, and better at giving things you cook in it a tasty finish without burning them. Unlike my chef’s knife, which gets duller as it is used, my frying pan gets better with use.

In the Classical period, the Greek philosophers talked about arete — usually translated as virtue — as a measure of how fitted to its purpose a thing was. Aristotle used the notion of arete as the basis of his system of moral philosophy. The idea that my skillet improves its virtue with use resonates with me. And, of course, I want to see myself as less like the knife and more like the frying pan.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go apply some virtue to some steaks.


Fitness: Ran 5 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 503 words, 353 seven-day average, 286 average, 52341 total, 659 to go for the week; 5-day streak

Turn, Turn, Turn

The other half of what my manager told me yesterday — right after he said that the work I’m doing now is what I was born to do — was:

“…and it won’t last.”

What he meant is that the project will change, the teams will mature, the corporate landscape will shift, I will change. A year from now we will face different challenges. We don’t know now what those challenges will be. All we know is that things will be different.

Heraclitus wrote “You cannot step twice into the same stream.” The stream is not the same from moment to moment; that much is obvious. And neither are you. A year from now, I will have different experiences, different strengths, different needs and desires. Even if the project is the same, it won’t push me in the same ways. Maybe, as it changes, it will challenge me in ways that I want to be challenged, and maybe it won’t. I don’t know, and right now, I’m not worried about it.

I’m enjoying my season in the sun right now, and — to further bludgeon the metaphor — I’m making hay while the sun shines. I will take advantage of it while it lasts, mourn it when it passes, and move on to the next thing when its time is over. I’ve seen this with the podcast, with online communities, with game groups, with hobbies, with events. There is no steady state. The key is to always be feeling for the rhythm and moving in time with the music.


Choose Wisely

In my performance review today, my manager told me that the work I’m doing now is what I was born to do.

Over the last year or so, whenever people ask me how work is going, I answer them honestly: It’s fantastic. The response is usually a surprised look, like work isn’t supposed to be fulfilling. It’s not that my job is without its challenges or its frustrations. It is pushing me in the ways that I want to be pushed, and it’s making me grow in the ways I want to grow.

I understand that this is unusual. I have a lot of friends right now who aren’t in this situation, either because they’re unemployed or because they’re not doing what they want to. And I know that many things had to go right in order to create the situation I’m in.1 Still, I think that lot of where I’m at is because of choices I’ve made. Those choices were not just about what to do, they were also about how to feel. I was going to go into a long story about the last five years, but it really just boils down to this:

Focus on the positive. Grow what works. Encourage any signs of changes toward what you want. You can’t hope for other people to do what you want them to. It has to start with you.

My manager said today that the sorts of things we’ve been doing together over the last two years are things he’s wanted to do for a decade. I just showed up and started doing those things, and no one had the sense to tell me to stop.

Seth Godin wrote recently about the importance and independence of attitude.2 I absolutely believe in that. What happens to us matters. What matters more is how we choose to react to it. We always have that choice.

1 My manager talked about planets aligning and the stars being right. I don’t want to go quite that far.

3 And if you’re a writer who hasn’t read Bird by Bird, fix that.


Doing and Being

Repetition, process, and awareness: These were the things on my mind after lunch with Christina on Monday. That conversation revealed some patterns in my experiences recently, which included:

What I see in all of them is the idea of creating a change not in the external world but in the internal one.

Take code katas as an example. Why write the same code over and over again? Clearly the code is not the point; the coder is. It’s not about doing something different but becoming something different. And sometimes the way to do that is not by trying to get anywhere. It’s by trying to be where you already are.

With all that I write about doing more and producing more, ultimately I’m interested in becoming more.

1 Inspired by the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit.2

2 And I contend that Montsegur 1244 and a number of other Nordic scenarios come close.3

3 Thought I suspect Robin might be thinking of something more like Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.


Commitments, Habits, and Virtue

Acting on commitments leads to habits, and habits, as Aristotle held, cultivate virtue. We’re a little more than a month into 2011, so now’s a good time to look back at the commitments we made to ourselves at the end of 2010. I’ll go first.

One of the commitments I made was to exercise every day. I have. Now I’ve got two things on my side. First, I’ve got a big chain of Xs that I don’t want to break. The psychological pressure I’ve created for myself has pushed me to exercise on at least four days I wouldn’t have otherwise. Second, it now feels weird not to exercise. I guess that’s the beginning of that habit that Greek guy was talking about.

How about you? How are you doing with commitments you’ve made to yourself?