Be flexible like bamboo

This is another lesson I learned from a comic book (man, that artist had deep meaningful ideas!). I actually wrote about the hero from that comic book in another article. Yes, it’s amazing what I can learn from comics and adapt them to programming. *smile*

Retreat at Bamboo Grove

Swinging his staff just short of his sparring partner’s head, Chen Min breathed a sigh of triumph. He had just picked up the skills in wielding the staff, his callused hands the result of training with the wooden stick. There’s the exhilaration of winning and being better than his other fellow students. And he hadn’t trained with them for very long.

Chen Min’s master sensed a growing arrogance, and asked another student to spar with Chen Min. That student was tall, large, and looked menacing enough without a staff as a weapon. The fight was short. Despite Chen Min’s agility, he was forced into defeat by the sheer strength and power of his opponent.

The master, watching Chen Min’s fallen expression, sent him to meditate in the Bamboo Grove.

Asian bamboo forest by Robert Churchill at iStockphoto
image by Robert Churchill

And that’s how Chen Min came to be on the porch of a small building surrounded by bamboo. A small pond was in front of the building. Soft breezes whispered across the water, creating small ripples and waves. Tree leaves rustled. Bamboo shoots swayed. Birds sang. And it’s been like that for 3 days.

Chen Min’s been meditating on why the master sent him here. And why he lost that fight. Just when he’s getting frustrated, the sky darkened. Clouds closed ranks, and the wind picked up speed. Lightning flashed and the first sheet of rain fell.

Chen Min was getting to his feet to retreat back into the building when he thought of his master. He was sent there to learn something. And he’s not giving up because of some drizzle. He’s still moderately sheltered from the storm, so he sat resolutely on the porch.

The winds howled and the rain pelted everything. Chen Min was startled by the ferocity of the storm, and was beginning to question his decision when there was a crash. He turned towards the direction of the crash and saw that a tree was felled. By the wind.

He was preparing to scramble back into the safety of the building when his eyes focused on the bamboo around the fallen tree. The bamboo bent under the strength of the wind. And bent. And bent. The wind abated for a while and the bamboo sprang back into place. The wind resumed blowing with renewed energy. And the bamboo continued to bend in the wind’s direction.

Chen Min realised that even though the tree was sturdier than bamboo, going head-on with the wind ultimately decided its fate. The bamboo on the other hand, gave way to the wind, and survived the wind’s onslaught.

The torrent of rain weakened. The wind lost heart. And the clouds opened up to let the sun in. Soon, the pond was still again, with an occasional ripple travelling across the surface. The storm had disappeared.

Chen Min stood up and stretched. He breathed in the fresh clear air and felt excited again. He felt this was the lesson, and he was ready to go back to his master again.

Handling ambiguity and unknown

Some people think putting off a decision makes them look weak and indecisive. That’s nonsense. Making a decision without enough consideration is worse than not making a decision. And if you’re the philosophical type, deciding to wait and think through is also a decision.

For simple and familiar programming tasks, you can certainly decide what to do and how to proceed immediately. For more complex tasks, it’s ok to give yourself time to think and plan. Give yourself permission to think and plan. You don’t have to react immediately.

Be flexible like the bamboo (not too much though). Give way to the task and requirements first, letting them wash over you, while you decide how best to tackle them. Once you get over the shock of what you need to do, spring back into balance and unleash your solution.

It comes down to how much you can handle ambiguity and the unknown. How long can you stand not knowing what to do? When you’re struggling to come up with answers, your brain starts throwing ideas at you. The first one might be good or it might not. Some might be useless. Some ideas have possibilities for further investigation.

Once you gather enough ideas, the fog of ambiguity lifts. You feel better able to tackle the tasks and requirements. This feeling of clarity is stronger than the feeling you get from reactionary solutions. Because you’ve thought through the situation and came up with a solution (possibly several), despite the fact that you knew very little about the problem at hand from the start.