Decoupling My Assumptions

Decoupling My Assumptions

I was reflecting about the amount of work I have coming in the days ahead, and had a minor brainstorm. The coming work is cool and I am jazzed about starting! However, I found myself going through a familiar train of thought:

It’s going to be a lot of work, and the rewards will be delayed; I hope the work is worth it.

I felt a little of the energy ooze out of my step. Why was that?

Well, it’s understandable…work is work, and takes away from the “fun” things I might otherwise be doing. I’ve been trying to get my work and my fun to be the same thing, and that’s been about 20% successful. The other 80% of the time I’m thinking of other things that I could be doing, and use think of the completion of the project as the reward. Yay!

On the other hand, spending most of my time thinking about how I’d rather be doing something else…that blows. It then occured to me that decoupling work from reward was a mental strategy with potential productivity benefits.

Codependent Expectations

There is the tendency to expect a reward from work, and this expectation is what’s causing my negative thinking. Had Kindergarten, with its clever cupcake-based reward system, been the first phase of an institutionalized program of conditioning to mold my generation into willing laborers for the societal machine? Maybe not intentionally, but let’s think about that.

Consider this statement:

Work should be followed by Reward.

I automatically agree with it. It’s a fundamental assumption that’s been ingrained into me from an early age. “If you work hard”, we’re told, “you will be rewarded.” As we grow older, it becomes a feeling of entitlement. The statement, in our minds, becomes “Work is followed by Reward.” This is a limiting attitude to have, unless you happen to be in an environment where that’s what you do to make a living. However, outside of the contrived environment of school, home, and office, it’s not guaranteed.

I’m going to decouple “work” from “reward” from now on, because if I justify the work in terms of the reward, that is a form of codependency. It all started so innocently with those cupcakes; I’m shocked how deeply ingrained this expectation is in my psyche.

Applying this back to my project situation:

  • There’s work.
  • There’s reward.
  • There’s satisfaction.

These are all related, but it would be ideal if I think of them as independent factors in my life. In other words, when I work, I shouldn’t automatically expect reward as my self-appointed metric for success. I should look instead at what I accomplished, and see where it fits into my overall personal plan. The reward is the accomplishment, not the present I buy in “recognition” of how hard I worked. This is an essential attitude to have as an entrepreneur/freelancer. I occassionally meet “fresh from the cube farm” freelancers that are filled with moral outrage because their prospective clients didn’t recognize the hours they’ve “put into” the project as having monetary value. That’s because you haven’t generated value, guys…you’ve just burned some hours. It’s an entirely different game! Having something of value to the client is leverage you can count on. The expectation that someone will automatically reward you when you waggle your mouse is not.

Just to be clear, rewards do have their place, but I would cast them as genuine acknowledgement of services performed. Harder said than done, on both the rewarder’s and receiver’s side; usually they are seen as perks or automatic benefits that lack real emotional value.

Other Decouplets

The reason I even thought of decoupling work from reward was because I’ve done it with other assumptions. Here’s some of the ones that come to mind:

Need for verification implies lack of trust

Nope, not necessarily! A lot of people really believe, at the time of making a promise, that they will actually follow through. We also know through experience that, on average, people have a less-than-perfect record at keeping them. I think it was Richard M. Nixon that said that while he could believe that someone had a genuine intention at the negotiating table; he could also believe that the person wouldn’t be able to deliver for any number of reasons. This isn’t purposeful deceit…it’s just that some people can’t follow through as much as they really truly intend to.

Many people think the two concepts are inextricably linked, and that if you don’t believe one you must not believe the other. This isn’t necessarily the case. When a 6-year old child enthusiastically makes a public promise, we think it’s adorable but we don’t necessarily count on it happening. Should the promise come in danger of not being fulfilled, that’s when we step in to help the child carry through to completion (hopefully in a way that’s empowering). It’s not that much different with other adults who are distracted, stressed, overworked, or doing something for the first time…they may not be able to deliver on their promise despite their honest desire to. “Trust but verify” isn’t negative unless you really lack trust. It may be prudent to just whisper “but verify” to yourself in polite company :-)

Lack of immediate affirmation means you disagree

This isn’t always true, unless you’re in a passive-aggressive meeting. People often assume that if you don’t affirm what they’re saying, that must mean you disagree with them. I get stuck in meetings all the time where people go back and forth about some issue that they really do agree on; they’re just talking about different aspects of the same thing. A skilled mediator will recognize that the “disagreement” is really a manifestation of one of the following:

  • Someone wants acknowledgement that what they’re saying is important to them. They seek affirmation that their input is valued, have said something of usefulness, and that it will be taken into consideration. Note it, move on, followthrough later with the stakeholders: “That’s an excellent point; let me write that down on the whiteboard so we can come back to it when we’re finished discussing this particular piece.”

  • Someone is raising an additional complication that needs to be taken into consideration, but it doesn’t invalidate the entire point of view. Much agony can be avoided by prefacing the statement with “I agree; here’s something else though that we need to consider…”

  • Two parties have different working perspectives of the same thing, but are using confusing jargon to express their ideas. The result is that neither party makes sense to the other. You see this happen between management, executives, designers, and programmers; they all have different ways of looking at a problem, with goals that make sense only within their job context.


p>Of course, sometimes people really are disagreeing :-) This is tricky to resolve unless you can use a common external focal point as a metric. Someone outside of the group, preferably. This can be the end-user, the client, or the audience. For example, does having a “well-normalized database” really matter to the end user as much as the database admin? Ask the database admin what it ultimately does for the end-user, and figure it out together.

You’re not with us, therefore you’re against us

A pretty common attitude, because we’re sometimes fearful and don’t even know it. People sometimes assume that if you’re not in agreement, you must be the enemy. Cliques form for the sense of mutual affirmation, so if you’re not affirming the values of the group, you are by definition not part of it. I think that’s unfortunate, but it’s pretty common.

It even strikes with people you may already know well, especially when the issue is related to something socially controversial. For example, a couple years ago I took a class to learn how to shoot a handgun, and found that I liked it. I mentioned this to a few friends, and the reaction was interesting; the automatic response was guns are used only by criminals and crazy people, that somehow I had become part of that group. Yet they knew I *wasn’t. I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions based on this experience, figuring out what we knew and what biases, if any, existed in our beliefs about guns, gun control, the Constitution, and self-defense. What usually happens is that we come to an agreement to disagree, while acknowledging the other’s perspective. We’ve learned something about our own ignorance, and we are the better for it. It’s worthwhile to note that the only reason that the conflict was resolved was because of emotional conflict: loathing/fear versus friendship, and rational discourse followed to resolve it. With a stranger, however, I probably would not have gotten the chance to discuss these issues should it come out in casual conversation; loathing/fear would have a much greater chance of winning out in the absense of other context.

We both are agreeing, therefore we understand each other

Until you’ve worked together, this isn’t necessarily true. Agreement is to intention as understanding is to action. In other words, the act of creating /sharing something tangible will confirm that you really did understand each other; I would never assume otherwise. A better way of phrasing this would be “we agree to develop a working understanding of each other”. That is, perhaps, the foundation of true friendship; acceptance of the working differences is what makes it last.

In Summary

From the productivity perspective, I’m going to try to think of work as separate from reward. In fact I don’t even want to think of reward as the motivator (you know, as in cupcakes). Instead, I want to think of the work itself producing something of long term value. This is one of the tricks of The Printable CEO: by scoring only thing you can see and touch, you create long-term value. The points are just a way of measuring relative effectiveness on a week-by-week basis.

The points could be used to determine a level of reward…in this case I think that’s OK because the points are tied to tangible accomplishment. That is, if your point value list has retained focus on producing tangible things; if not, then you probably should have another look at it.


  1. Dewayne Mikkelson 18 years ago

    I found a nice quote recently that I have tacked up on the wall by my computer that seems to help me with these types of issues…

    “I wonder how much work I’ll get done today, where that work will take me, what surprises I’ll encounter along the way, and how my work will fit into the world.”

  2. Chavez 18 years ago

    Very nice qoute Dewayne, I like it very much.
    I guess it’ll help me too.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Dewayne: That’s a fabulous quote! I found a link to this article by Linda_Dessau that seems to be the source.

  4. Emmanuel 18 years ago

    I wonder if having a regular salary de-facto decouples work vs. reward in the immediate sense. You might argue that remaining employed and hoping for that next raise/bonus fulfills that need. I for one think of most bad days as penance for earning a salary, and good (rewarding) days as satisfaction to have learned something really cool, delivered something I’m proud of, or had a great conversation with someone I like!

  5. Joey 18 years ago

    What a great post!
    I especially like the title “decoupling my assumptions,” and there are some great assumption descriptions in there.  You are at heart partly a psychologist, David Seah!  Nice.

  6. Dewayne Mikkelson 18 years ago

    Dave – I am going to have to follow that link after I get home tonight and I am no longer behind this corporate firewall that is blocking that link.

  7. David W. 18 years ago

    Dave, Paul Graham has a terrific article called “How to Do What You Love” that you would really enjoy. He starts by talking about how the ‘work is not fun’ mindset gets entrenched in our youth and we never really get over it.

  8. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Wow, for some reason I missed all these comments before. Thanks guys! Thanks for the link too, DavidW!

  9. Lindsay 17 years ago

    I really love this entry, Dave.  Your self-awareness is very refreshing, and so practical.  Great work.