(This post originally appeared on the New Relic Blog)
Of drink I have little and food I have less,
My strength tells me no but the path demands yes,
My legs are so short and the way is so long,
I’ve no rest nor comfort, no comfort but song.
. – Poppy Proudfellow, “The Rings of Power”
In my last blog post I posited that Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” series held secrets and lessons – not just for those traveling through the magical world of Middle Earth, but for folks like you and I whose journey is through the equally magical world of technology. Herein you’ll find a few more nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from the show
One of the key elements of the series, established almost from the beginning, was that everyone in the world believed that Sauron—while not destroyed—was vanquished. While there was no proof of death, the assumption was he’d disappeared, never to return. Everyone except Galadriel. “Evil does not sleep,” she warned anyone who would listen, “it waits.”
There are moments—whether in a career or just as part of a project – where we’re driven to keep working on an issue, solution, or feature long past the point when everyone else is willing to call it “good enough” (if not “done”). Something about it doesn’t sit right with us, and so we keep at it.
I’ll be honest, some of those times, that work will be for nothing – where you’ll look back and ask “why did I waste so much time on that?” and feel nothing but regret for the hours lost. But I’ll argue (and, in fact, HAVE argued) that even if the specific issue, project, or feature comes to nothing the skills and experiences we gain during the process can (and usually will) help us in unexpected ways somewhere down the road in our career.
But there’s another benefit, one which Galadriel also recognizes near the end of the series: being true to oneself makes even a so-called “failed” journey worthwhile. Sometimes we need to go further for the simple reason that we need to go further. We need the solution, feature, and/or understanding even when everyone else has lost interest, not for its own sake; or to satisfy our ego; or out of compulsion; but because we know deep down we would betray something essential about ourselves if we didn’t see it through all the way to the end.
The flip side of this is that when our internal drive pushes past the point where those around us have said, “Enough!”, we need to either make a strong case to keep going, or recognize we’ll be going it alone. I’ve spoken about the need to make our case before and I continue to feel it’s one of the areas where IT folx of all stripes, ages, and levels of experience fall down.
Galadriel, for all her drive, conviction, and skill, pushed her team with nothing more than “My gut tells me we need to keep going.” Her platoon followed her long after all the others had ceased their searches, but loyalty has limits. Even more so in tech, where many of us are data-driven creatures. Galadriel wasn’t wrong, and the events of the series proved her gut to be correct. But she failed to make a compelling case to anyone else.
The lesson here is that we need to not only argue passionately, we need to speak in the terms those we’re trying to convince will understand. All the passion and drive in the world will not sway a project sponsor if we fail to explain the real business benefit of the feature we’re pursuing. And when we see they’re unconvinced,like Elrond and Gil-Galad were until the proof of their error was almost too great to fix,we would be better served by asking of them, “What would you need to hear in order to feel comfortable saying ‘yes’?” than doggedly pursuing the truth alone.
I also have to point out that Galadriel was not, despite her convictions, a particularly gifted leader. And she failed her team in one important way: she ascribed to the falsehood of “grind culture.” At the start of the story, it’s clear Galadriel took pride in the fact that she “lived and breathed her mission, 24x7x365.” and she was extremely unwilling to accept that those on her team weren’t similarly driven.
As a recent story from Ben Hibben (aka Blenster illustrates just how bad an idea this is. It’s far more likely a so-called “failing” team is a sign of mismanagement than it is an indication their skills aren’t up to par.
Galadriel’s way might make for a good story, but it is a lousy way to lead a team (let alone live a life) in tech.
Some of the most powerful moments in the series occur when characters recognize their errors, own up to their mistakes, and ask for forgiveness from the ones they’ve hurt.
When Durin and Elrond first meet, Elrond recognizes he’s somehow wronged his friend even if he doesn’t understand how. He validates Durin’s anger even before asking why he feels that way. And once Durin explains the reasons, Elrond picks a path that, sadly, is far too rare in our real-world interactions.
Let’s face it, after hearing that Durin is mad because Elrond hasn’t come to visit, Elrond could have offered excuses or elf-splained—citing the differences in lifespan, attention span, and priorities. He could have called out Durin’s one-sided-ness. The path from Khazad-dum to Lindel does, after all, allow travel in both directions. But he doesn’t. He immediately owns the hurt Durin feels. He apologizes, and immediately acts to make recompense. Doing so opens the door to meet the force of nature known as Disa, who sees the situation far more clearly than her husband and sets the stage for the two friends to reunite.
Perhaps taking a lesson from this, Durin later takes the initiative to apologize to his father, asking to be forgiven for his pride and stubbornness. Looking out across the underground kingdom he leads, and which Durin will one down take command of, he says, “Forever am I with you, my son. Even in anger. Sometimes in anger most of all. There is nothing to forgive.”
The lesson for us IT pros is clear: the hard truth is you can’t learn anything without making mistakes. It’s in the nature of our work that some things, maybe even most things, won’t work the first time. There will be a lot of moments across our career where we will have done harm. And in those moments, the most important next step we can take is to apologize.
Apologies might FEEL hard, but they’re worth 10x more than the effort they require. Consider that the next time someone talks about being a “10x engineer!”
Like Hobbits, there’s more to the “Rings of Power” than one might think at first glance. And so I hope you’ll make plans to revisit this series when – like Gandalf at the gate to bag-end – the next post appears.