Sometimes the best grip you have is the one you let go of
The art of resiliency includes letting go, but that is not to be confused with losing.
To the uninitiated it would appear to be a position of weakness, and quite possibly defeat, but in the art of jiu-jitsu the position of guard, where you are on your back and your opponent is over you, is technically a position of power.
Tim Banks, being a champion jiu-jitsu artist, speaks about life and the tech industry from the position of guard. You could mistakenly believe he’s submitted, and you would be wrong. Tim can tell you truths from this position, and teach you about ego, the false sense of hustle, and prove to you that resiliency is only effective when you have good foundations.
In this profile, I found myself writing more indirectly about software and coaching. This is a profile of a person who shows us our humanity and asks us to be honest with our positions that we hold. There’s a repeated idea that Tim shares in this conversation: If you feel uncomfortable in the position you’re in, it’s Ok to tap out or let go in order to learn and improve, and there are smaller moves that can be made in order to ultimately win. Success is not a straight line, and it’s certainly not the same for each of us.
Tim described to me that he and his children were all born at the same hospital, on the same floor, in the same wing, within 30 feet of each other.
So I was born in coastal Virginia in Norfolk. Interestingly myself, my 14-year-old daughter, and my 12-year-old daughter, were all born in the same hospital, same floor, same wing. We were born within 30 feet of each other right in the same place, which I think is very interesting. I have ancestral connections to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, because that's where my dad's side of the family was kept as slaves on the Warwick plantation, which is about 20 miles from where I was born and where I grew up. So I am very drawn to and very at peace in the coastal waters, rivers and swamps. But at the same time, my mom was Mexican and her side of the family is from the El Paso, Ciudad Juarez area for thousands of years. So whenever I go to west Texas, I get that same kind of feeling. It's a very interesting place for me to be in the high desert, cactus, and mountains. I'm also just as peaceful in swampy, low-lying coastal areas with rivers and the oceanfront. You wouldn't expect those two things to coexist in a person.
I’m reminded that we all come from amazingly different backgrounds and that in most cases, it’s these differences that make us better collectively. In his description of the area of Virginia where he is from, I recognized a lot of my hometown, and it made me happy that two people from very different lives can share feelings about the geographies they come from. Hearing Tim talk about where he’s from made me smile and reminded me that we don’t ask each other enough where we are from, or about our individual legacies. Tim finishes by describing his next favorite place on earth.
My next most favorite place on Earth is diverse, urban areas. And for me, that falls in one or two places: either New York City or London. I think pretty much all the non-white population of the UK is in London, and that's good so far as far as I'm concerned. New York City to me is the greatest city on earth to visit, especially if you're not white because there's a lot of people that probably look like you. You can experience different cultures and foods. You can experience different art. It's all there. And it has its own kind of flavor. Like I said, I can live there for a short period, but it's also loud, busy and not very green.
There is a nod to diversity that you will find in everything Tim talks about. It’s not implicit, but it’s not a hammering drumbeat either. Instead, it’s an obvious, honest clarity, that our diversity is innate and that we should collect and savor it.
Comforting our fathers
I asked Tim if he could call anyone in time who he would call and what he would say. I wasn’t ready for his answer, and I realized after we spoke, his answer was the most touching to me, and I realized it’s the answer I want to give as well. He said: “I want to call my dad while he was in Vietnam.”
Tim and I are the same age and his father was in Vietnam, like mine. He described how he would want to provide comfort to his dad while he was there. As I write this now, I realize I’m emotional because I too would want to comfort my father in that place.
I remember he and my mom used to send cassette tapes back and forth to each other, because that's the only way they can hear each other's voices. I mean, that's a long time to be gone. My dad doesn't talk much about Vietnam and I get why, but it would be nice to have had some conversation with him, just so he had someone to talk to on the phone. And with me knowing what kind of man he turned out to be, the dad and father he is, and that kind of influence in my life, I would just love to give some kind of comfort and be that voice for him he's been for me and so many others.
It’s a heart-breaking thought to have a father in a situation like that, and tender to think that you are a comfort on the other end of the line for him. I think of my father, and I realize he is me, and it’s all I would care to have, are the voices of my children on the other end of the phone. This is a preview of how Tim thinks of others, in a caring and protective way.
Be bad at it for a while
Early in our conversation, Tim was describing to me how he finds inspiration, and as he does, he lays down a fundamental truth and raises the curtain on the realities of our software careers and industry.
The things that I enjoy are things where you have to be bad at it for a while. And you have to lose your ego in the process of getting good at it. You know, things where you have to be calm and collected when things are going sideways. In the Marine Corps, it's called “embracing the suck”. But essentially it's just resilience, right? It's funny because one thing I loved in one of my previous professional lives was as a chef and…
Oh, hold on…
“Hey, can you keep it down? Please? — a little bit.”
This was the first of a few interruptions Tim had during our time and both were with his kids. It was a physical reminder that he is a father, and you can sense from his tone that he cares for his children with a deep, slow, and soft demeanor. Later he jokes about his kid’s description of a “little snack” as “a whole cereal bowl full of berries,” and I recognized the loving sarcasm that parents hold for their children. He continued:
Being a chef, one thing I liked was it had the calm moments where you're doing prep and it's just mindless and almost therapeutic. It's a side thing where you can collect your thoughts or whatever. But then also it'll be, you know, 8:45 pm on a Saturday and the restaurant is full. You have 20 tickets hanging and every burner is full. All these things are happening at once and then you just have to be completely aware of everything that's going on. The asynchronous nature of how you cook and the serenity that you have to have to keep yourself calm and keep others calm in the face of a lot of chaos. I appreciate that.
It's like in jiu-jitsu, you know, it may seem fast, it may seem kind of violent, but there's a certain amount of serenity you have to have and maintain, when there is a 30 to 50 pounds heavier than you dude with his knee on your belly, actively trying to choke you to death right? You know, so you can't panic, you can't freak out. You gotta be like, “Okay, well, this is not great, but let me see what steps I have from here? What do I have? What do I need? What are the little battles I can win here to get me to a better spot until I can eventually get out?”
You hear the raw power under Tim’s voice as he describes finding calm within chaos and helping those around us to find serenity. He finishes the topic by describing the exercise of decomposing the large complicated efforts into small attainable goals.
And I feel like that's been very much a microcosm of life for me. And I'm sure as well for a lot of other people. Where it's like, yeah, this is not great and I can't make any sweeping changes that is going to make this better, but I can do this little thing, and then I can do that little thing, then that little thing, and having very approachable and attainable small goals, on the path to getting something great. I'm ADHD and the notion of my executive function working in the face of something that seems like an insurmountable task just does not happen. So you have to find small little things along the way. And like I said, that's something I found in jiu-jitsu. It's something I found in cooking. Something I found in being a musician. Something I found being in the Marine Corps and working contracting, whatever it is. Even in software development, right? You don't just don't write a multi-tiered, gigantic application in a day, you write just a function.
I enjoyed Tim’s descriptions of the work he has done and how broad his experience is. Even with as diverse a background as he has, he found a constant value in small achievable steps that helps relieve some of the chaos that we experience in our day-to-day work.
Not winning at all costs
As we discussed lessons learned from being in difficult situations and getting out of them, it reminded me of the adage that it’s better to live to fight another day. Tim framed this in a way that resonated with me and I believe has usefulness in our experiences developing software.
You know, you can't have an ego about these things. It's okay for someone to have beaten you. It's okay for someone to be better than you. When you are trying to hold on to this notion of I have to win, I have to survive that, you know, this one thing to the exception of all else, I'm like, that's how you get hurt. That's how you pass out. That's how things that are catastrophic happen to your body that will prevent you from learning anything.
Later in the conversation, Tim described a deeper understanding of resiliency that included a bitter truth. Most of us would describe resiliency as some form of strength or ability to bounce back. He doesn’t agree. Not at least without recognizing that resiliency requires a firm foundation. And in order to build that foundation, remember that you can’t win at all costs. Find ways to grow a sturdy platform for yourself in order to grow resiliency. Tim describes how he coaches people, first by assuring that they’re Ok.
If I'm dealing with someone who's not performing well, or doing something wrong, the first thing I'm going to want to look at is like, “Hey what's going on? Are you good? When was the last time you had time off? Like what was the last time you got to relax? Are you stressed out?”
From here, Tim reminds us that in order to bounce back most effectively, you must find your footing.
But the thing is, you can't be resilient if you're on unstable ground, right? You can't expect resilience if you're not doing the things that you need to do to care for and to nurture folks. We can't take a child and give them an atlas stone and expect them to lift it, right? We can't take someone who's never lifted before or done any work without helping them grow. Help them develop strength, and then you can test their strength, and when you know that they're broken and exhausted and they have not had the proper nutrition or whatever, you know, they cannot do this, so you need to care for them first and then they will do the task.
There was a moment in our conversation that Tim described the problem with winning at all costs, and blamed our industry and its “hustle” culture that creates environments where letting go in order to collect yourself is looked down on, if not out-right vilified.
There are people that think this was their way out. This is what they do. But when you take that to this level, like to the level as adults, when it's their career, and that is who they are, we are more than that, or we should be more than that. I want to encourage you, if your career is this, if you lose your job, then what? Right? And I squared myself with that issue years ago. Look, this is what I do to pay the bills, all right? I am far more than an engineer. I'm far more than a tech leader or anything like that. I'm a father, a jiu-jitsu champion, I’m the son of great parents, and whatever I do, whatever, all I'm doing in tech is making money so I can afford a lifestyle. I don't love this. I would just as soon not do this job if I can make this money, doing something else.
There is a great lesson there that helps us to understand that we are not our work, and that our identity is human first. Software is a human endeavor. Our work does not represent everything, but our efforts and ability to push through represents who we are as people. I appreciated a minor story Tim shared about his jiu-jitsu instructor, that he reminded him all the time about winning and success.
The thing is that winning and success are the outliers. They're the anomalies, right? Not everyone's going to win, and that's okay, right? What matters is that you did that, you tried. My instructor says, “You know you put your face on the mat. That's what matters, right?” You got there, and you made the effort and you get better when you do that.
This is a wonderful example of leadership that shows the journey is the most important aspect and not the destination. The instruction seems simple, but also represents the difficulty of growth through discomfort. Resiliency is the art of bouncing back, but it requires a sturdy place to bounce back to, and that only comes from experience, lessons, and losses.
Vulnerability through pens
I asked Tim whether he is a pen or pencil person as I do with all the profiles, and per usual he gave me yet another wonderful way to view the world. Tim says he has changed over time from being a pencil person to a pen person, and the reason is likely because of all of his influences, and to promote the idea that perfection is the enemy.
It's interesting because I used to be very much a pencil person, because you couldn't make mistakes. Now I’m very much a pen. I'm like, “Yeah, yeah, you can see this scratched through.” I didn't do this perfectly, that's fine. Yeah, I can acknowledge that and it's okay for you to see that.
This is a wonderful lens to view that question from. What Tim’s preference for pens shows is that he’s Ok with us seeing his past mistakes, because he sees them as small wins. Through this vulnerability, he also provides a way for us to follow him, without pressure to win every time. In fact, the path to success is through those setbacks, mistakes, and losses. Another very clear quality of this thinking is that it makes vulnerability the strength, allowing others to see your work, regardless of outcomes.
Sometimes it’s just a job
There was a moment in the conversation where Tim and I got to talking about coaching developers through the stress of jobs and the work. There were equal parts identity and stubbornness to the idea of success.
Artists like painters, as Tim describes, would rather paint for themselves. But in order to pay bills, they may take on work that doesn’t fit their model of self-expression.
They're painting for themselves, right? And they have paintings they do to pay the bills that maybe they don't love and they have some that express who they are. There are very few that can paint what they love whenever they want, and make a living off of it. But when you're painting for someone else it can be like “I’m working for a mural painting company, and I'm painting the things that they tell me to paint.” That's not the same form of expression, you know? What's interesting to me is you can talk to people who kind of hold on to this notion and don’t realize that this is the trap, right? Just let go.
Tim makes a point, and it comes back to jiu-jitsu. He describes how sometimes we find ourselves locked on to an idea of success and we forget that there are other moves to make. As he was describing a coaching moment he had just that day, he explains how he taught someone that even though they have a grip on their opponent’s collar, a powerful position to be in:
You don’t have to hold on to it. If someone then grabs your wrist and they're about to put you in an arm bar, because you won't let go of that collar, that's on you. You have that and refuse to let it go. So it's like, let go, you know? I'm saying: let go, step back, make some distance, get yourself safe, and then try it again.
I’m reminded that very often we are coaching engineers to be smart, design things for high levels of resiliency, and most times, to do so at fast paces. But we rarely coach them on when it’s appropriate to let go. We don’t teach engineers often enough that the great idea they’re chasing only seems good on paper and that they need to let go of it and try something else.
This resonated with me as I thought about my work. It’s very often I hang on to ideas or feelings I have about my own outcomes. And every time I hang on too long, it creates secondary problems for me, such as impatience, dissatisfaction, and general anxiety. All of this comes from my believing that I must hang on to that intended outcome, and forgetting that I could let go, and find a better grip.
The next grip
It was a pleasure to talk to Tim and hear his ideas about losing your ego, letting go, and building a firm foundation for resiliency. I took away the idea that we all should be sure we know when to let go, and find the next better grip. Daily, there is an opportunity to treat it as just a job and try to find the calm in the chaos. Sometimes the best grip — is the next grip. Thanks Tim!
This is the fourth in a series of profiles in software. If you enjoyed this subscribe to continue getting the series. I’ll be writing profiles of industry leaders and interesting people from all areas of tech every month.