I was reading Lessons Learned in Software Testing (by Kaner, Bach, and Pettichord) during a break today, and came across this snip about how testers are executives.

In one of his [Peter Drucker's] excellent books, The Effective Executive, he teaches that an executive is anyone who manages the value of her own time and affects the ability of the organization to perform. Most knowledge workers are executives. Drucker points out that executives are always given more to do than they can possibly achieve. Effective ones pick a subset of tasks that they will do well and skip many other tasks entirely... Give two executives identical jobs (not tasks, but ongoing jobs), and they'll give very different performances.

A blinding light came on.

I'm going to try to explain why this was so surprising to me, which requires a bit of backstory.

I know I can't do everything I could do. This was not always the case, and internalizing the truth of that statement is a painful learning process I'm still going through (but it is known, and it is getting there). It's painful because, not long ago, my capacity to do things still outstripped the list of all the things I could potentially do. (In other words, if I had $20, the total contents of the stores I was allowed to shop at was $15 - so if I didn't buy everything, I was really slacking off.)

At some point - midway through college - this changed. To run with the analogy, I was allowed into more stores, and came to have potential access to, say, $200 worth of stuff in stock - but I still had only $20 to spend. However, if your metric for "are you a slacker?" is "did you buy everything?" you're going to be one unhappy teenager with mountains of the overwork equivalent of credit card debt. Worse yet, you'll still be trying to buy everything, and thinking that your inability to do so is somehow a failure on your part. "I should be able to get it all for under budget; this always worked before. Why am I so inadequate?"

That's how I spent most of my last 1.5 years in college, overworking myself into a wreck (friends, family, and professors cushioned my skids against turning into spectacular conflagrations of fireballs). I was happy, but I thought I sucked at everything.

Sometime around April 2007, the situation dawned on me. (It had done so in smaller ways beforehand, but at much more of an intellectual level only.) It was impossible for me to allocate Mel-resources in such a way that everything that could potentially get done would happen. I could buy $20 worth of stuff, maybe find ways to inch my pocketbook to $22, to $30... but ultimately, in terms of trying to buy the whole dang store of possibility, I would fail.

This was fantastically liberating. Things were broken - I was broken - but in a way I couldn't fix! Instead of freaking out over not being able to fix something irreparably broken, I could (remember, I'm an engineer) ...accept it. Work around it. Move on. I was not cut out to make huge changes in the world - I didn't have the capacity. I could still try - and I still planned to, and I did - but I could be okay with failing now. It was expected, actually inevitable.

So I spent my gap year as a very happy failure. I slept, I rediscovered food, the daystar, and the pleasure of simply spending time with people.

And now I have another way of thinking. The difference that the passage made to me was that it kicked me into realizing this:

You think you've started losing the game, but you've actually just started to play the right one. (Don't worry, you're not late or starting out behind; you had to go through that to get to here.) This is the game successful people play. The real fun begins when it is impossible to take all the opportunities you're given - your job now is to make the game itself. You're not broken, and you're not a failure; you just haven't rewritten the rules to make it otherwise... yet.

In other words, kid: winners play Calvinball.

Welcome to the game.