Ken: "How's it going, Bill?"
Bill: "Did you ever have one of those days when everything's going along fine, and then someone throws a monkey at you?"
When Ken related this exchange to me, my first reaction was "Of course, it happens to me all the time. Projectile simians are my enemies' perennial weapon of choice."
Bill had mangled the old metaphor, "throw a monkey wrench into the works" — the image of factory workers sabotaging the machinery in order to have a break. It's the American form of the British "spanner in the works," which John Lennon cleverly adapted for the title of his collection of short stories, A Spaniard in the Works. But whether we're talking about the unexpected placement of tools, primates, or Iberians (nobody expects the Spanish... oh, never mind), one thing's for sure: our best laid plans have gone agley yet again.
It's not so bad when we only get one unexpected problem, but these things seem to come in bunches. The idea that both good and bad luck run in "streaks" is so commonly held that it's the rationale behind many betting systems for games of chance. Whether or not that idea conforms to mathematical probabilities, there may be some good reasons why it happens in human affairs.
First of all, causation in the real world is much more complex than it is in a card game. The factors that cause one thing to go wrong might also have a connection to other things that therefore also go off the rails. Often we can perceive these connections, but sometimes we don't. That's when it seems like a bad streak of luck. We might get a feeling that "things are out of joint today," which is probably an intuition of the underlying cause.
Second, we can fall victim to a domino effect. When one thing goes wrong, not only may it break other things, but it may also direct our attention and resources away from unrelated matters that suffer as a result.
Third, our emotional response to one catastrophe can make us susceptible to more. We don't think as clearly when we're upset. When we start wondering "what ELSE can go wrong?" then we can easily enter a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we believe in streaks of luck, that only compounds the problem.
So what do you do when you're having one of those days when nothing goes right? If you can, it might be a good time to call it a day. A good night's sleep solves many a problem. A new day's perspective often comes with obvious answers. If you can't leave it for the morrow, though, see if you can at least take a break. A walk outside works wonders.
If you're dealing with client emergencies, you might not be able to put the problem down even for a short period of time. In that case, you must do what you can to eliminate the third cause of trouble listed above. Take a deep breath, and reset your thinking. Recognize your emotional response, then analyze the situation rationally. It's times like this when the inner voices start whispering "You're not going to be able to solve this," or "You're a fake." Realize that those voices are normal fears that almost everyone encounters. As George S. Patton said, "Do not take counsel of your fears." Imagine that you're your own best friend watching you struggle — what word of encouragement would that friend utter? "Of course you can do it. You always figure it out eventually."
Another approach to reducing the stress that can become disabling is to take a broader perspective. If you do fail here, will the world end? That's not an excuse to slack off — rather, it's a way to gain the confidence you need in order to do well. Humor helps, too. When I get into these situations, I often imagine how funny it will be in the retelling. If you can laugh, you lighten the load. When you don't take yourself too seriously, your problems aren't so serious either.
Thanks to TechRepublic member Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55) for suggesting this topic. And Bob, I hope your wound is better now.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.