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The 10 Times Rule - Be kind to yourself [and others]

eheiberg profile image eheiberg Updated on ・4 min read

In 2000, I was a small business IT contractor. I would rove from small business to small business putting out fires and setting up networks.

If I'm to set the stage for what a layperson's idea of "computers" was at that time, I could probably sum it up in the following bullet-points:

  1. People's resumes would commonly contain a "Computing Skills" section, which more frequently than not, contained every app they had ever used: "Microsoft Word 98, Microsoft Excel 95, Microsoft Word 2000...", as well as broad concepts like "Ethernet and Internet"
  2. Most people were still talking about the Internet as something that a computer had or didn't have.
  3. I would frequently get calls to replace the toner in the printer, because "the printer isn't working, and I don't want to mess it up".

Much of the small business computing world was in a churn that they never signed up for, but were now suddenly obligated to participate in.

That being said, a sizable portion of my job was convincing people that "computers" was not something they could work around, and that they were going to have to fit some basic computer-operation fundamentals into their brain-space just to be competent.

I made a passing effort to be gentle, but, to my shame, I frequently fell into the "Brilliant Jerk" role more than once.

One day...

One day, a sales manager at one of these businesses, Preston, called me in for a computer issue.

This was a computer issue that:

  1. Was a user error.
  2. I had fixed before.
  3. I had shown him, in detail, with written instructions, how to not perpetuate.
  4. I had shown him, in detail, with written instructions, how to fix if he did mess it up.

Frustrated, I snapped at him, "How many times do I have to tell you not to do this?!"

Without blinking an eye, or with any hesitation he replied, "Ten".

"What?"

"Ten. Ten times", he was calm about it. He was calm about things in general.

"Look, I've got a million things I'm doing and having to remember at any given moment - things that have nothing to do with computers. I know I'm asking you something you've already explained to me before - I get that. I understand that frustration - anyone would. So I'm making a deal with you - if, after 10 times, I don't get it, you can yell a blue-streak at me. Ok?"

That moment did a couple things for me. I put some pretty obvious things back in perspective that I had woefully overlooked:

  1. Your priorities can't be everyone else's, and rarely are.
  2. Repetition is not just a valid path to learning, it's a useful one - particularly when the thing to be learned is not someone else's priority or is something they feel is even their problem to solve.

Introducing The 10 Times Rule

I tried it out, of course, and not just internally; I was explicit when I used it.

What I mean is, whenever someone made a mistake they had made before, they would apologize to me profusely, and begin either the process of (a) self-flagellation or (b) become defensive and despondent.

Before any of that could happen, I would tell them about the 10 Times Rule. I would tell them that they're fine, they've got at least [7] more shots at this. This is simply part of the process.

[IMPORTANT: This isn't holding someone to "10 Mistakes" - this is 10 times making the same mistake. Thus, every mistake has a queue of 10.]

The results

The results were probably what you'd expect if you've read this far:

  1. People usually need the repetition 2-4 times; nobody ever gets close to 10.
  2. The issue becomes part of their habits and rules, as opposed to an obligation to adhere to "someone else's" rules.
  3. I actually feel better, knowing that this is simply part of the process as opposed to a failure in the process.

Note: This isn't just blanket forgiveness

This is better than blanket forgiveness - it's an easily achievable shot at accountability. After doing this for well over a decade, I found that when you give people a chance to make the problem their own, they begin to care about it in a way that is, again, their own. And when they feel it's their own, they truly become your ally in solving that problem, or even keeping it solved.

"Not my problem!"

Conversely, if you berate someone, or treat them unkindly for ruining something that they they feel is largely your problem to begin with, you perpetuate the idea that it is, indeed, your problem.

They're problem, by extension is simply finding ways to avoid having to deal with you.

And remember, blanket forgiveness doesn't work either. If you apply blanket forgiveness to everything, it will also never garner the result of the problem being their problem too, as you will always be their own personal airbag for their reckless driving.

By giving them an easily achievable goal, they can claim mastery, and as it turns out, humans really seem to dig being good at stuff.

Wait a minute, isn't this just building in room for failure?

Good eye! It is! And it turns out, people much more well-versed than I have written extensively on this. This was simply my own personal path to get there. Maybe it will help you too.

But wait! What about...

This next paragraph is mostly for the Edge-Casers out there (I count myself as one of them, so I get you).

Yes, if you're a doctor who keeps amputating the wrong leg, or a firefighter who sprays the wrong house, or a zookeeper who keeps leaving the lion cage door open - if the mistake is something that we cannot allow to happen more than once, then yes, you probably shouldn't try to apply the 10 Times Rule.

What I am asking of you is to evaluate if the 10 Times Rule is even possible, and if it is, try it, and let the results speak for themselves.

As with anything, let the Practice prove itself to you.

And as always, thanks for listening.

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eheiberg

@eheiberg

Practical developer who codes to not code

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You've told me this story before but you must have told it differently because this is the first time I realized your sales manager was also a Zen master.