The Bear in the Cornfield


—Andy Hunt

10/20/2003
Published in Andy's Blog

Ok, I don’t know if this is in any way true, but I’m told that smarter bears have an interesting habit.

It seems that bears will often come down from the woods and raid cornfields. On their way out, arms laden with corn, they will likely drop a couple of ears.

Now the bear has a couple of choices at this point: he can bend over (arms still laden with corn) and try to retrieve the few missing ears. But he may well drop additional ears in the process, and then have to bend and twist to retrieve those. And on and on. Eventually the enraged farmer with the shotgun sees the bear, and the story ends with a new rug for the farmer’s den.

Smarter bears take a different approach. If they only drop an ear or two, well, that’s no big deal: the risk of losing the whole load or getting shot isn’t worth a few ears of corn. They cut their losses and keep moving. If the bear stumbles and loses more than just a few ears, though, they will start over: they will drop the entire armful and load up again properly.

They know that chasing an ear at a time while trying to balance the main load can be a never-ending spiral. For each ear they pick up, they may lose another one—or even more than one. But by consciously starting over, and loading up all of the corn properly (as they did in the first place), they guarantee they’ll get home with all the corn.

Career management is subject to the same stresses. If you stop to randomly pick up a stray ear, you may lose more than you bargained for. Sometimes you need to just STOP, and start over properly. It’s amazing how much more corn you can hold that way.

As you’ve undoubtedly read elsewhere, Dave and I have started a publishing company for pragmatic ideas. Our first effort is the pragmatic Starter Kit, a series of books to help build a firm foundation on topics that beginners may not know well, and that experienced hands could know better.

I have to admit, I learned a lot by the time the version control book was done, and I’ve used CVS for well over ten years.

As important as continuous learning is, continuous UN-learning is just as critical: un-learning bad habits, half-truths, and work-arounds that used to make sense but don’t anymore.

Sometimes you’ve just got to drop the corn and start over.

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