don’t just try harder – level up

A friend of mine (lets call him John) wanted to create a theatre company and produce devised pieces based on clowning techniques (when I say clown, think Homer Simson, not Krusty). He succeeded in his grant applications, got a very talented bunch of performers together, the best director in the field, and started devising.
It was all going really well, except for one thing.

He himself.

John just wasn’t … well, being very funny. But he’d had the training, no matter, these things take time. So they went in a different direction… Still he just didn’t seem to be getting it.

So he Tried Harder.

But the harder he tried the more he mugged, the more desperate, the more unfunny.

They pushed on.

Time was running out, and the project that was John’s dream and passion for years was now his nightmare. He was just way out of his league. He was humiliated. But the director would not let him pull out, “John, you’re trying too hard, just be yourself”. He kept on pushing him, the cast kept on supporting him, until there was only a few weeks left. Then the director gathered everyone together and said that John had an announcement to make and an apology.

So in front of the entire cast he got up, barely holding back the tears, he expressed his remorse at wasting their time. He then started explaining how devastated he was that he was just not funny. (The cast started sniggering.) In his vulnerable state he continued stubbornly and with great earnest… (The sniggers turned to open laughter) …and in the face of their obvious amusement, he knew he had to make them understood how he really felt. In the end he had them in complete stitches.

Their début performance remains one of the funniest things I have seen, and they are now an extremely successful international company.

Nice story Neil but so what?

Well, here’s another story. First person this time, and taking place at last year’s try{harder} conference conceived and organised by Lindsey Fallow (Stray). The first full day was devoted a to TDD pair programming retreat.

Stray: In the morning I’ve made sure all those less experienced with testing are partnered with someone with more experience.
Me: No you haven’t. You’ve put me and Michael together, he hasn’t done any testing before and I’m… oh…! oh I see…
Stray: I got the impression you’ve done quite a bit of testing. I noticed that yesterday you put yourself down for the beginners’ session. I was going to say something, but I thought – hey, he’s a grown man, he knows what he’s doing.

In the preceding three or four months to try {harder} I had engrossed myself in learning how to unit test. I had written tests for my AS3StateMachine, I had looked at other people’s tests, then re-written all of mine. I then wrote them again with a mocking framework and again without. I had even contributed some tests to AS3Signals. But I had never considered that this would qualify me as anything other than a beginner.

So we pair-programmed throughout the day in half-hour sessions, and at the end of each, secretly gave our partners a score depending on how much we thought they contributed to the partnership. So 50 would be the optimum partnership, more than 50 would indicate they were more dominant, and less that they gave less.
I can’t remember exactly what I gave my partners, but it was either a 50, or less, as often I felt that I had been too dominant in the relationship.

When Stray had collated the final scores at the end of the day I was mortified. Not because I had the lowest score but one, but because everybody I had partnered with had given me a 40. There was I in the breaks thinking “ooh I think I was a bit overbearing in that session” when in fact the other person thought that I could have given more.

And your point Neil?

Every day learning can be attained by reading a book on Robotlegs; following a tutorial on regular expressions; going on a course to learn javascript. But the leaps that hoist you up the ladder (or Levelling Up as Stray would say) are those lessons that you learn about yourself, and these can only be achieved through the eyes of others. When you next come to a moment in your life when you realise that you have absolutely no clothes on – what a great opportunity to try on something new.


Unfortunately I won’t be going to Level-up this Spring, as I have just had a baby daughter, however the mentors who will be are the best. To apply for this Spring’s Level-up try{harder] – and I heartily recommend you do visit:
try { harder } level up conference: 19th – 23rd March 2012

For a another perspective on try{harder}by Richard Lord:

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