After a steep ascent, the trail flattened slightly and I was able to finally raise my eyes up and sight up the path, stretching my neck against my pack. The trail was suddenly striped with sunlight after a morning of near persistent drear and drizzle. The birch sat there, glinting in the brightness, persistent, insistent and verdantly green.
“Kill your darlings,” I thought.
The tree had been the victim of a blow-down. It’s not unusual to find these curiosities in the woods – the tree ripped from the soil, taking a good chunk of topsoil along with it. Sometimes without clear cause, as though it had just grown tired and decided to give up the life vertical, a tree falls over, frequently topping its upper third and most of its larger branches. The fine fingers and filaments of its dirty roots dangle in the air and soon die. The tree then dies, too, and it becomes the purview of the slugs and mushrooms. The root canopy dries and ages into a very cool little place for small people to enact feral child fantasies.
But this old birch had defied that history. The root canopy was, indeed, dry but the cavern it created was buttressed by roots. Living, authoritative, roots. These roots, feet off the ground, white and papery, had thickened and driven hard down into the dirt. They crept over the boulders the uproot had exposed, like octopus tentacles. The trunk had come to rest on a small boulder but that hadn’t saved the top half of the white birch which lay 25 feet up the trail, deeper in the woods and deep, deep in decay. The bottom three branches, however, had, in response to their new circumstances, turned their leafy heads 90-degrees and groped for the sky. They, too, had become thick and, in turn, branched into multitudes. And at their terminus, in the early June White Mountain Spring, tiny triangular birch leaves fluttered.
Adapt or die. Accept change or risk losing everything the organism has endeavored to achieve. Let go of what one thought one was to become and be what one is.
Kill your darlings. Faulkner’s oft-quoted phrase is frequently used to admonish young writers to edit critically, even when that means killing off beloved, favored words, sentences, paragraphs, themes and even characters. It is advice I have clearly not taken here but let’s set that aside for the time being.
It is hard advice to internalize. “Young” writers interpret everything that pours out of their minds as sacred and, if not used as they had initially envisioned, irrevocably lost. Their cuts are shallow and superficial. Experienced writers know that beyond just characters and words and sentences, “Kill your darlings” means that, in order to save the very heart of what you must bring into the world, sometimes you need to kill whole stories. Delete, delete, delete. Stare at the white page and, with the clarity of knowing that down that old path, no matter how promising at first view, lay nothing that serves the goals of the organism, begin again. The effort was not fruitless but edifying.
I’ve mentioned the concept of “Kill your darlings” as it relates to custom software development before – but with a bit of sugar and a whole dose of handwaving. It can be a hard concept in the extremes of its manifestation in custom software development.
We use a development methodology that is based on concepts discussed in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It’s a book that has received a lot of buzz in the software development industry and its concepts have made their way out into the more generalized Business theater. But like those naive writers, the interpretation of The Lean Startup’s tenets are often shallow and superficial. Comfortable. In many ways. But for the purpose of this post, I’ll just focus on the killing of the darlings part…what Ries euphemistically calls “pivoting”.
Just to be clear: “Pivoting” can mean killing the whole darned application concept. All of it. It can mean staring at the work of the past month or the past few months and, when evaluated hard and critically, deciding that the approach simply isn’t sustainable. That the approach doesn’t actually meet the goals the organism was endeavoring to achieve. It can mean delete, delete, delete and deciding if the idea is EVER going to be sustainable. If the ideas will ever converge into a functional application.
It can mean that, faced with failure, you abandon the idea of what a tree is and how it looks and instead, topped and uprooted, reach for the air and the soil and be sideways. That’s what pivoting is. Rather literally.
You can read Parts II and III of this series here: Four Pounds of Nuts: Exploring The Lean Startup Though Nature, Part II; Maps and Territories: Exploring “The Lean Startup’ through Nature, Part III
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