Accountability Mechanisms

I have a concept what I call ‘accountability mechanisms’. It’s not too different from what others talk about. These are tools that keep me working hard and in good ways without having to ‘pay’ someone to do that. An extrinsic motivator; a teacher, trainer, or editor, would (hopefully) do the same thing but those come at a cost and can be marginally effective. It’s best if I’m motivated intrinsically or with a minimum of outside influence.

I’ve used these in my project life for continuous improvement. I’m looking back at what I’ve done in the past 35 years or so and I’m seeing what an important role they’ve played in me progressing at the rate that I have. I’m a lazy bastard so this is very important to me. Left to my own devices, I’m going to do little. Motivate me, and I’ll move mountains. So, how?

Most of us have accountability mechanisms that we are born into. Those that we have to our parents, our teachers, our employers. We get direct feedback from them to guide us and our behavior. Too little or too much enforcement of those systems will shape us into who we are and how we produce. Still these are about us conforming to them.

We’re also accountable to two other primary actors in our lives. Our community and ourselves. For these, things get a bit trickier.

Our community relies on us and we rely on it. Humans die without other humans. We are born in debt to our tribe and our debt accrues each day we live in it. This as this glorious world that we’ve joined was conceived and built by generations before us. We have an amazing life to live because of what they did. We owe part of ourselves to the tribe, to foster and improve it. We must leave it better than how we found it. But there’s a problem here. Most functional societies have effective mechanisms for punishing bad behavior. Those can be confinement, execution, expulsion, or penalties of all types. There aren’t many effective mechanisms for encouraging good behavior. Status is the primary mechanism around us for that but that is easily twisted. Fear or grace of ‘god’ is another. Even a code of ethics can work. This is all a very big topic and not what is intended in this discussion.

My focus here is our accountability to ourselves. One of the big issues that I’ve noticed for others (and myself) is that while the previously mentioned mechanisms to others may function well or not with regard to our accountability to them, they fail completely when it comes to that of ourselves.

Many young people may perform at a very high level while going through school when they are looking for the approval of parents and teachers. They may even do well with their careers when they are looking for the approval of their employers. But what happens when the subjects aren’t at work, when their parents live away or are dead, when they aren’t enrolled in school? That’s when we can start really seeing how accountable they are to themselves. A lot of folks simply aren’t.

Most people should have been learning about personal accountability since a young age. A good parent will teach that. Still, there is an easy framework in place during that time with school and under a parent’s roof. Some folks learn this well, but not many. Most people don’t learn this and they do just enough to get by for those supporting them.

For others, they may quickly have their own children and are now far more accountable to them then themselves… and for understandable reasons. Parenting is by definition selfless. But a good parent absolutely needs to be the right role model for their child and have lessons to teach. Children learn most through modeling. They still need to know about developing personal accountability.

In my life, I had a pesky start. I had parents with some good traits to model and others that were pretty bad. I didn’t find a place in school. I had to start my ‘career’ doing some pretty hard and menial work. Over time, I got better and found my place in the world. 

The big difference for me was some personal accountability for staying on some path toward the future and some curiosity about the world and my place in it.

But that isn’t what I consider the big shift. It was something else. It was a mechanism, a tool, that could be used to push me harder than I could myself. I didn’t even know that I was setting this up at the time but I see it now.

The blog that you’re reading now… is that tool. What started life as a web page to answer repeated forum questions in a more in depth way than could be in a message board. It was easily hyperlinked to. It got built out more in time. Then it turned into a wiki, and now it’s blog. I use it as my portfolio, my engineer’s notebook, my voice.

But this isn’t a private enterprise. People from around the world read it and I’ve enjoyed many emails from every continent (except Antarctica IIRC). People regularly read my words from today and from decades ago.

I’ve developed an ethic around keeping this platform, to reflect the work. To record my intention and communicate it to others that aren’t intimately involved with it. This relates to the Feynman technique of learning. I find, that if I can’t communicate it well, either through prints, pictures, or words, then I don’t understand it. When I can’t use clear and easy to understand language to communicate, then I’m probably pretending. I also don’t want to look like a fool, to say wrong things, to make messy prints. I want the words and images to reflect very accurately my understanding. Clean. Clear.

This, in return, forces me to ensure my understanding. To check. To make sure. To re-draw. To hyperlink references. I learn more and deeper in this process. I do the math. If I put something up and learn that it was wrong, I go back and fix it. It’s all forced me to raise my bar for my work. Show it well. Be accountable. Be clear.

So, looking back on this, I think about what the ways are that we can set ourselves up for such a mechanism.

  1. Portfolio: Most of us need a portfolio. It shows others and history what have actually done. Talk is cheap, actions matter. Preferably, you have enough work under you to filter out good examples to show the extent of your capacity. Since this is what you will be judged by, do a dam good job with this. Go back and clean up old work. Present it well. Take better photos. Write exhaustively about what made each piece of work important or interesting. You should be able to produce several thousand words describing ten lines of code. Producing the calculations, drawings, descriptions, and all that takes time, iterations, and effort to do well. Start now! Revise often. Portfolio work can be entirely virtual or conceptual, as a quality artifact is merely the necessary by-product of sufficient planning and understanding. Keep this current. Imagine that at any time of the day that Elon Musk or Barack Obama is reviewing your portfolio. Would it help if you showed yourself as best you can in that case?! OK, then step up to that.
  2. Get lucky: Luck is when preparation and opportunity collide. So get more lucky. Be prepared for yourself and put yourself in situations that will create opportunities. Eating Cheetos and sitting on the couch in the basement playing video games in the most unlucky thing you could do, and you do that to yourself. Do the opposite. Do the work to be ready for what you dream and get yourself in the line of fire. Go to events, meetups, talks. Take tours. Join a team. Lucky people showed up.
  3. Journaling: It’s not just for teenage girls. Writing, wherever you do, organizes your thoughts and gets you to reflect on things. If you’re honest, you’ll be writing about weak work and beat yourself up over it. As you write, preferably with the ability to move your words, sentences, and paragraphs around, you’ll find that your thoughts become more clear. You start seeing a pathway. At the very least, you build a habit of using the correct vocabulary for your work.
  4. Post Mortem / Debrief: You’ve done a thing. Great. Now what? It’s time to review it. Did it solve the problem? Was there a better way that you didn’t realize until you got to testing? We often learn how well we did only after. Take that time. Review what happened. What was good. What was bad. If you can see this, then you can do something about it, hopefully, next time before it’s made.
  5. Make failure valuable: There is a rumor that failure is a valuable learning opportunity. Few seem to believe this. If it is the case, show it. Be open about failure and what was learned (or that you had hoped to learn) from it. Treating a failure with the same respect as a success helps clarify our mistakes and processes. I’ve written at length about my poor judgment or lack of preparation. Spending the time and showing that is something that helps me and hopefully others.
  6. Critical peers: If your friends applaud your work when you know it’s bad, you have a really bad problem. Do they want you to suck? Do they lie to you? I value friends that call me out on my bullshit and keeping them in my life makes me better. They call me out because they want me to do better. I can also trust them. I can’t trust someone who doesn’t notice me not showing up.
  7. Intellectual honesty. I love intellectual honesty. When you’re being honest like this, you’re able to call what you do garbage, weak, lame. If your being honest and you can say that you aren’t doing the work…listen.
  8. Authenticity and integrity: Integrity is what we do when nobody is watching. Authenticity is what we do when everyone is watching. While it’s easy to get tempted to act out or be someone else, it’s easier just to do the work and take the risks to rise to who you can be. You’re really letting yourself down to be anyone else.
  9. Goals that build higher level status: Dreaming of being a baller and getting bottle service at a night club is a pretty pathetic goal. That’s for children. The status that you’d gain from that is the most shallow and least valuable type. How are you helping the tribe? My goals are to advance the artform and public understanding of bicycles, motorcycles, and skateboards. I’m not feeding the poor but it’s exactly what might help just the right person at just the right time…and it’s authentic. It’s me.
  10. Anonymity is cowardice: It’s currently popular to interact in the virtual world anonymously. DON’T DO THAT. Nothing will rot your soul quicker. Think about what you say. Stand behind your words. If you were wrong or need to apologize, say so. Most people still won’t know who you are.. but you will.
  11. Public facing work: When we produce work that is in the public eye, we tend to want to present it as well as we can. This gets us cleaning, and polishing but also doing things right. We finish fully.
  12. Competition: In what I do, I imagine that I’m in a real competition. Others may race bicycles for competition. I design bikes for competition. Merely changing this framing forces me to show up differently. If I know that there are four other designers in the world doing what I’m doing, and this is a race, I’m going to work hard to stay ahead. THIS IS NOT SHALLOW! You’d never think that about your athlete friend. Why would you think poorly of the artist or engineer that is competing against others?
  13. Calling cards and signatures: I’ve always carried calling cards. They have my name and contact information on them. I can slide them under a doorway or quickly put them into someone’s hand. Do this at the bottom of your emails. You just met PETER VERDONE. Don’t know who that is? Find out motherfucker. Here’s how.
  14. Shame: Shame is when we actively remove someone’s status. It’s the most terrible thing in the world for any of us (status being the holy grail of motivators). When you fake something, don’t try, do bad work, then join the angry mob and tear that bitch down. Teach yourself a lesson so that next time, you do right.
  15. Pride: It’s a deadly sin but it can be leveraged well. Be proud of what you do and make it as good as you can. Do the extra work so that you can show off what you’ve done. Be honest about what your proud of. Don’t deceive yourself. Self deception is easy.
  16. Tearing muscles: Every time we rise up to a level that we didn’t know we had in us sets a new ceiling. It’s just like getting physically stronger, our muscles are torn to grow back stronger. We now know how much we have to do next time, at least. But we don’t do the least. We do more than that again and again. This is how we grow strong.
  17. Resume and LinkedIn: Keep this current. Show your record. No results here is a bad sign when I’m checking your stats. If I look you up and you’re legit, I’m going to want to work with you. You never know when opportunity will come up and having these ready could be a value. Way back when I was a kid, I used to keep a copy of my resume in my wallet. Just in case. Thinking about what that was saying about me forced me to question where I was going.
  18. You don’t get do overs: History never changes. It’s fixed. If you did a poor job, that’s what is said. You will look back with embarrassment in 10 years. Do you future self a favor, make them something to be proud of.

I highly suggest you find some of these in your life. We are all different and at different points in our lives. One that is most obvious and available for a young person is portfolio development and documentation.