On Being Stuck, Part 1

In mid-1987, I was in trouble. Not real, actual trouble, but deadline trouble. I was supposed to be making great gains on my master’s thesis, but I wasn’t. In fact I was stuck. “Software Testing Strategies for Automatic Test Data Generators” was going nowhere.

I don’t today remember exactly what the pressure was, but I remember feeling plenty of it. I was in excellent shape, but I had developed terrible abdominal cramps. They hurt so bad that I couldn’t tell whether it was my abs cramping, or some kind of organ thing. I had even stopped working out for a week or so.

The doctor—I think his name was Rodriguez—took my vitals and started asking me questions about what was going on in my life: what all I was working on, what my grades were, stuff like that. After talking for a bit, I remember he put down his clipboard and looked me in the eyes.

He told me there was nothing wrong with my guts, I was fine. My cramps were muscular, from stress. He told me he could prescribe some muscle relaxers, but that’s not what I needed. He told me what I needed was to lighten up on myself a little bit. He said go get a good, hard workout with my friends, get some sleep, and spend some time assigning priorities to the work in front of me. Then, just get it done, in priority order, one bite at a time.

As much as I loved my job writing software at United Technologies, I decided that my thesis had to come first. I had to knock that out and finish my degree, which is the whole reason I moved to Colorado. I was not going to be one of those not-quite-100%-done-with-my-master’s people. So, I told my boss that I’d need to work fewer hours each week until I got my thesis done, but don’t worry, I’m getting the thesis done soon.

If you’ve only skimmed it to here, here’s what you missed:

  1. I felt so much pressure.
  2. I got help.
  3. I set clear priorities.
  4. I reorganized my resources around those priorities.

Now I could focus on getting unstuck.

So, again I asked for help. Which was out of character for me. I wasn’t the type of person back then who would think to do that. But in grad school, for the first time ever, I was part of a group of friends that didn’t just hang out together, they did their schoolwork together. They helped each other study. And it seemed to work really well.

So I asked a friend—my best friend Henry—if he would mind helping me.

  1. I got more help.

I asked Henry if he could spend one hour with me, every Friday at a scheduled time, just to talk about my thesis. He agreed. The very first Friday, I showed him what I had and explained why I felt stuck. Of course, this got me unstuck. I remember leaving the first meeting excited to no end.

Henry was in the computer science program, too, so he asked great questions that made my thesis both more correct and more interesting. The weekly cadence kept me moving forward (the idea of showing up empty-handed to one of our meetings was unthinkable). Each discussion would vitalize my interest in the next chunk of work I needed to do. Yadda yadda yadda, one day I was done. I finished my thesis, passed my defense and, in so doing, completed the requirements for my degree.

  1. Make profit.

My friend Henry helped me cross the finish line. I’m not sure I’d have done it without him.

In my next article, I’ll write more about the subject of being stuck.


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Comments

One response to “On Being Stuck, Part 1”

  1. Jared K Still Avatar
    Jared K Still

    Great article, looking forward to the rest of the story.

    Interesting technique of summarizing mid article, I like it, though I didn’t need it.

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