The Virtues (and Vices) of Deadlines

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What kind of student were you? The kind that got all your homework done before school ended so you could play guilt-free the whole weekend, or the kind that played all weekend and crammed your homework assignment in that space of time between Sunday dinner and bedtime?

Sorry if I just caused tonight’s nightmare for you. No doubt these questions bring up horrible memories for those who the phrase “no more pencils, no more books…” was last uttered decades ago. Similarly, those still subject to the school bell probably wish to avoid these questions the same way they want to avert their eyes from the coming weeks’ advertising circulars trumpeting all their “back to school” sales.

It could be worse folks. I could write just another ad nauseum piece on the latest hearsay regarding the Resistance’s latest (so far successful) efforts to run out the clock on the Trump presidency.

Ah, that clock of which I speak… The clock, when you’re a student, represents both the prison you’re bound to and the freedom you dream of enjoying. Sitting in your standard-issue antiseptic plasticine desk chair in the middle of the school day, the minute hand on the clock taunts you with its sluggish movement. By the end of the day, as that same hand approaches the appointed hour, you watch for that last click, knowing the sound of it signals freedom. No matter how temporary, you relish the thought of that freedom. It inspires visions of unbound playtime, happy friends, and relaxation.

Then, just before the click sounds, your teacher dashes your naïve notions as the evening’s homework assignment is announced.

Anyone past the age of high school can offer this dire warning to idealistic youngsters: It doesn’t end when you graduate from high school. And, no, it doesn’t end when you graduate from college, either. Nope. Your entire life will forever be a series of someone else’s imposed deadlines. Even if you own your own company, someone else (i.e., your client) is always telling you what to do (and you better enjoy serving your clients or you may as well sell your business).

Since you’re condemned to live a life of deadlines, it’s perhaps best to view them as a sort of Yin/Yang thing. For those of you not familiar with ancient Chinese principle of Yin and Yang (it dates back to at least the third century BC), it espouses the concept that opposites exist inseparably. Think of it as a single coin with two opposing sides.

So, what’s the “heads and tails” of deadlines. Well, think of that old school room clock. That one analog face becomes a metaphor for both imprisonment and freedom. It at once binds you to the classroom while it also releases you from it.

On the surface, we use deadlines as arbitrary constraints. They tell us when something should be completed by. They force us to stop ideating, stop brainstorming, and stop inventing. That sounds bad, right? But let’s consider the Yang to this Yin (or is it the Yin to this Yang?). Deadlines also tell us to start building, to start testing what we’ve built, and, ultimately, to start showing off what we’ve accomplished. We see that deadlines are simultaneously constraining and productive.

Productive constraints? Doesn’t that sound counter intuitive. Not really. If we’ve ever heard the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” we know the positive nature of productive constraints. (I’ll leave it for others to argue whether we can best trace the origin of the adage to Voltaire – “The best is the enemy of the good” – Confucius – “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without” – or Shakespeare – “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”)

Consider this: Had John F. Kennedy not given us a deadline when he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade,” would Neil Armstrong have set foot on the moon in 1969? Moreover, in declaring this lunar mission, JFK knew exactly who the enemy was. It wasn’t as so many believe, the Soviets. They may have been the impetus, but they would not be the moon project’s foe. No, to get a better idea who he thought would be the obstacle, read the rest of his words. He said we choose to go to the moon “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

I’ve added the italics to President Kennedy’s words because that’s where he identifies the true opponent. We’ve all known someone at work who epitomized “paralysis by analysis.” These are the folks who constantly question whether an idea, invention, or solution will work. Eventually, and for this insight I am forever grateful to my training as a scientist, we must test the notion, the product, the hypothesis. After all, unless we work at a think tank, our mission is to do, to take action, to achieve. Our mission, in our own little way, is to go to the moon.

Personally, I hate deadlines. They are the unmerciful warden overseeing my time here on Earth. I would wish them away if I could.

But I can’t. For all the vices they entail, I remain lured by their virtue. I understand and accept that, were it not for deadline, some of my greatest work would never have seen the light of day.

I’ve made my peace with deadlines as only the little kid in me who once wanted to be an astronaut (or rocket designer). I no longer see deadlines as one sees the coming high noon of an execution. Rather, I see deadlines through the eyes of someone excitedly watching a NASA countdown to a launch that is destined to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Deadlines are the path by which we reach those unreachable stars.

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