Edmund Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, were the first people to have successfully reached the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. Christopher Columbus is generally recognized as the first person to have sailed across the Atlantic from Europe to North America in 1492. (I am aware that Columbus was not actually the first person to cross the Atlantic, but for my purposes it’s not worth splitting hairs.)
Hillary had a clearly defined goal. His “definition of done” was clear: when he reached the peak of the mountain, planted a flag and high-fived his climbing buddy, then he was done. Columbus, on the other hand, set off in his boats across the Atlantic on a speculative venture; he sort of hoped if he sailed in one direction long enough that he’d bump into the thing he was looking for.
Earlier in my career, I was more of a Columbus type. I’d say, well, let’s just start writing code and see where it takes us. But, as I’ve gained experience I’ve become much more of a Hillary type. Now I say, what mountain are we trying to climb?
When you know your definition of done, then its much easier to make a plan to get there. ”Oh, I need to get to the top of that mountain…well, let’s figure out what obstacles we need to overcome to get there. We need some boots and warm clothes and rations.”
When you know your definition of done, it’s easier to make milestones. See, you don’t climb a mountain in a day; most things of value aren’t done in a day. ”Well, the weekend before I’re going to shop for supplies, and on the first night I’m going to climb to basecamp…” and so on. It turns out that when you have a definition of done, and start to break it down into milestones, that each milestone has it’s own little definition of done too.
Earlier in this post I spoke inaccurately. Hillary’s definition of done wasn’t to summit Everest. I had that all wrong. It was to summit Everest and make it home alive. See, a clear definition of done can be tricky…one must really consider everything involved. (NASA could probably shoot a man or woman to Mars if they weren’t interested in bringing them back home!)
These ideas to apply to life as well as work. Recently, I set a milestone for where I wanted to be in my life at age 50. I described want I wanted my life to be like then. Now, I’m working backwards trying to figure out the milestones for how to get there. Previously, I’d been living my life more like Columbus…doing the most interesting or enjoyable thing in front of me and typically that led to good places. As I’ve said so may times it drives my wife mad, my general life strategy was to “follow my nose”. These days, I’m living a bit more like Hillary.
My question for you is are you Hillary or Columbus?