The 365 Commitment

The Canary Approach

George McCaa, U.S. Bureau of Mines

The story goes in my family, that my Grandfather Warren took a job in a coal mine as a youngster. They used during those times hydraulic pumps that would work drilling equipment deep within the mine. The long tubes would run the length of the mine until they reached the drilling location. They would snake and weave throughout the mine floor as you made your way down into the dark, dusty death trap. On this particular day, the hydraulic tube came loose and under so much pressure, started whipping throughout the narrow mine shaft. This severed an unfortunate man into several pieces and they consequently had to transport him, in all his pieces, up out of the mineshaft. The mining foreman, with little fanfare, told my Grandfather to go ahead and take his place.

Needless to say, I think my Grandfather quit right there on the spot. Mining was definitely not for him. This was, as it were, the ultimate canary for Warren. A harbinger of what was to come if he were to continue to make his way earning a living in a coal mine. During the early days of British mining, there was a tradition of using canary’s in small cages to take with them down into the mining shaft. The purpose was to detect the early stages of carbon monoxide poisoning. If the bird, with its small lung capacity were to die then the miners would know that that the gas was building up and the ventilation system was failing. According to this Smithsonian Article, the canaries would eventually get replaced by an automated machine that would produce an electronic buzzing sound when carbon monoxide would reach dangerous levels. Canary’s, btw, were especially capable of detection because of their unique ability to absorb oxygen at both inhale and exhale. This enables them to survive at very high altitudes.

A side note, miners were conflicted when the canary’s got replaced. Sure they felt it more humane, but they got used to the comforting little songs they would sing deep within in the mine-shafts, creating a sense of hope and belonging. These little birds became pets, and with it, a bit of superstitious foreboding when they left. The miners became dependent on the canary’s.

Which leads me to my point. In software development circles, we have started to use this canary concept to represent a quick trial process to determine efficacy. If the canary project does not work out, then we save a lot of money instead of moving the entire operation in a failed path. Rather we can float a canary project first to see if our ideas work out before committing more resources to the idea. I have been thinking a lot about this concept for personal development lately. Over the years, I have put a lot of time into projects to improve myself. Some of these take quite a bit of time and energy to get ready for, and can sometimes be rather expensive. Anyone who has gone out to get a gym membership, only to never use it, will know exactly what I am talking about.

So I am working on this experiment. I am going to start little improvement canary projects. See how they work out, if they die really quickly then no harm and no foul. However, if they stick around and survive, then perhaps that would be a good indicator that this particular idea is worth my full investment of time and conviction.

Guy Reams

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