Change — How Calvin and Hobbes teach us the way forward

Caedman Oakley
4 min readAug 25, 2020
Copyright Bill Watterson — go to https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes

There’s a full page Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where our two heroes are sledding down a hill. Calvin in typical fashion says “Let’s try this path over here!” — Hobbes can’t see a path and responds as such. Calvin, steering, says that they can make a path. The argument runs thus:

Change is invigorating! If you don’t accept new challenges, you become complacent and lazy! Your life atrophies!
New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That’s how we learn and grow!

Of course, it wouldn’t be Calvin and Hobbes without the protagonists ending up buried in the snow. As they fly off a precipice Calvin points out that flying is a new challenge, and the incidental joke is delivered by Hobbes “I’ll admit it’s opend up new horizons.”

In the final panel the Hobbes delivers the pithy truth. “The problem with new experiences is that they’re so rarely the ones you choose.” A typically sarcastic Calvin claims to feel smarter already.

The quick and easy takeaway here is that Change can be very risky. Calvin takes us down a path that isn’t clear, calls it change, and crashes. Case Closed — don’t change from the paths you are familiar with and you’ll be safe.

But there’s a deeper message here — Calvin is right : Change IS invigorating. Without change we DO become complacent. New experiences DO lead to new questions and solutions. Change helps us learn and grow.

Hobbes is also right — new experiences ARE rarely the ones you choose, and the chaos HAS opened up new horizons.

Calvin and Hobbes switch roles in this page. Hobbes as per usual starts off as the voice of reason, but by the end he has embraced change and while still sounding doubtful voices a learned lesson. Calvin starts off dramatically but learns nothing and shrugs it off with a smart-alec comment.

There are lessons to be learned here in the world of SRE/DevOps. Firstly the real cause of the crash is the inability to see where they are going — forging a new path without planning. Adopting a new tool or set of processes into production without evaluation is a recipe for disaster. If the tuna guzzler and tortellini hater had actually followed an established path (albeit new to them) the risk of crashing would be substantially lower. Note that it doesn’t have to be them going out and trudging around in the snow getting wet and tired, but they could follow where someone else has already gone and signposted.

Secondly the adoption of the path has to be complete. Change doesn’t happen without that adoption. Take the example of a marathon runner just starting out. It’s not enough to go through the motions. The adoption of the mindset and the tools has to be done hand in hand. If you have the mindset of a marathon runner but don’t adopt the tools of nutrition, training tracking, and run in your Doc Marten’s rather than running shoes, you aren’t likely to do well — even if you do complete the race — it will be painful and you won’t want to do it again. If you adopt the tools but don’t think like a marathoner (must get out and run and listen to the body etc.) the same is true — you’ll find problems and pain which could be avoided.

Thirdly adaptation. As we fly down the path, we embrace what is happening, and learn lessons from it so that we learn and don’t have to have the crash again. And that word is powerful : “AGAIN”. The experiment has to happen for the lesson to be learned. If we are truly forging ahead with new tooling, then we are going to have issues. Despite all the best planning and observation, no-one has done this the way that needs to happen at a given org. Change forces us to ADAPT. Looking back at our marathoner from before — as they train and learn, they will adapt to new lifestyles — getting up at 5am or whenever to go for their runs. They don’t need to start doing that before they start the training, but they do need to do it once they have adopted the mindset and toolset.

Fourthly — learning the lesson. In the SRE world we quite often figure out that we have learned the lesson when we become adept at the toolset. But the retrospective needs to happen even if nothing goes wrong. And looking back over the experience points out that yup — we didn’t choose this particular experience, but we learned from it and we can take that success.

This whole post started as a commentary on how to bring change to organizations. The outline was “Adopt, Adapt … Adept”. I’ve worked with several organizations to bring on-call rotations and CI/CD to their stack. This has met with a fair amount of resistance in terms of “we aren’t ready”-ness. I started writing this post as a way for others to see that if they Adopt a new toolset that has already been vetted by others, then they would Adapt to the new process and the result would be that they become Adept at running CI/CD and on-calls in their org.

I still have to write that post, because in adopting this style, I’ve had to adapt to what the comic was teaching me, not what I wanted it to teach. I am learning this lesson, and over time, perhaps, I might become adept at bringing commentary to SRE/DevOps with this shared experience approach.

You can take a look at the cartoon here (https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1995/12/17). Thanks to Bill Watterson: not only for starting this post, but also for helping me navigate college and understand others, and also giving voice to my inner child…. Let’s Go Exploring

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Caedman Oakley

I've been messing around with this DevOps thing for a while & like making cross-functional teams just kinda work right. Oh, and I like dogs. Sorry.