A hand-cranked pump in a rice field

The Well in the Field

When I was a child, I lived with my parents in the woods. We had an old-fashioned hand-dug well, the kind from storybooks that looks like a big hole in the ground lined with stacked stones. In summer, if there was a drought, the well would sometimes run dry.

There was another well in a neighboring field. It was deeper, or perhaps just in a better spot, and it would often still have water when our own well was dry. So my mother and I would take a cart filled with water vessels, and trek across the field.

On these excursions, my mother would carry with her a one-gallon jug already filled with water. Because the well in the field was an old-fashioned hand-pump that had to be primed. Priming the pump meant that before getting any water out of it, we had to first pour water down into it, while vigorously cranking the ancient, rusty lever. If successful, this process would yield a steady stream of fresh water from deep in the ground.

This procedure has stuck with me as one of the most recurrently meaningful metaphors in my personal vocabulary. There are so many moments in life which require “priming a pump”: temporarily exhausting a resource of something, in the faith and hope that I will get more of that resource in return.

One context that has consistently brought this mental image to mind has been that of delegation.

Back in 2015, I was swamped: I had too much to do, not enough time to do it in, and four beautiful children who deserved more of my attention than they got. And I’d known what I needed to do—or at least, I’d known part of the solution—for quite a while.

I knew that what I needed to do was delegate. But delegation required such a monumental initial outlay of extra effort, that I put it off and put it off. The thought of what it would take to get someone else up to speed led me to feel like I simply couldn’t afford to take the time that delegation would require.

In November 2015 I made concerted effort to get over that blockage and start “priming the pump” in earnest. And yes, it was a huge task. But I was also been reminded of just how helpful and clarifying it can be to delegate a task.

  • First, it meant I had to explicitly state the steps. For instance, writing the SIGAVDI newsletter (in those days) turned out to have several discrete steps: cloning a template; filling in some boilerplate parts like the “RubyTapas menu”; writing the main content; and then populating a new Mailchimp campaign and scheduling it for delivery. Sometimes just enumerating the steps helped me to streamline the process.
  • It prompted me to factor out the parts that could be easily automated or systematized. For instance, creating a basic Markdown template for drafting the newsletter.
  • It forced me to be less precious and standardize on well-understood tools. For my video production workflow, this has meant moving away from the poorly-supported, poorly documented, Windows-only Sony-Vegas-plus-various-obscure-plugins stack and switching to the ubiquitous Adobe Creative Cloud suite of applications. I immediately started seeing fringe benefits from making this (difficult) transition.
  • Most importantly, it made me document the process. That often consisted of making rough screencasts that I could send to my assistant. This documentation work in turn helped me to more clearly articulate and understand what I was trying to accomplish. Sometimes explaining the process even yielded new insights about how I could do it better.

Beginning delegation can feel like dumping time and labor down an old dilapidated well pump, especially when I’ve been off of the delegation wagon for a long time. But it’s worth the effort, in my experience. It’s one of the few career skills I’ve found that feels like a genuine superpower once that pump is primed.

This post is based on thoughts that originally appeared in SIGAVDI #8, published November 2015. Since then I’ve also experienced what it feels like to delegate too much. I’ll write about that too, one of these days!