Setbacks, Software, and the Prince of Egypt

Yesterday, I watched The Prince of Egypt with my kids. While it adds to the Biblical story significantly, the great film creates a credible, emotionally rich version of Moses. Raised in privilege in Pharaoh’s household, Moses discovers his Hebrew heritage and tries to fight for justice, only to find himself rejected by his kinsmen and on the run from Egypt as a fugitive. Only after living for years in exile does he receive his call from God and return to Egypt as the vehicle for the Hebrews’ emancipation.

As I watched, I realized something: the setbacks faced by Moses prepared him for God speaking into his life. He could have simply identified himself with the ruling elite of Egypt, except that he can’t ignore that he is part of an oppressed people — and that he himself was nearly killed by Pharaoh’s cruelty. His failed attempt to bring justice to Egypt made him realize the limits of human ability, while his exile in Midian became the occasion for his call from God. The Prince of Egypt does an especially good job of showing us Moses’ transformation from a brash, reckless young man into a humbled servant of God. With the full context of his story in mind, Moses’ feelings of inadequacy make more sense: he has already tried and failed. If he wanted Israel to be freed from slavey, his only option was to rely on God.

Turning Setbacks into Success

At my work, we recently completed a massive, 9-month-long software project. The project, for the most part, was a terrific success, but it didn’t always look like it would be. Right as we were moving from the design phase to implementation, one of our key team members left the company. Not only was our schedule thrown completely off, but we were left with a sizable skills and experience gap. We didn’t know when we would be able to begin the implementation, much less finish it.

Last week, we held a retrospective meeting to discuss the project. Another colleague observed that, though we didn’t know it at the time, our teammate’s departure triggered a series of events that contributed greatly to the project’s success.

  • As we were interviewing candidates to replace him, we met a highly experienced developer who we brought in for a few days’ consulting. He provided us a significantly improved architecture and framework that carried us through the rest of the project.
  • My supervisor and I had to take a much greater role than we originally planned, giving us deeper knowledge of the software and our systems. For me, especially, it gave me the chance to work much more closely with colleague  I didn’t know very well; we now have a very strong partnership.
  • Because we were now down one team member, we found a local development company to help us with part of the work. This not only introduced us to a resource that we can now use for future projects, but also required us to document the software much more thoroughly than we would have if it had remained an in-house project.
  • The new person we hired had a skill set very well suited for the work we were tackling. As usually happens when a new colleague is hired, we’ve gained a fresh perspective on our work. He’s been an excellent addition to our team.

If our original team member had never left, I’m sure we would have completed the project. But I’m not sure that the project would have turned out as well. The setback required us to become more creative, more flexible, and much more efficient with our resources.

Setbacks as Opportunities for Change

On the most recent TED Radio Hour, psychologist Dan Gilbert discussed the effect of misfortune on one’s happiness. His research conclusions? Not much. After losing a job, suffering a personal lose, even enduring the death of a child, a person’s happiness returned to “normal” levels after about three months. For that matter, good events – a promotion, winning the lottery, getting married – had basically the marginal impact. Happiness, as far as he could tell, was most powerful in the moment as a kind of “emotional compass.” If we were sad, then we needed to change. If we were happy, then we should keep going in the same direction.

I wonder if we should think about setbacks in the same sort of way. Some things, of course, are more difficult to work through than others. Moses’ failure to liberate the Hebrew slaves on his own is a setback several orders of magnitude greater than my software project’s problems. Both setbacks, though, acted as a kind of compass that required reorientation: “This isn’t working. It’s time to try something else.”

As suits the greater magnitude of his problem, Moses’ setback required a much longer period of reorientation: 40 years in Midian, living with the people of his father-in-law Jethro. In The Prince of Egypt, we see Jethro (a Gentile) teaching Moses about God and about how to live a properly-oriented life. Even though the film takes great liberties here, Jethro serves as a mentor to Moses in his early days leading the nation of Israel. After 40 years in the household of Pharaoh, perhaps Moses needed 40 years in the household of Jethro to prepare him to hear God’s word.

To put it another way, what if Moses had been able to go straight from Pharaoh’s household to become the leader of the Hebrews? Would he have believed that violent rebellion was the key to liberation? Would he have been ready to reject Pharaoh’s cruelty and oppression, or would he have been motivated to seek some sort of compromise? What would he have known of Israel’s true God?

His setbacks helped form Moses into the kind of person ready to hear and obey God’s word. Can our setbacks do the same for us?

Photo credit: John Brosz via Flickr

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