To every Card, turn turn turn, there is a season, turn turn turn, and a time for every Suit under heaven. It’s not the Suits, it’s the Game.

I think what follows is probably controversial, and that it may not be understood as I intend. I welcome feedback or articles from other viewpoints.

Hearts as Weapons[1]

Sometimes people use feelings as a weapon. “You hurt my feelings,” they say, which ends the discussion of why they released code that didn’t work without even running the tests. Suddenly the fact that the project was damaged, some other pair spent hours looking for a bug they didn’t write, that valuable time was lost has all been submerged. “You hurt my feelings.”

Don’t get me wrong. Feelings are important. We can’t work effectively when we are sad, or feel hurt, or in many other states of upset. We can’t function effectively, we can’t interact effectively. We’re hurt, damaged, broken. I get it. We feel bad. That’s bad. I’m not in favor of people feeling bad.

But I also know that people can manipulate our feelings to try to get us to do something. They can appeal to our emotions, try to make us feel guilty for not working a thousand hours a day or for wanting to be with our family once in a while. They can try to intimidate us, to make us feel fear so that we’ll do what they want. That can be bad, and I’m not in favor of people doing things that are bad.

However. We are together in this enterprise called our work day, our project, our company, our community, our world. We all have emotions. We all have passions.

What suddenly made it OK for Jack to stop the discussion of why two of us wasted a half a day looking for a mistake that Jack made, not because he’s human, but because he didn’t follow the process we have all agreed to follow, because the discussion “hurts his feelings”? What about the feelings of someone who cares about the work, who cares that it goes smoothly, who cares that people care? What about the feelings of someone who cares so much that other people not feel bad that they go around explaining why they shouldn’t feel bad? Aren’t these feelings just as valid, just as important?

Hearts Trump Clubs

If someone is using our feelings to club us into submission, to make us do something that’s bad for us and good for them, then by all means let’s resort to our hearts and use them to turn to the right thing, not the power-monger’s thing.

But using Hearts as Trump turns Hearts into Clubs.

Hearts Trump Diamonds

If someone is using our feelings to induce us to make money for him, or for the company, at our expense, then by all means let’s resort to our hearts and keep in mind what’s right for us, not just for them.

But using Hearts as Trump can cost us the precious Diamonds of other people’s caring.

Hearts Trump Spades

Still, we come together, motivated and inspired by our hearts, into some enterprise. It might be a company, a product, a department, a political party. A group of people – a team as we XP people like to call it – is a thing with some kind of purpose, a purpose that we can rally around and put, sometimes, to a proper degree, above ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for a moment that your payroll program is more important than you are, or than I am. I’ll happily reformat the last copy of the source code to save your life. Nonetheless, we did join this team with a purpose in mind, and if our team is funded by someone outside, the purpose probably isn’t “make all these programmers really happy.” It probably is something more like “get these programmers to write these programs.”

For some reason we have come together: the team has some work. It has a purpose, a point, a goal, an objective. To a degree, we are as individuals subordinate to that work. When we allow Hearts to trump the Spade of the work, we are setting the individual above the group, and above the goal.

Now of course – of course – the individual is above the goal, if we are talking about the true needs of the individual, or if we are talking about some petty aspect of the goal. On the other hand, if we’re really going to go out of business unless I come in this Saturday, in my opinion I owe it to all of us to get my butt in on Saturday. Every Saturday? No, I question whether that’s necessary, and if it’s not necessary then it’s not … necessary.

But if an individual’s actions hurt the team, is it always proper for them to play the Heart card and by saying “you hurt my feelings” stop the team’s progress toward becoming a better team? I don’t think so. I think Hearts are important but I don’t think they are Trump.

Wands, Pentacles, Cups, Swords

In the Tarot, the Clubs descend from the suit of Wands. They represent the peasant class, workers, energy, enterprise.

Diamonds descend from the Coins or Pentacles. They represent the merchant class, money, trade, fortune, business.

Hearts descend from the Cups. They represent happiness, love, emotional fulfillment.

Spades descend from the Swords, representing courage, boldness, strife and aggression, even enemies and hatred.

In the Tarot, none of these “Minor Arcana” are bad or good. What is important is how the individual cards are arranged, how they interact. In the Tarot, it’s how we come together, not what our suit or value is, that makes the difference.

I’m here to suggest that the Tarot is a better model for what we’re about than “Hearts are Trump”.

The Game is No Trump

There’s no easy answer. Are your feelings hurt? OK, let’s acknowledge that. Let’s also acknowledge that our feelings are our feelings. I don’t cause your feelings, though I may influence them. You don’t cause my feelings: you influence them.

If we are to progress together in whatever our purpose is, the game has to be No Trump.

There is a time to worry about the Diamonds. We need the money to do the work, and sometimes everyone better pitch in to make that happen.

There is even a time for Clubs, though it may be rare. If someone does something truly wretched, then they probably need to be encouraged, through use of the Club if necessary, to go elsewhere.

It’s always time for Hearts. Individuals are more important than anything else – at least I believe that they are. I don’t want you to hurt in order to make me successful, or to make the team successful. Certainly individuals ought to be more important to all of us than they probably are. But let’s remember that when someone cries “You hurt my feelings,” there is a loving caring individual on both sides of the transaction, not just on the crying side.

The Spades are the work. We are here to do some work, and to a degree we have agreed to put it above at least some of our individuality.

But in the end it is not time for Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, or Spades: it is time for the Game. The Game is the real reason why we come together. It’s a result of all the suits and all the cards. Let’s remember that: it’s not about you, or me. It’s about what we have come together to do: what I’m calling here the Game, whether it’s writing a program, building a company, or advancing our understanding of Extreme Programming. Clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades, aces and deuces and everyone in between. We’re here for the Game. .

Spades don’t trump Hearts. Hearts don’t trump Spades. It’s not that kind of a Game.


The name of this article is, among other things, a reference to the wonderful book by Ricky Jay, Cards as Weapons, now out of print.