Performance and Production - Embracing Your Level of Skill

One of the things which brings joy to my life is embracing challenge. In fact, I don't just embrace challenge, I seek it out in almost everything I do. Sure, for mundane tasks I seek efficiency and ease, but in areas where I seek skill, I also seek challenge. This creates a cycle of minor frustrations and minor victories, which over time accumulate to be something meaningful. When I was in school I had the opportunity to focus strictly on skill development. I wasn't expected to actually create anything meaningful or value. Rather, I was expected to jump through hoops to learn fundamentals and generally increase my intelligence.

In the workforce, things are different. I'm finding that nobody really cares what I could do. They are interested in what I can do already. They need immediate results from their workers - they don't need somebody to sit around and ask them questions.

Instead, what I see are people just doing their jobs. They're not theorizing about it. They're not pushing the limits of their intelligence. They are executing a task in which they already have proficiency. And, this has come at quite a shock to me.

I chose to pursue a technical career because my mind demands challenge. When I am not engulfed in something which demands my complete concentration, I am either resting or I am upset. I want work that confuses me, frustrates me, and drives me crazy.

The first month after I left college, I took up a job at a local coffee shop. My job was to make drinks for people and hang out with some of my best friends. It was the first time in my life that I realized that the possibility for an easy, straight forward lifestyle existed. There was no confusion about what I had to do. There were no specifications to gather. There was no bad documentation, no bugs to fix, no memory leaks, and no mysterious error messages. I never had to learn any new syntax or understand any complex algorithms. I just had to make drinks, run a register, and clean up after myself.

It was really shocking. I had no idea that things could work that way. In fact, I didn't even realize it was happening until after about a month of working there. At that point, there was nothing left to learn. I knew where to go when we ran out of cups. I knew the names of the customers. And, I knew that I needed to find a new job, because I started to crave the complexity of fiddling around on my computer.

Now, for some people, this kind of work is very good. They are satisfied with completing a simple task repeatedly for their entire lives, so long as they get along with their coworkers and make a decent living doing it. That's not me.

So, I left the town I was living in to pursue a more challenging career, to find a weightlifting coach, and to work with a skilled drum instructor. Despite having deep, happy friendships, cheap rent, and an easy job, I knew that I needed to move forward.

Having thoroughly perused the tech job market here in Portland, I have realized that very few people - even in the tech world - are truly trying to push the limits of their knowledge. Most have a very straight forward task that they complete. Sure, there is more complexity which requires some time to learn and understand, but many tech workers are still just serving coffee - so to speak. They have developed a deep level of understanding of the job they are required to do. Beyond that, they don't really care.

That's just fine.

What I have realized is that - in all my years of education - I missed the final piece of the learning cycle, which is execution. For all of my life, I've been under the impression that the end goal of learning was knowledge. But, I now see that acquiring the knowledge is only the second step. Execution of ideas is the final process. There's no reason to hate on somebody who is satisfied with their level of knowledge and is now only interested in using that knowledge to get things done. In fact, we depend on these people to make the world go round.

This insight got my mind thinking about the drums. My favorite drummer, Russ Miller, regularly records very simple pop songs. In fact, that's his entire job - record easy music, and tour with pop bands. On top of that, he works with his favorite musicians to really create music that really allows him to push his creativity to the next level. And the odd thing is, I really respect Russ for his experience in both areas, not just because he is a technical master. I respect him because he respects the demands of the music.

Weightlifters do not step up to a competition platform to lift the best of their lives. They accept the restrictions of the performance and lift just under - or maybe at - their personal best. On a good day, they'll get pretty close to what they have pulled off in the training room. This is true even on a world-class level.

Similarly, we must learn to respect the demands of the market. The lesson here is that I can't expect to make a living by continuously teaching myself new skills. I have to step back and accept my current skill level and perform within those boundaries to create within my realm of expertise.

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