In praise of an average career

From time to time, I’m sure most people ask themselves the question “What am I doing with my life?” Why am I stuck in this dead end job? Don’t I deserve better? Why aren’t I writing that great novel? I should be trekking the Himalayas. I’ve never been to Paris in the springtime.  In the IT world we seem to be constantly asking ourselves “Why aren’t I working on the next killer app that will change the world?”
Most of the literature I’ve read on this subject seems to contain the implicit message “It’s because you suck.”  True, I haven’t found anyone honest enough to actually phrase it that way but they do tend to say you aren’t achieving greatness because you aren’t trying hard enough. To an extent, that’s true but if you really look at it as a logical proposition it doesn’t hold up.

Greatness is a comparative term – high achievers look good because their accomplishments are so far above everybody else’s. If everyone moves closer to greatness, the measure of what is great moves further away by definition. Even if everyone continually improves, only a small percentage will ever be regarded as truly great because they’re great in comparison to everyone else. 

This is not a clarion call encouraging people to be wilfully mediocre (or worse) but I am calling into question the attitude that “I will not be happy unless I am the greatest in my chosen field.” It’s good to aspire to improve but if we’re all supposed to obsess about being the best then the unavoidable fact is 98% of us are going to end up disappointed. This attitude seems more prevalent in the IT industry than others. I remember a quote from the late 90’s dotcom boom that the speaker doubtless thought was insightful and inspirational: “I don’t want my obituary to say: He improved the company’s e-commerce efficiency by 5%”

The only thing that pisses me off more that that sort of fatuousness is someone in a black turtle-neck and trendy glasses telling me the reason I think their concept sucks is because “I don’t get it.” When you look at it objectively, at least 80% of IT jobs are limited to this sort of achievement. IT development isn’t a never-ending series of epiphanies and flashes of brilliance. For most people, most of the time, it’s a long, slow grind. If more and more people achieve what they thought would be “life changing” moments then, conversely, less and less things will seem like they actually are life changing.

At some point, this perpetual urging towards greatness crosses over from being inspirational / aspirational to being downright cruel. I think everyone should always be looking for ways to improve and even the crappiest job can give a sense of satisfaction if done well.  But face it – we aren’t all going down in history and that fact alone shouldn’t make us feel like failures.

This line of thinking was inspired by some recent articles that showed a “best of the best” approach being deployed in the real world to pretty impressive effect. At the smaller end of town, Joel Spolsky’s posts on hiring processes at his company show a very well thought out way to get what he sees as the best people working for him. A post from Steve Yegge shows this quest for excellence being deployed on a huge scale at Google. It starts off by slagging off Agile development (which is really funny if you’re a nerd like me) but the meat of it is a description of working practices at Google.

While Yegge’s piece is my new favourite piece of writing on software development, it’s also a little depressing. Just coming to terms with how far my work environment is from Google is tough. I’m not motivated enough to get a job at Google (arguably I’m not talented enough but I prefer to live in denial) and very few other workplaces will ever be run in a similar manner to Google. When I read of the “perks” etc at Google it really seemed that these were fundamental to their success. Google isn’t successful in spite of their programmers being spoiled (by most corporate standards), Google is successful because their programmers are spoiled.

This sort of treatment is never going to be widespread, not because it isn’t economically viable (Yegge paints a convincing portrait of this as Google’s very reason for economic success) but because most workplaces suck. Most bosses simply couldn’t stand treating IT staff that well. The majority of IT workers will have experienced resentment from both management and non-IT staff. Sometimes it’s implicit, sometimes it’s overt: “why are you complaining? You already earn more than everybody else.” This is despite the fact that basic economics shows that a worker is unlikely to be paid well if they don’t provide commensurate economic benefit to the company (I’m talking workers, not management). Google looks like the decadence of ancient Rome to tight-fisted employers.

In the end, not only are most of us not going to be as spoiled as Google workers, we won’t change the world either. A far more sensible approach would be to have realistic workplace goals and maybe even look for fulfilment outside of work (god forbid!) I know many people would argue that we should always aim for lofty goals no matter how unrealistic they are. After all, isn’t it better to try and fail than to never make the attempt?

I’ll repeat my previous point; I’m not actively encouraging people to be deliberately mediocre. But isn’t someone who sets realistic goals and maybe even helps improve the life of one or two people going to be more fulfiled than someone who spends their whole life following a series of doomed, quixotic quests to save the world?  If you have it in you to be one of the very top performers in your chosen field then it’s a waste to not aim for the very pinnacle.  I’m a big believer in setting goals that are outside your comfort zone – you’re never going to reach your potential without setting a few goals that scare you.

But who exactly is served if we set ourselves goals that are so far beyond what is realistically achievable we spend our lives feeling like miserable failures? 



Filed under Work

32 responses to “In praise of an average career

  1. In response to your first few paragraphs, I quote from a kids movie “The Incredibles”.

    “When EVERYONE is super (heroes), NO ONE will be”.

    So true.

  2. Salamaat,
    Hey I want to be a superhero 🙂 I don’t care about everyone else 🙂

    Mr. Angry, this post indicates that you have moved way past the threshold of idealistic youth to an adult.

    If you get a job at google; you best hook this sister up!

  3. gruntski: nice quote, very apt

    tom: glad you liked it

    maliha: I aint never gettin’ a job at Google, those guys are way too intense for me. You be the superhero 🙂 Did you read the article I linked to?

  4. Pingback: In praise of an average career « Angry 365 Days a Year « tenth floor

  5. Each day I try to live by a few simple self imposed rules:
    1. Live each day as if it were my last….it very well may be.
    2. Find something to be happy about.
    3. Do something nice for someone and don’t tell anyone about it.
    4. Treat others the way I want to be treated.
    5. Ask God for knowledge of his will for me and the power to carry it out….thank him at night.

    The good book says something like “if you want to be great among men, you must be servant to all.”

  6. ed

    I sympathize with some of the questions you pose. I enjoyed the perspective, coming from the ‘IT’ world, where I am in the same boat on the other side of the fence, so to speak, as a young author.

    In literature, although the odds are always against you, and your work is often not recognized or even known until years after you actually write it, which becomes confusing for those who enjoy/need instant gratification. The ‘great’ learn to ignore the audience, go against the grain and do what comes natural, and whether or not the fame follows, at least you feel better for giving your all and making the attempt.

    Take this quote, ‘quod isti et istae cur non ego’ (what man has done, man can do). Yes, there are different levels of talent & ability, but on a whole, talent isn’t enough. In the U.S., its more about drive and ambition. If the Google guy can do it, so can you. Only you can make that choice.

    And if we all decide that being mediocre is better fitting, no worries…at least we have things like alcohol & paid holidays to make it all interesting 🙂 cheers.

  7. Jonathan Allen

    > 1. Live each day as if it were my last….it very well may be.
    So you never go to work or pay your bills?

    > 2. Find something to be happy about.
    Is your life so bad that you have to actively try to find something to be happy about?

    > 3. Do something nice for someone and don’t tell anyone about it.
    What is wrong with telling people about the nice things you do? Are you afraid that it may encourage them to do nice things as well?

    > 4. Treat others the way I want to be treated.
    Is it not better to treat people the way they want to be treated?

    > 5. Ask God for knowledge of his will for me and the power to carry it out….thank him at night.
    God doesn’t answer our questions, and if the bible is to be believed, hasn’t for a long time. So why thank him?

    A life bound by rules is the life of a slave.

  8. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Bluebeard”, there is a character who came from a rich family, went to Ivy league schools, excelled at sports and schooling… could have easily been a lawyer or a doctor and done very well. But he gave it all up to become an abstract painter, which he was never that good at, because “that was his Everest”.

    I liked the idea of this character who could excel at so many things that “normal society” viewed highly, but eschewed these goals for something that was personally challenging.

  9. Salamaat,
    okay you called me out; I hadn’t. But now i have…and man, i guess I wouldn’t be working for google; not in this lifetime anywho…but those perks…sound delicious!…except you actually have to :p

    and that troll up there who is dissing lady Sandra needs to get a whoop ass:p

  10. Mr. Angry, You said what I’ve been thinking oh so well! I don’t work in IT, and this attitude of constantly striving to be super human is pervasive in my fields (legal and journalism). I’m glad you repeated what you had to say about how you’re not encouraging mediocrity, because that’s not what this is about. Nor is it about laziness. Just keep preaching the word, brother!

  11. i love you. take me to dinner.

    all night i have been thinking, what am i doing with my life!! i planned to sit down and write and figure it all out, thinking about what talents I might have that I am wasting, or…. why i haven’t written that great novel 🙂 novels aren’t for me (if you see my website, it’s mostly one or two sentence entries.)

    the point is, this posted, which i purely stumbled upon, makes me feel a touch better. like maybe i can just contribute, without changing the world. when i was younger that didn;t mean anythign to me, but in the face of odds like you paint, it is kind of…nice to think i can give, and that’s all that’s asked of me.

    granted, i have had a whiskey and seltzer, my first of the night, but it qwas strong – so maybe this doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. but i feel like i have to live a humble life — like you, i don’t have the motivation and ambitions to go so very “far” in my career (what defines “far’ anyway. how many corporate bullsh**ters I can schmooze?) Enough of my drivel, the point is — Thanks.

  12. Good post! A couple of the universities I have worked for, were constantly and vocally striving for ‘excellence’. The problem was, they had to then meet their goals. They did this by calling ‘excellent’, work which was merely good, or in some cases, good enough. That doesn’t sound like a serious problem except when it means one does not identify and address problems or inadequacies, or leads to other misjudgments which have implications for the employees and the institution.

    I am not the world’s most critical person, but I do have high standards, so when I say something is good or even just good enough, I mean I really am satisfied. This striving towards excellence and stardom really distorts perspectives, I find.

  13. Sandra: Those are some good rules. And sel-imposed is way better than imposed from outside

    Ed: I’m glad the perspective had some meaning to you to. Good luck with the writing!

    Jonathan: that’s a rather one-dimensional view of the world. And isn’t obsessing about not having rules a rule in itself?

    engtech: nice perspective!

    Maliha: I like how the guy illustrated that treating people so well makes them so grateful they work relaly hard. And the troll is just expressing the emptines in his own life.

    blogondogs: I’m glad you found it relevant for your field!

    january: glad it had meaning for you – and my girlfriend might have views about me taking you to dinner 🙂

    professor: I think setting your own standards is important and no bullshitting – if you have the drive to go for the top then do it. But stick with what makes you happy.

  14. I am a commercial artist who worked in mumbai for over 15 years as a visualiser. India was a little backward then. IWe had to paste letters and make an advt. cause comps had not arrived, then. I was great in my work but couldn’t get the break i desired for. And one fine day i met a guy who after talking to me for 15 minutes said “you can become a copy writer”. I did have a flair for writing but without a degree i wasn’t getting a job as a writer in any ad agency. And then this guy offered me a job, as a copy writer! I developed my skills as a writer and happy to be working as writer, thanks to that man.

  15. i go with Sandras “rules” apart from rule 1 – which would mean you would probably be arrested.

  16. Shekhu: that’s a great story, sometimes all you need to do is connect with the right people, not obsess over “being the best”

    lux: only if you have a twisted set of desires you want to fulfil 😉

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  18. fiftypercentninja

    You’re exactly right, which is why everyone secretly hates the class president.

  19. I was always completely open about hating the class president

  20. Great post. Only a few people want to change the world, the rest must plod along in their jobs and find meaning elsewhere.

    I’ve linked to it in the comments on my blog:

  21. I feel your pain. It’s a competitive world. There is only one Tiger Woods. Most people are average. A very few are exceptional. I have tried many things and failed. It’s not fun, but I did try. Trying is everything. It’s akin to winning the lottery: you have to buy a ticket first. Same with trying: you have to take that first step. It can be disheartening, depressing, and ego deflating to try and fail. Remember, when you were a baby you couldn’t walk; you stumbled, and stumbled again a thousand times, and finally you started to walk. Just getting up in the morning and rolling out of bed is a “try.” Taking that first step each day, each hour, each minute is a “try.” Commit yourselves to trying; and perhaps it will pay off. Life would be a total failure if you hadn’t tried at all. Remember this, we’re all in the same boat. BTW, I thought your post was well written.

  22. Reg: thanks for the link, I like how you used it as a balance with your piece.

    John: Thanks. I agree with you that we should always be trying just maybe not be totally disparaging of the idea of living an average life and being happy.

  23. i actually know two managers at google, one of whom has been there since the beginning, the other of whom was a professor of the founders (at stanford) who lately jumped aboard – both assure me that the lavish google engineer lifestyle is predicated on youth, energy, and the expectation of burnout. they’re gonna squeeze those suckers dry and let ’em enjoy every twenty-hour day of it.

  24. Yeah, MS and Apple both did/do the same thing. There was a story going around that one new hire was fired for writing on a blog “this is bullshit, all these perks are just designed to make us stay at our desks longer and work all hours”

  25. “I think everyone should always be looking for ways to improve and even the crappiest job can give a sense of satisfaction if done well.”

    There’s a lot of ways to be satisfied, mine would be because of the pay at the end of any month.
    Crappy job + Good Pay = Satisfaction….

  26. I think you’ll find that only works for a limited amount of time. Of course that depends on your definition of crappy and good. I find outside interests can make a crappy job more tolerable.

  27. Margherite

    > Crappy job + Good Pay = Satisfaction?

    no way .. crappy job + good pay = I’m too tired from keeping a rein on my rebellious instincts and quick tongue to have any energy left to indulge in a whole lot of satisfying activities.

    I’d be delighted by an average career, but I’ve been working for almost 50 years and it’s never happened. A couple of peaks and lots of mud- and vermin-filled valleys. The couple of peaks I’ve experienced were brought down by (1) Y2K panic and (2) management shooting themselves in the foot and the company going out of business or being outsourced to China or India.

    The crappy job pays the bills. Nothing more. An average career frees up my sensibilities so I can excell somewhere else, like art or music or hiking.

  28. I’m with you Margherite – if work is crappy I get fulfilment from outside interests. Sometimes it’s even the main motivator for pursuing something more worthwhile.

  29. Pingback: FZ Blogs » Vasat bir kariyer, milli piyango, çekik gözlüler ve bir turnuva

  30. Bobarino

    “A life bound by rules is the life of a slave.”

    “Don’t live by the rules” is just another rule.

  31. Ryan Hoegg

    This post could have been written by Ellsworth Toohey. The greatness of an achievement is independent of the worth others place on it.

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