Why an average career can be a great career

I’m at the point of changing jobs, which usually gets me thinking deep(ish) thoughts about what I want out of my next job. I’m sure most people ask themselves the question, from time to time, “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. I work in IT and 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 the consistent message I’ve seen is 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, in many cases it simply 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 doesn’t excuse willfully mediocre (or worse) behaviour 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 is there really any value in continually obsessing about being the best? The unavoidable outcome of this type of thinking is 98% of us are going to end up disappointed.

I’m sure this attitude exists in every field of endeavour but it 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%”

That sort of fatuousness really pisses me off. The only thing that pisses me off more 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 8 out of 10 of IT jobs are limited to this sort of “5% improvement” 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 these achievements would actually lose value. 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.

I like reading articles that show a “best of the best” approach being deployed in the real world to impressive effect. I’m not a complete cynic – I actually enjoy being inspired. At the smaller end of town, I’ve long been a fan of Joel Spolsky’s website. His 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 among my favourite pieces 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 (some say they are babied and become dependent on Google – a smart HR practice if you ask me).

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 and no amount of cost/benefit analysis will convince them otherwise.

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 fulfillment outside of work (god forbid!) I recommend starting a snarky blog where you lash out at everything that makes you angry. Not enough people are blogging </sarcasm>

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 earlier 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 fulfilled 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? Either we find a way to make a “mediocre” career with average achievements a great career or the vast majority of us are doomed to a life of disappointment.

29 Comments

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29 responses to “Why an average career can be a great career

  1. Vladimir

    What’s the greatest [however unrealistic] achievement you can imagine? Something after what you could consider yourself utterly ultimately great, no matter what you do (or don’t do) next?

  2. Robert Alcock

    A brilliant article. Thanks for a bit of realism. You are absolutely right that everyone trying to be the best is going to end up in disappointment for most people. The Dalai Lama pointed out this very well in his book “The Art of Happiness”.

  3. Hmm… Perhaps you should read the letter which wasn’t supposed to be posted externally about actual life at Google from an ex-employee. (It was all over t’Internet a week or so ago, said employee went to MS and told them all about what life is like at Google.)

    Plus you may want to read the Chief Happiness Officer blog at : http://positivesharing.com/

    I’ve never been in a position to do change working practice anywhere I’ve worked (but I’ve only been working full time for three years, so I’ve got plenty of time left.) But I can attest to the astonishing power of compliments as a motivational tool.

  4. I’m a fan of the Chief Happiness Officer too. He’s a nice guy and veryopen to email exchange. Check this post out:
    http://positivesharing.com/2006/06/translations-of-how-not-to-lead-geeks/

  5. Steele

    Everyone should read “The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great” by Ray Bennett M.D. However, they shouldn’t read it until after the graduate high school (or they’ll never graduate). While the book is suppose to be mostly comedic humor, it holds many truths.

    http://www.amazon.com/Underachievers-Manifesto-Accomplishing-Little-Feeling/dp/0811853683

  6. Michael

    I think your entire atittude is destructive. You’re basically arguing that “because I can’t best my coworker, I shouldn’t even try, because it will induce stress and anxiety, and that makes me uncomfortable.”

    Why don’t you pay some F$cking respect to your own humanity and strive to achieve something, rather than poluting the minds of the world in to some self-satisfying rationalization of apathy.

    Stop blogging.

  7. I think you do an admirable job at verbalizing an opinion that a lot of people have. Having pushed through that thinking to go closer to what I really want, all I can do is to recommend that you think narrower rather than broader. It’s virtually impossible to be the expert at a really broad field, but if you focus on being an expert in a narrower field then I think you’ll be more likely to be recognized and you’ll be happier. Coincidentally, I just wrote an article about this. See http://www.makingITclear.com/newsletters/newsletter52.html#article

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Typo Catcher

    Nicely said. Typo noted:
    “I recommend snarting a snarky blog…” I think you meant “starting”

  9. Michael, I can’t speak for Mr Angry but I can speak for myself.

    “because I can’t best my coworker, I shouldn’t even try, because it will induce stress and anxiety, and that makes me uncomfortable.”

    I didn’t get that from the post. I assume we read the same one?

    I will say, though, that you appear to be measuring your own self-worth by how you feel compared to the guy in the next veal pen ^h^h cubicle.

    I measure my worth by how much of a difference I make to the people I’m around and the projects I’m assigned to. Using your yardstick above, if my projects cratered then that would be cool if only my peers cratered their projects even worse. Or if I made my employer a billion pound profit one year by myself that would mean nothing if a colleague managed to bring in 1.2 billion by herself.

    No, I don’t think I’ll be using your method of validating myself any time soon.
    kthanxbye

  10. I think this is a great article on several levels. It says something about how you’re really feeling (angry, obviously) but also talks about this mechanism of comparison that creates an impression of self-worth/lack of self-worth.

    I think that a lot of these things are systemic in origin. Whether that system is internal neuropsychology or the external economic system. I don’t know who the starry-eyed are out there–I guess I am sometimes–who believe that WE are all RESPONSIBLE for our individual fates. They act as if seeing mediocrity rewarded over and over and goals set by single digit percentage points are not supposed to affect how a worker views his or her job. But they DO, dammit. And when I took my fabulous Caribbean cruise was it not intended that I salivate at the sight of the Midnight Buffet?

    I find that the things others do to entice us and influence us are considered “coincidence” and we should use our willpower to keep them from influencing us. Poop.

    I am also writing to ask for permission to reprint this on my own website with proper attribution, etc.

    P.S. RobM, you cracked me up with your: “the guy in the next veal pen ^h^h cubicle.” Veal pen. Ha. Good one.

  11. Vlad: That’s a good point, if an achievement makes you feel great then you’ve achieved something great.

    Robert: The dalai lama copied it from me😉

    Massif: I saw that, it was an interesting read. I’m a fan of the CHO too.

    Simonne: that’s awesome. I’m certainly open to anyone translating my stuff too🙂

    Steele: Good comedy is always based on truth.

    Michael: As Rob pointed out, you’re seeing things I didn’t write. I think that speaks far more about you than me. You have issues. Or maybe you’re just a moron.

    Harwell: I think narrowing your focus is good suggestion.

    Typo: thanks! Fixed now.

    Rob: You’re far more gentle than I would have been if you hadn’t already led by example😉

    Rationalpsychic: You may reproduce with a link back if you wish – I hope you include your own insights with it though, this small taste from your comment makes me think you could add some valuable points.

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  13. Hmmm….where’s the angry verbal barrage that I’ve come to know and love? Where’s my angry Mr. Angry?? Less talk..more anger…

    Come on…show me your “Grrrrr…” face! 😛

  14. This is one of my fleeting reflective moods. Don’t worry, it will pass😉

  15. Muhmmad Adel

    Note that at google and such companies that treats the employees in that imaginary way, the employees themselves are super – employees. Not all developers are at the same level as that of google.
    Managers treating developers in such a great way is not the only requirement for success. See Steve McConnell’s “cargo cult software engineering article”
    http://stevemcconnell.com/psd/03-cargo.htm

  16. Vladimir

    Mr Angry, I meant to ask, what that achievement could be presonally for you? Can you give an example? Some concrete thing, like “save the world”, “destroy the world”, “become the world’s strongest jedi”, “exterminate all rabbits”, etc.

  17. currently, my greatest achievements at work are selling ingredients (rather than ready cooked meals by chef) to yuppie customers, which means they go home to cook, not just microwave. Also, my iPod playlists get folks smiling and jiving in-store. It’s not world peace or anything, but it’s a start…having said this, I work for and with great people, who are a joy to spend time with, and are grateful for the things I do. This makes a big difference…

  18. Muhammed: thanks for the link – interesting article

    Vlad: hmmmm, publish a book, or maybe make a movie or TV show

    vetti: I reckon that’s a pretty good job actually, helping people improve their lives and providing a bit of a smile.

  19. Dear Michael,

    I’d much rather read Mr. Angry’s blog than your comments….so stop commenting. :-p

  20. I too am tired about hearing about Google and their spoiled workers. That company is an anomoly — just a sandbox for the hyper-smart. And like Mr. Angry, I have resigned myself to a career of incremental productivity. At the end of the day, most people just want their website’s damn shopping cart to work, or the inbound data feed to not blow up again.

    BTW, I think Michael is one of the black turtle-neck and trendy glasses guys that Mr. Angry is writing about — all full of hype and little substance. They call themselves “idea guys” and have little patience for details. That is what Mr. Angry and I are their for– to fill in blanks of their poory though-out “visions.”

    Now, time for a shameless blog plug:

    Overpaid and Underworked C# .NET\SQL Developer

  21. Sandra: nicely put🙂

    TunnelRat: you may be right about the black turtle neck – maybe I touched a nerve😉 And you go with the shameless blog plug!

  22. Joey

    Mr. Angry,

    Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that I must only compete against myself. Only I truly know what my competencies and limitations are and how I can push those bit-by-bit to improve myself. In my experience, it’s foolish to compete with those in the workplace. On one task, you may be far more qualified than others and get too high a sense of self. On another, you may be a little less qualified and either resent those you are working with or kill your self-esteem over it. It’s best to just get along and push yourself internally.

  23. I’m with you on self measurement. My thoughts are always try to be better but have you own stadards for success.

  24. Salamaat,
    Spot on Mr. Angry. Is it just me or is one setting his/her self up for dissapointment if their whole measure of self worth comes from a job?

  25. Michael

    I suppose my original comment was pissy, and having read through the rest of the comments, and the post a few times, and taken some time to relax, I still disagree on the whole.

    I do understand your view, and in some respects, I don’t disagree. Proceeding through life trying to achieve the impossible (or at least, statistically improbable) at the expense of personal happiness and fulfillment isn’t exactly my idea of a life well lead.

    On the other hand, I do think that we owe it to one another to live up to the best within each of us, and strive to achieve all that we’re individually capable of. Obviously, among 100 people, only 1 can “succeed” on some ranked metric, but that’s not what I mean. By success, I simply refer to doing justice to one’s own ability. I care not a whit for the ability or success of others (although I will certainly use competition as a motivator when applicable). My original comment was not in disagreement with that, but was instead meant merely to point out apathetic undertones.

    You seem to imply a defeatist attitude toward achievement in much of the wording you’ve used. Namely, that we can’t all be the best, that we shouldn’t try. Statements such as “If more and more people achieve what they thought would be ‘life changing’ moments then these achievements would actually lose value.” and “If everyone moves closer to greatness, the measure of what is great moves further away by definition.” and “A far more sensible approach would be to have realistic workplace goals…” are technically correct, but bother me in that they’re worded in such a way and placed in such a context as to make me interpret the post as bearing a message of indolence. I believe we should _always_ try our hardest. The only kink is that the competition is with ourselves, the judge is our own sense of honor, integrity, and justice, and our reaction is that of fulfillment and pleasure at paying homage to the best within us.

    In any case, I still can’t condone the post as written, but I thought I’d apologize for the outburst and explain.

  26. Maliha: Salamaat. I with you 100% there.

    Michael: It takes some quality character to call yourself on being wrong, kudos to you. Personally, I think I essentially said what you think I should have said, I think maybe you’re reading the post a bit subjectively. Either way, you’re free to disagree with me. The world would be pretty boring if there were never any disagreements.

  27. Jim Amos

    Thanks for writing this. I am one of those Quixotic types but only part-time. Its all ebb and flow for me – some days I think if I just talk to that one influential person the company will suddenly realize that treating programmers more like rockstars would not be a complete waste of time and money; other days I commit myself to the rather Sisyphian reality that I’m up against so many odds, not least of which – pure unadulterated ignorance of what great programmers actually do and their true value to the company. This was a well expressed article and I look forward to more of the same.

  28. Thanks Jim, I’m all for striving for the highest goal, I just thing some perspective and balance is important.

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