Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Be More Selfish About Your Work

Follow up to: It’s Not Impostor Syndrome If You Really Do Suck. More advice I wish I’d been given when I started out as a software engineer.

A key point in my last post was: If something is too hard for you to do, give up.

“But wait,” you say. “Doesn’t giving up mean you’re Not Trying Hard Enough? Isn’t it valuable and important to be Diligent? Don’t employers love people who Just Do The Hard Thing, even when it sucks?”

Well… sort of. Employers love people who do things they can’t do, but that they need done. That’s actually not the same thing as “hard.” People get rewarded by others all the time for doing things that weren’t hard at all; they just managed to do the right thing at the right time, and it was helpful for someone else. If it’s that reward function that you’re optimizing for, you don’t always want to pursue the things that are hard. You want to pursue the things that are most helpful to other people*, relative to the amount of time you’re putting in.

The fact is, if something seems “too” hard, it probably means you’re not making progress on it doing what you’re currently doing.

Here are some things that might seem like “giving up,” but are probably good ideas in a situation like that:

  • Asking someone else for help. 
  • Asking someone else to do it for you. 
  • Procrastinating on the task and waiting to see if anyone notices or cares about its absence. 
  • Telling your manager that you don’t think it’s worth the time you’re having to spend on it. 
  • Telling your manager that they should have someone else do it. (NOTE: This only works if you have a high level of trust with them, but when you do, it can be surprisingly powerful.) 
  • Doing some other task that you’re able to make progress on instead, in combination with one of the options above. 
  • Leaving your job to do a different thing entirely, to make it someone else’s problem. 
These all are “selfish” actions that seem at odds with being diligent, and patient, and resilient. But it’s not unvirtuous to stop banging your head against the wall. Your employer wants you to be productive, too, and wasting your time on something you can’t do effectively helps no one.

*Or alternately, most helpful for you: most educational, for example. If trying to do a hard task isn’t getting you anywhere, but it is teaching you a lot, you can take that into account as part of its reward.

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