I spent a few years writing down my thoughts about how one should approach problems. If you're looking for a how-to guide, a cookbook, or a reference this book is not for you. If you want to learn by challenging the way you think, pick up a copy.
Peaches and pecans on vanilla ice cream is a wonderful thing, but get some perspective on how you came to enjoy it. I have heard (and have told others), “life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy,” but the truth is there is no way to revel in everything you do at every moment; not even the most ambitious and determined hedonist can achieve this. While I don’t think he was right about everything, I feel confident Sigmund Freud nailed this one: “We are so made, that we can only derive intense enjoyment from a contrast and only very little from a state of things.” So, not only can we not enjoy everything, that which we do enjoy is aided by the lack thereof in other things. Pitting the peaches, cracking the nuts, even making the ice cream heightens the experience of its ultimate, decadent demise.
How does this relate to work? In more ways than you’d think. Most things we do have small parts that we don’t enjoy; it is part of being complete. I’ll give a few examples of regular things I do that are nowhere near the pinnacle of my excitement and satisfaction curves.
I am an engineer and I love to solve problems. The more difficult, the more rewarding. Increasing the difficulty increases the likelihood of failure, in turn making success more exultant. I write code; I’m good at it. Part of writing code includes considering aspects of who owns the code, how it is licensed, and who protects the user from claims of intellectual property infringement. That’s right, I said “part of writing the code.” If I am skipping these tasks, I am increasing the risk for every consumer of my code. It’s part of my job, and (for me) is certainly not the most enjoyable part.
Not everyone has these responsibilities, but I’d bet if you think about your job for a few minutes you can name a handful of responsibilities that, for lack of a more eloquent description, suck. That’s just one example. I also have to manage people, review financials, work with banks and lawyers, hire, fire, interact with clients, market and sell... oh yeah, and solve technical problems. Which of these do I enjoy the least? That’s my secret and if I do my job well, you’ll never know. I try to embrace the parts of my job that do not resonate with my strengths and leverage them to become stronger.
Parts of your job are going to suck, that’s just how it is. Now, you might be able to delegate some of these various tasks, but I have found that embracing some of these things and making them truly a part of what you deliver increases the quality of your work, makes your successes more satisfying and generally makes you better at what you do. We tend to not enjoy tasks that aren’t in our wheelhouse. Things that make us uncomfortable are the things that make us grow.
Here’s the rub: you can grow up or grow out. Growing “up” is challenging yourself to harder and harder tasks in your hyperfocused discipline. Growing “out” is pursuing and accepting challenges that are related to your business, but not “your job.” Upward growth makes you better, more expert, and more elite. Outward growth makes you better, more instrumental in overall success and an invaluable player in the business as a whole. Upward growth is far more comfortable and less intimidating; it’s the known unknown and failure is less likely. To be the best you need to invest in both.
Life truly is short and not enjoying what you do (at all) is a vast waste of life itself and so it is a balancing act. How much of your day-to-day job should be the stuff that you don’t like (outward growth that makes you uncomfortable)? The idealists out there are simply going to hate this answer: non-zero. I’ll get more specific for those that are still reading. “Let me do what I do. I’m good at it and that’s what you hired me for.” Sound familiar? I say bullshit. I didn’t hire you to do X. I might have hired you because you demonstrated that you were competent at doing X, but I hired you to make my team a better team, my product a better product, and my business a better business.
I’ve spent a good deal of my time searching for balance and here’s what I found. Everyday that I spend time doing the things that I love and the things at which I feel most capable I feel awesome; I feel successful and satisfied... in the short run. A week goes by and I reflect on all that I’ve accomplished and I see that the business would profited more had I focused on those things that made me uncomfortable, required focus and personal growth (that which I was less confident about executing flawlessly).
As a contrapositive, when I don’t focus on upward growth and instead focus on all the various places I can add value outside my core expertise, I see the future brighten by the hour. I add value. I add real, tangible value to initiatives through my learning and unique perspective. Business is better, teams are stronger, and clients are happier. The goals are great, but I can’t always walk a path whose journey does not yield deep personal satisfaction; I become uninspired, my passion drops, I lose my perspective and become ineffective.
It’s a balancing act indeed and for me that balance is 80/20. I find, looking back at the last several years, that when I fall below 20% of my time in outward growth I lose potential value and perspective. If I fall below 80% upward growth, I lose passion and perspective. Notice that? The thing I always lose when I lose balance is perspective. This 20% may not be the right number for you, so you should strive to discover your own balance -- just don’t lie to yourself, because you’ll lose in the long run. I said I learned this through failure. I never seem to achieve a consistent 20/80 split and my moments of equilibrium are fleeting, but I feel them as they slide by.
I’m not saying that pitting peaches (which I truly hate) or shelling pecans (which I find devoid of mental stimulation) or making ice cream (which is good fun) is necessary for the enjoyment of a most wonderful peaches and pecan sundae. I’m saying that if I do it 1 out of 5 times, I am more discerning, more moderate in my consumption and derive far more satisfaction from every dessert I eat.
Peaches and pecans on vanilla ice cream is a wonderful thing, but get some perspective on how you came to enjoy it.