Want to get ahead? Don’t get comfortable

“Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass me by…”
— Jim Croce, “I Got A Name”

“It’s important to be able to make mistakes.  If you don’t make mistakes, it means you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”
— Satchel Paige

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
— unknown

Late last Friday afternoon, our manager stopped by our workspace for a chat.  Some of it was just small talk, but he also wanted to give us a reminder of something, which is what I want to write about here.  I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of what he said went something like this.

“We want you to develop personally and professionally,” he said (or something to that effect).  “The way you do that is to take on tasks that you know nothing about.  Volunteer to do things you wouldn’t typically volunteer.  If you see a support ticket, don’t worry about looking to see whether or not you know what it is or if you know how to handle it.  Just take the responsibility.  That’s how you develop.  If you want to move ahead, you need to step out of your comfort zone.”

Indeed, these are words to live by, and it isn’t the first time I’ve heard this.  I have had countless experiences where I’ve been told that I need to step out of my comfort zone in order to improve.  In my music experiences, especially in my ensemble performance experience, I’ve often been told by good music directors that I need to attempt playing challenging passages to get better.  When I first started doing CrossFit, one question we were asked was, “would you rather be comfortable or uncomfortable?”  The point was that in order to get better, some discomfort would be involved.  I also remember one of the points of emphasis back when I took a Dale Carnegie course; each week would involve stepping a little more out of our comfort zone.  We would do this gradually each week until we reached a point where we had drastically improved from where we had started.

Falling into a rut is common, and while it happens in all different facets of life, it is especially easy to do in the workplace.  Sometimes, the work environment can slow down, and you have a tendency to fall into a routine.  I’ve had this happen more often than I want to admit, and more often than not, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it.  Every once in a while, a pep talk or some kind of a jolt (such as a kick in the butt — whether it’s from someone else or myself) reminds me that I need to branch out and try new things if I want to get (and stay) ahead.  I am well-aware that I need to step out of my comfort zone to get ahead, but I am also the first to admit that I will sometimes forget about this, myself.

Too often, I see people who fall into ruts themselves, and who have no desire to step out of their comfort zones.  As much as I try to tell these people to at least try to do something about it, they insist on remaining where they are.  These people strive for mediocrity, which is a major pet peeve of mine, and something for which I have no tolerance or respect.  People want to remain in their “happy place,” but what I don’t understand is how these same expect to get ahead, yet refuse to leave their comfort zones to do it.  These people will be stuck in a rut forever, and they have no right to complain about it.

Everyone has a dream, or at least some kind of goal they want to achieve.  The fact is, if you want to reach that goal, or at least take steps toward it (whether you reach it or not), you need to get uncomfortable to do it.

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Unite the world

“Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all; together we stand; divided, we fall…”
— Pink Floyd, Hey You

“An eye for an eye only makes the world blind.”
— Gandhi

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
— John Lennon, Imagine

“I have a dream…”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Just for this one article, I am breaking my silence on all things political.

As is much of the country, I am outraged with what has happening at America’s southern border.  I have my opinions regarding the current administration, and what is happening to our country and around the world.

However, that is not the point of this article.  I am not going to write about my politics, my opinions, or my outrage.  Today, I want to write about something else.

It occurred to me this morning that, more than ever, we are being divided.  We are identified by our divisions: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, and so on.  And that is the problem.

There have been studies performed in which individuals identify closely with groups to which they relate.  In these cases, people in groups will defend their groups, no matter what the groups are doing, and regardless of whether the groups’ actions are perceived as being good or bad, right or wrong.

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend that I know anything about these studies (disclosure: I did do research on groupthink when I was in grad school).  Nevertheless, what they seem to reveal is that we relate strongly to the groups to which we relate.  And we will defend our groups, no matter how right or wrong the groups’ actions are.

I do understand the effects of group dynamics.  I say this because I am a sports fan, and few things test our group loyalties more than sports.  I root for the Yankees, Syracuse, and RPI.  As a result, I stand firmly behind my teams, and I tend to hold some contempt for the Red Sox, Mets, Georgetown, Boston College, Union, and Clarkson.  Many of my friends are Red Sox fans (heck, I’m married to one!), Mets fans, Union College, and Clarkson University alumni.  Yes, it is true that we will occasionally trash-talk each other when our teams face off against one another, but at the end of the day, they are just games and entertainment.  I will still sit down with them over a drink and pleasant conversation.

Likewise, I have many friends who are on both sides of the (major party) political aisle.  I have friends of many races, religions (or even atheists), cultures, and creeds.  However, no matter where they stand on their viewpoints, I respect each and every one of them.  And there, I believe, is the difference.  No matter where we stand, we need to listen to and respect the other side.  One of the issues regarding group identification is that we do not listen to the other side.  We lose complete respect and empathy for anyone who is our “opponent.”  That is where communication breaks down, and that is where divisions occur.

What we need is something that unites us.  We are not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, white, black, yellow, or brown.

What we are is human.

Nelson Mandela united a divided South Africa behind rugby, a story depicted in the movie Invictus.  What will be our uniting moment?  For those of us in North America, I was thinking about something like the 2026 World Cup, but that is a long way off.

I don’t know what that something is, but we need to find it, and fast.  We are being torn apart by our divisions, and it could potentially kill us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at our past history regarding wars and conflicts.  The American Civil War comes to mind.

I don’t know how much of a difference writing this article will make.  I am just one voice in the wilderness.  But if writing this contributes to changing the world for the better, then I will have accomplished something.

We now return you to your period of political silence.

Document maintenance is critical

I had two appointments this past week.  The first was one for my car to get my oil change and to make sure everything was in good working order (it was).  A couple of days later, I had a dentist appointment.  It was a routine cleaning (I also had a procedure done — one that I’d been putting off for a while).  While the two appointments were for different reasons, they both served the same purpose: to perform maintenance.

Just about everything, especially anything mechanical, is going to break down over time.  Maintenance ensures that things remain in good working order.  But when we think about maintenance, we usually think about car repair, roadwork, furnaces, and water heaters.

I’m sure many people in tech industries consider periodic hardware and software maintenance.  Hardware can break down.  Drives crash occasionally.  CPUs are upgraded to keep pace with emerging technology and to support software.  Speaking of software, bug fixes are constantly made.  There’s also the matter of security; virus software definitions are constantly updated, and operating system patches are distributed to ensure computers are safe.

But here’s another question: when was the last time you maintained your documentation?  Does your documentation, which was written for, say, Version 1.0, reflect what is in Version 2.0?

The trouble with documentation, even the best-written documentation, is that it can become obsolete over time.  Processes and systems change.  Interfaces are redesigned.  Steps become more efficient, or in some cases, even eliminated.  Change happens.  It’s one of the sure things in life.  Documentation should also change as well.  How often has your help desk received calls from frustrated customers saying things like, “your instructions say ‘press the red button,’ but there’s no red button on the interface!”

If your product changes — and it inevitably will — your instructions should change with it.  It’s important that systems are maintained.  Your documentation should be maintained as well.

Reflections, setbacks, and accomplishments

“Here’s to the new year.  May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”
— Col. Sherman T. Potter

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
— Walt Disney

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis, depending on which version you prefer…)

It is the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I have the week off from work as I write this, which gives me plenty of time to think.  Okay, granted, I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking — or very much else, for that matter — during this past week.  Everyone, after all, needs to take some time to rest and relax.  So, I’ll be the first to confess that, while I should probably take advantage of the week to take care of tasks I can’t normally do because of work, a good chunk of it has been spent watching TV, especially old movies, college football, and college basketball.

Nevertheless, now that 2017 is coming to a close, I did take a few moments — well, at least long enough to write this article, anyway — to look upon this past year, and to think about what’s ahead.  Among other things: I celebrated a milestone birthday back in January (hey, I made it to another one!), I lost one job and picked up another (better one!) in a short amount of time, I’m being recognized for accomplishments in my new job, I spoke at four more SQL Saturdays (including a couple of new presentations), I’ve made new friends, I’ve gotten better at CrossFit (among my CrossFit accomplishments, I successfully completed this year’s Holiday Rowing Challenge), and (if you count this article), I’ve written thirty-five ‘blog articles this year.  (That’s almost three a month, for those of you who are keeping count.)

Of course, life is about yin and yang; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  I’d be lying if I said this year was all wine and roses; I’ve had my share of setbacks as well.  Nobody enjoys setbacks; they can be painful and embarrassing.  But they’re important as well.  You can’t have good without bad, happiness without sadness, joy without pain.  But setbacks also serve a purpose: they remind us that we are not perfect (hey, nobody’s perfect, and since I’m nobody…!) and that no matter how well we perform, there is always room for improvement.

So now that 2018 is around the corner, keep moving ahead.  Make it better than 2017!

Time is Precious

My friend, Steve Jones, wrote this article, and it is well worth the read (most of his articles are), even if you’re not a technology professional. If you care about your craft — no matter what it is — set aside a little bit of time to improve upon it.

Voice of the DBA

I’ll hear people constantly say they don’t have time to work on their career. They can’t attend a UG meeting to network. They can’t spare a minute to go through a Stairway Series. They have family commitments, kids, hobbies, volunteer activities, spiritual needs, and more. That’s not even counting all the work they need to get done as a part of their job. When can they spend time on R or Machine Learning or CosmosDB or anything else?

I get it. My life is chaotic as well, with deadlines and a pile of work that never goes away. I sometimes dread travel and vacation because that means my work piles up on either side of those events. This is on top of commitments to keep up on chores at home (I have cooking and laundry), fix things at the ranch, spend time with kids, get date nights with my…

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Blind spots

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis — whomever you prefer)

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

One of my favorite books is The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  For the benefit of those of you who’ve never read it (spoiler alert: if you’ve never read it and want to, I suggest you stop reading this paragraph and move to the next one, because what I’m about to say doesn’t get revealed until near the end of the book), the book involves a magic sword that has the ability to reveal truth.  When the sword’s magic is invoked, both the wielder and the recipient are forced to confront the truth.

There are many times that I wish I had a Sword of Shannara.  I can think of many people who would benefit from its magical power.  And I put myself at the top of that list.

An incident that occurred last night served to remind me of the blind spots that I have.  I don’t care to talk about the incident (the details aren’t important here, anyway), except that I felt as though I’d taken a big step backwards.  It’s not the first time that I’ve taken a step back, and as much as I try to avoid it, I suspect that it will likely not be the last.

We all have blind spots; it’s a part of being human.  More often than not, we aren’t aware that those blind spots are there — hey, there’s a reason why they’re called “blind” spots.  There is no magic sword to reveal those blind spots.  The best mirror we have for those blind spots is each other, in how we behave and react around one another.  If someone is smiling, laughing, or nodding his or her head around you, you’re probably doing something right.  If that person is frowning, yelling, or criticizing, then probably not.

As much as we try to do our best, inevitably, we will stumble somewhere down the line.  I admit that I’m probably still dwelling on it — I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, otherwise.  I’ll eventually get over it.  All we can do is to recognize our blind spots — once we recognize that they’re there — keep an open mind, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward.

Reinventing yourself

If there’s one thing I’ve managed to develop throughout my professional life, it’s my ability to adjust to my environment.  I’ve practically made a career out of it.  It’s an ability that has managed to keep me sane in tough situations, not to mention that it has enabled me to extend my shelf life long after my role, whether it’s because of an organization’s changing needs or my skill set no longer fits, has become obsolete.

A ballplayer with a long career (yes, here I go again with the baseball analogies) is usually able to do so by developing a new strength after an old one is no longer effective.  For example, pitchers such as C.C. Sabathia or Bartolo Colon have reinvented themselves as finesse pitchers who get batters out using guile and precision, long after their fastballs are no longer effective.  Likewise, a professional who is having difficulty keeping up with modern trends or technology may need to reinvent him or herself in order to remain relevant in the marketplace.

My recent unemployment forced me to take stock of where I am in my career and where I want to be going.  Even before my (now-former) employer let me go, I’d been asking myself some hard questions about who I was.  I had been struggling as a developer, which was making me question whether or not it was what I should — or even wanted — to be doing.  At the same time, I also considered my strengths.  What was I good at doing?  Were these strengths marketable?  Were they skills that I could offer to an organization?  Would I enjoy a position that took advantage of these strengths?

For me, personally, I discovered — or, more accurately, re-discovered — that my strengths were in writing and communication, not software development.  This revelation made me realize several things.  While I enjoyed doing development work, I found that I wasn’t passionate about it.  I was, however, passionate about writing and documentation — to the point that I began steering myself in that direction.  I became openly critical about my company’s documentation (and, in many cases, the lack of).  My SQL Saturday presentations have all been based on writing and communication.  Even in my current job search, my focus has been on positions that emphasize writing and communication over hardcore technical skills.  Having said that, I am also not discounting my technical background; my ideal position is one that takes advantage of that background.  While I am looking for something that focuses on communication, I am looking at my technical background to supplement that skill.

At this point in time, whether or not this strategy lands me a new position remains to be seen.  However, I’ve made some observations.  First, I’ve noticed that prospective employers appear to be more receptive to my approach.  I seem to be getting more and better prospective opportunities, and they are coming quickly.  Second, I’ve noticed that, in conversations and interviews, I am much more confident and assertive.  Third, I’m much more focused in my search — in contrast to job searches in years past, where I would apply to anything and everything that even remotely sounded like a position I could fill.  Finally, as strange as it may seem, I’m finding that I’m actually having more fun with this process.

It’s often been said that when a door closes, another opens.  If a current position or career isn’t working for you, it might be time to take stock and reinvent yourself.  You might discover a new mindset and a new motivation.  You might discover a new passion.  You might even find that reinventing yourself results in a new career path — one that is more satisfying and rewarding than you had ever previously believed.