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.


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.

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.

The search is over!

I am pleased to report that I have landed!  I have been offered — and have accepted — a position at TEKSystems!

No rest for the unemployed

A while back, I wrote an article that I affectionately refer to as the “job hunter’s survival guide.”  One of the things I mention in the article is to “keep busy.”  In my current state of unemployment, I’ve discovered that I’m busier than I ever thought I would be.

First, there’s the job hunt itself.  I’ve often told people that “looking for a job is a full-time job.”  I have yet to disprove that theory.  My work days have been spent working on my resume, applying to positions, touching base with my networking contacts, interviewing, taking assessment exams, following up on leads and applications, and so on.  That makes for a lot of work, and it makes up a good chunk of my working hours.

Second, there are a number of things with which I’m involved.  I’ve said before that getting involved is a good thing for multiple reasons.  Since my former employer and I parted ways, I’ve been to two SQL Saturdays (including one in which I presented), and am scheduled to present at a third one in July.  I’ve rehearsed with my wind quintet.  I’m involved with my local SQL user group.  I work out at the gym.  I also have a number of things with other groups (such as one of my alumni groups) that I need to address.

Third, even staying at home doesn’t offer a break from my to-do list.  Household chores need to be addressed — I have a long list of items around the house.  We have two cats that want attention.  Those of you who are homeowners understand the struggle.  When you own a house, there’s never a shortage of things to do.

For someone like me, I’m finding a few other things to keep me busy.  If you’re reading this article, you’re looking at one of those things.  A writer — even a ‘blog author — always has something to do if he or she has something to write about.  I also have some presentation ideas that I want to develop; hopefully, you’ll see them soon at a SQL Saturday near you.  In doing so, I’m looking for more opportunities to learn new things and keep myself up-to-date.

Staying busy is a good thing; you don’t want to be idle.  If a prospective employer asks what you did during your downtime, you can list all these things you did to keep yourself busy.  When you’re in the job market, small things like this can give you an edge.

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.

Throwing out memories

Yesterday, I got into a conversation with someone about getting rid of stuff.  (I have no idea how we got into that conversation.)  I told her that I was a self-admitted pack rat, and (like many other people, I’m sure) I had a tough time with getting rid of things.  How many of you have tried to clean out your closet, your attic, or your basement, come across an item, and have said either “oh that holds fond memories” or “I might need that later”?  I’d bet that if I asked that question in a crowded room, almost every hand would be raised.

She said something profound: “Everything has a story.  When I get rid of something, if, say, I’m giving something away, I’ll tell that person the story behind it.  For example, let’s say I’m getting rid of a dress.  I’ll say, ‘oh, I wore that dress for a friend’s wedding,’ or whatever the story is behind it.  Once I tell the story, I can let it go.”

She gave me some advice: “If you’re getting rid of something, tell someone about it — even if all you do is write it down somewhere.  Even if no one ever reads it, at least the memory is preserved.”

It’s hard to let go.  We place a lot of value in things, whether they’re people, relationships, or inanimate objects.  If something is valuable to you, you gain an attachment to it.  The stronger the attachment, the more difficult it is to let it go.

So the next time you’re getting rid of stuff, tell someone about it — even if you just write it down.  You might find it easier to part ways.