Lucas' Refuge

The most insidious career mistake

March 22, 2024


"Mistakes are the portals of discovery."
James Joyce

After eight years in tech, there are very little career traps I haven't seen. However, the most alarming one to this day occurred when I didn't understand the purpose of my work struggles. Yes, I'm also looking forward to the nice paycheck at the end of the month, but that's not the purpose I'm talking about. I speak of something more mundane, such as when I've jeopardized my growth by avoiding the most necessary work. One example of that took place in my early career. By favoring doing what I liked at work, such as focusing on technical aspects, rather than on my immediate bottlenecks (e.g., my at the time sub par soft skills), I've hindered my early career progression. As any human being, I have often procrastinated doing that, which would do me good. Not only in my career, but also in life.

Take the following example: Since I started going to the gym for the first time at 19, I've stopped having a regular exercise routine twice, typically for 4 to 5-year periods. In mid-2019, I've started frequenting the gym again – thanks to my insisting wife. As gyms closed during the pandemic, I've bought some weights to exercise at home and started running around the neighborhood three days a week – until I could eventually go back to the gym. In parallel, I've made substantial changes to my diet. Two changes that together have been sustainable for the longest period in my life. The best is that I cannot imagine doing differently – as the habit has stuck deeply.

Developing a routine around a healthier life as well as honing my soft skills were hard accomplishments. They required me to go through a sinuous path, which wasn't self-evident, even though the benefits were. The clear lessons out of hard accomplishments such as those are that facing difficulties doesn't mean I wasn't capable enough. Quite the contrary, the obstacles were simply the result of me being deliberate about working on harder and harder problems – in life and at work. However, if I hadn't ensured a challenging environment for myself, that's when I would have stopped growing. That's when I would see my learning plateauing – as it happened in my previous role. The most common ways I see such misdirected purpose at work are three.

First, as aforementioned, when you favor doing what you like, rather than what you might need the most. In this regard, my perception tells me that for the modern workforce, including engineers, the most neglected aspect is: not putting the effort to understand where you are heading. I don't think you need to know your ultimate destination or answer the proverbial where you want to be in five years, but you should have a rough idea about why you are doing what you are doing. That is, there needs to exist a semblance of a strategy, which guides your career decisions.

For instance, as someone who invests for my retirement, I don't care about short-term market swings. As a result, you won't see myself selling at a loss in every crisis or catching up with alarmist news analysts stating the obvious (i.e., that markets change). That's so because within my investment strategy, the short term plays no role. At work, I also have a clear strategy, given that I want to growth as an engineer playing an ever-increasing leadership role. Someone who can scale my impact through others – as a catalyst. That's in fact why I nurture long-term relationships with my mentees. On the other hand, knowing that I don't want to be a manager, frees me from optimizing for things that won't matter. Things that would end up being a zero-sum game for me personally, provided nothing changes.

Second, when the stress or pressure of getting out of the comfort zone, makes you not push to expand scope over time. I don't speak here of making yourself stressed all the time, since that isn't sustainable, but there should be some tension, which keeps you excited to come to work. Whenever I feel bored over the period of a week, that's when I know I need to dial exciting work up a little. Occasionally, my current project at work won't offer that, so that's when I start adding a few side projects at work to the mix, which can include:

  • Planning ahead for my next project.
  • Investigating how I can address a team pain.
  • Polishing any roadmap documents I maintain.
  • Refactoring code, which has been bugging me for a while.
  • Presenting something new to my team in our weekly get-togethers.

Those should be a habit. In fact, I try to make time for them during my own deep thinking time sessions – as a way to even prevent getting bored. Being slightly interested in muscle building, I've learned one thing or two from the bodybuilding community. Community that praises periodization. That is, the practice of planning your exercise sessions in terms of a cyclic strategy, which helps to prevent your muscle building from plateauing in the first place. After all, any system will have a tendency to stabilize/reach homeostasis, unless otherwise stimulated. You can try the same at work too – as I do.

Third and worse yet, when feeling like you're good at something, makes you keep pursuing the feeling of having done an outstanding job – as a reinforcing need for approval. Hence, favoring sticking to silos within the codebase or very similar kinds of projects. Conversely, were I to optimize for that, I would hinder my grown and learn trajectory. Two aspects that are too important for me to ignore for convenience's sake.

Despite the rationale, every one of us should put the effort to understand our environment. From experience, you will be quite pleased with the results. 

Lucas Lira Gomes

Written by Lucas Lira Gomes. You should follow him on Twitter, GitHub, and LinkedIn.

© 2024 Lucas Lira Gomes
We copyleft