What do you love (enough to do it for a long time)?

Readers of the popular Dilbert comic strip will have no-doubt seen this recent comic.

The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more

This concept comes from the book, Outliers, where author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly talks about how it requires 10,000 hours of practice to become truly good at something.

Some questions this raises:

  • What do you love enough to spend 5 years of your life on it – as the start of your work in that area?
  • How do we reconcile this concept with the idea that what is required to be good at our jobs changes before 5 years have passed?

Personally, I learned this lesson from Mike McGavick, and that discussion made me far more intentional about my career. His advice for career success was (paraphrased): “They were willing to think really, really hard about the issue at hand, and they only choose for their life’s work jobs where they had enough passion to continue thinking hard for a long time.” Far more succinct, and more useful in my opinion.

For me, the thing I loved was solving challenging business problems through the use of technology. In particular, finding the right mix of a wide variety of technical options which perfectly suit the problem at hand. It is inherently complicated and challenging, and requires an understanding at both the macro and micro level to truly do it well. It is the marriage of the big picture with the details which make it succeed or fail which gets my attention.  Well, that and building great teams… but that’s for another post.

Regarding the rapid pace of change, in some cases this does mean you will never have the opportunity to spend 5 or more years learning to do it really well; though I would argue within many fields, what you learn while solving one problem carries over to the next. For example, in application development, working on one framework or platform will inform what you do on the next. There is a long history of engineers expanding on the concepts of others, like .NET’s extension of the concepts in JAVA, or the Apache httpd project learning from the NCSA web server software. What this means is that if you stay in the same universe, your supposed ‘changes’ to keep up with the industry may be more like transformations and adjustments – and actually may lead to innovations and advancements.

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