Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Secret to Life, Career and Happiness

Well, a secret, anyway, maybe not the secret.

Nobody else knows what they're doing either.
Really. That's something I think you need to know. I hope this isn't a surprise most of you, but for those of you whom it is, I'm glad you're here, reading this.

Assuming you're not psychopathically confident, there are probably times in your life or your career when you've felt a little lost, like you weren't sure what to do. This could be when you were trying to ask that cute girl out at the school dance, and you weren't sure how to approach her, or when you're trying to decide between one job and another, or when you're confused about an architectural decision your company has just made.

I get this feeling all the time, I'm not ashamed to tell you. It's probably a daily occurrence. When I was younger, this used to bother me, made me feel like I was clueless where everyone else knew how to navigate their way through life, and I was hapless and insecure.

Over time, I've come to the realization that it's not true. Many, if not most of you, feel confused or lost exactly the same way, probably almost as much as I do. It's part of the human condition, we're all just muddling along.

So, why is this A Secret to Life, Career and Happiness
Well, if you were labouring under the false impression that it was just you, and that the rest of us always know what you're doing, I hope this takes a burden off your shoulders. We don't. In fact, much of the time, we're making it up as we go along.

Interestingly, once you realize this and start to behave accordingly, you'll find that people respond well to you admitting that you don't know what you're doing. In fact, you'll find that admitting you're lost and confused is basically a leadership trait. That may sound odd to some of you, but I'm largely convinced that it's true.

Admit You're Lost at Work
Assume, for instance, that you're working on a project, and the enterprise architect for your enterprisey company has decided that this project Must Be SOA (TM). You don't see any likelihood of other programs interacting with yours, nor is there a technology boundary or multiple user interfaces, so you think to yourself, "Why SOA? It's going to cost us time, but what does it buy us?"

Chances are, some of your coworkers are feeling the same way, but unfortunately, many of them are feeling as I used to: that the reason they're confused is that they don't know what they're talking about, and that the architect and their coworkers are all happy with the decision because they do know what they're talking about.

So if you step up, and say what you're thinking, "Do we really need a service-oriented architecture here?" you'll often find two things are true:
  • The people who were feeling the same way are relieved. It becomes clear to them that they're not alone, confused about the architectural choice. They're not alone in their confusion. This is a good feeling, so they're happy.
  • Secondly, if your team and enterprisey company are any good, they'll recognize that you're perceptive and analytical, that you ask the right questions and aren't afraid to look stupid in order to advance your understanding and the team's.
These are all good things, and I've found that asking these kinds of questions almost always helps. Usually, either I come away with the understanding I was looking for, or the question helps to drive change. Either way, it's a win.

Don't Swallow that Foot
Don't take this too far; having a question doesn't mean you should be obnoxious. If your company is pursuing a second product line when the first is having some troubles, you could ask, "Our first product line is already failing, so why are we wasting time trying to build another product line that is already failing?" Depending on where you work, this could get you a laugh, a stern conversation or a pink slip.

If you're treading on politically sensitive ground in a politically sensitive company, you could try using yourself as the scapegoat for the question. "I'm sorry, I'm having a little trouble understanding, maybe I missed something. I feel like we're having trouble proving the success of our first product line and now we're going to end up splitting our effort on a new product line. Would it be better to focus all our energies on the first product for the time being?" Most people have a hard time criticizing a question when you start it by implying clearly that you could just be confused or mistaken.

So, be free. Admit that you're lost. And when you're done, come back and tell me how it went.


Andrey said...

So, the Secret to Life, Career and Happiness is courage!

Dan said...

I was pretty sure the Secret to Life, Career and Happiness was alcohol.

I guess I will need to go to the pub and re-evaluate.