3 and a half frustratingly difficult career tips

Calendar icon   2024-03-02   Scroll icon  3042
Tag icon  advice , career , opinion

I've been thinking a lot about careers lately. Or at least I was when I first thought of this blog post. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how I've got to where I am and where I would like to go. Looking back over my career, there are definitely a few common themes I never did intentionally but have helped shape my career a lot.

You might be curious about why I titled this post the way I did. The reason is that the things I'm about to tell you are intentionally vague and difficult. They are the things that would have made me mad with frustration as a kid if my parents had told me about them. The reason they are this way is that I think you should never give specific instructions in unclear situations. I don't know what your life is like, and therefore anything concrete I would have to say here would be worthless at best and a wild goose chase at worst. Instead of making it seem like this is a roadmap you could just follow, I've opted to describe to you how a compass works, how to make it and how to use it. However, where you would like to go once you have it will be up to you.

As a supplemental material, I’ve provided a short list of media pieces that have helped me to come to understand these things in the end. I encourage you to use both this list and this post as an orchard. Wander through it, reach out, take what appeals to you and leave the rest.

1. Learn to research

I have often told colleagues "I would rather hire someone who knows how to learn than someone who knows exactly the thing I’m interested in.". This might sound weird, but I believe in it very firmly. It's why I would hire a physicist, a philosophy major, or even a successful journalist as a software developer. Someone like that? I'll teach them how to code, no problem. Someone who can code but doesn't know how to investigate? That's much harder to work with if you ask me.

I don't care where you are in your career or which field you are in, if you’re a knowledge worker, you're always going to have to keep learning to stay relevant. There's always something new to understand, whether it's a new tool, practice, framework, language. This is something that will always keep showing up and it is by far the most useful skill I've learned during my maths degree. The confidence that comes with versatility and resilience is hard to overestimate.

By "learn to research" I mean more than just, "know how to look stuff up efficiently". Although that in itself is already a tremendous advantage. Whenever I teach someone about the basics of coding, I encourage them not to fuss too much over syntax and learning APIs by heart. Experienced coders (myself included) get that wrong all the time. It also doesn’t help that those change faster than the weather in British autumn. You can look that up, no problem. Researching is about being able to apply that information in a relevant situation. It will be rare that what you find is going to be exactly what you need. You're always going to have to cherry-pick and edit a little bit and that's the crucial part of the skill.

You don’t even have to keep all of it in your brain, either. In school, if you ask someone else to do something for you, that’s called cheating. When you’ve got a job, it’s called delegation. As a professional, if you know very little yourself, but you know the person to go to for every question, you are still doing your job correctly. Where the information comes from doesn’t matter, as long as you know where to find it.

Being able to research also means not being intimidated (or at least paralyzed) by unfamiliar theory or material. Everything looks impossible for the first time around. Being able to engage with complex material, piece by piece, and structure information so you can understand it is the name of the game.

The reason I can't give you more specific information about how to study effectively is that you are the only one who can say what that is. I don't care how you study or research. What is important is that it makes sense to you. Wanna get a subscription to brilliant.org? Go for it. Prefer YouTube tutorials? I'm with you. Work better with a book and some time on your own? Perfect. Prefer to jump in straight and learn as you go? Amazing. Want to find someone more experienced and ask them questions? Fantastic.

Finally, know that learning how to research means learning how to communicate. As I’ve discussed, how you gather the information doesn't matter. What does matter is how you present it. For work as it exists today, if you cannot communicate your knowledge to other people, it might as well not be there.

2. Learn to do things that suck

Let's be honest, doing anything, no matter how amazing it is, is going to involve doing things that suck. Any task, let alone work, in modern life, has at least some drudgery built into it, so I hope you can see why being able to do things that suck is a competitive advantage.

Destin from the YouTube channel Smarter Every Day gives an interesting example of this. He says that the way he tries to gain trust in unknown groups is by asking what the job is that everybody hates doing the most and then doing that. While you should be careful that doesn't become your defining feature. If people learn they can dump the shitty work on you without consequences they will. However, I think it's a tremendous way to ingratiate yourself with people. Being willing to do the dirty work is a rare quality (and let’s be honest, for good reason). That means if you can do it, it will often make you stand out (as long as you don’t do it where nobody can see it, but that’s a conversation for a different time).

But it goes much further than that in my experience. Very often, with things that suck, it's actually our anticipation or reaction to the thing that sucks way more than the thing itself. This is a concept known in Buddhist philosophy as “the second arrow”. As someone who struggled a lot with anxiety and depression throughout my life, I feel intimately aware of this. Because it's the expectation that is the worst part. In my experience, when you do the sucky thing more and more often, it gets a little easier every time. Not necessarily better, but easier.

Being able to do things you hate is a skill you can learn. I'm far from qualified to talk about this subject, but as a little guidepost, I will talk about two things that have helped me hone that skill. They are meditation, and taking cold showers, both of which I still hate doing.

Meditation has helped me foster a bit of detachment, which feels like a bit of a protective layer between me and the terrible emotion, if you will. In a way, meditation felt like practising dealing with sucky emotions. This made it easier to overcome them when they came attached to doing something I hate. It also helps remind me that those emotions pass eventually, cliche though it might be.

Then there are cold showers. Yes, really. The reason I think the cold showers helped is that they suck so much. No, I'm not gonna tell you about how I've come to like them or whatever. It is undeniably something that sucks, and that's why it works as practice. The one upside to it is that, besides being accessible, it's easy to start and stop on a dime. Few things that suck come in doses small enough to make them an effective training exercise.

Another thing that I have found with doing things that suck is that starting is much harder than continuing or finishing. Take, for example, running, which many people would agree sucks. Including me when I first started with it. I would make a deal with myself. All I had to do was put on the clothes and step outside the door. That's it. If I stepped one foot outside the door and wanted to turn around and go back, I could. Nine times out of ten, when I stood outside in my running clothes, I'd think, "eh, fuck it, I'm here now anyway, might as well do the thing"

The crux of all this is that if you can learn to not be too afraid of negative emotions, a bunch of options become available to you. It's kinda liberating, and it has helped me in my career more than I think I know how to put into words.

2b. Learn to find your joy.

Now, some of you might assume after reading the previous part that I've stuck with the things like meditation and cold showers. To that I say: I wish! But I didn't. I pick them up now and then and every time I do; they are a little easier to come back to, but I don't maintain them as habits throughout my life.

The reason is that they take a lot of effort. I just don't always have the bandwidth to do things like that. Especially when other things are tough, it's unrealistic to expect yourself to do those things independently of what goes on in the rest of your life.

I think that the step to managing things like these is to make sure you have a healthy balance between hard and fun things. Consider a financial analogue. Perhaps you've heard of the concept of a "loss leader". The idea is to actually sell something so cheap that you make a loss on it, but that sale then leads to enough sales on higher-margin products to make up for it. An example of these would be gaming consoles, which are often sold at a loss. The subsequent sales of games then more than make up for that. This is an effective strategy, but you can only do that if you make enough money in other ways to weather the initial hit. If you don't, you're gonna go out of business.

This is how I see work and motivation. Any work you do is going to involve things that suck. Probably quite a lot of them. These will be your loss leaders. The question then becomes, what are the other things you can do to make up for the loss you make on them? This is what I call "finding your joy", and I think it's essential for a sustainable career.

In most work situations I've been in, there have been at least some things that I could do that energised me. Examples include hackathons, personal projects, social time with colleagues, and attending or giving lectures. Whatever you're interested in, doesn't matter whether it's part of your job description or not. In fact, it might even help if it isn't. I won't say that this is available to everyone, but I will say that it was available to me in a lot of jobs where you wouldn't have expected it. So it might be worth looking around wherever you are.

This is also where I'll have to issue a small warning to you. Because often rather than seeing these kinds of activities as enabling productivity, the powers that be usually see them as “rewards". This means that you're only allowed to engage in them after you've finished all your other tasks like a good little kid. I find this incredibly frustrating and short-sighted, but it is what it is. At least, there are ways to at least mitigate it.

One of those is just not being very vocal about the fact that you're doing them. Not that you have to lie, but it helps to not be too obvious about what you are doing, and especially how much time you're spending on it. This is true regardless of how high your other workload is. For whatever reason, managers don't actually measure the time you spend on these things against how well you still do your other tasks. Rather, they measure how much time they see you spend on it compared to how much time they feel you should spend on it.

Another helpful strategy is to keep some of these joy tasks squirrelled away for when you need them. When you're down in a slump, an easy or exciting task can really help pull you out of it. Sometimes, it's better to pause what you're "supposed to be doing" and do something that brings you happiness, even if it's not as important. If you wait to do what brings you joy until your other work is done, you will never do it.

Finally, I think it's also important to note that you don't have to find joy in your actual work. If you have a hobby that can do this for you, I say go for it. There is nothing wrong with work just being working and you finding your fulfilment outside in your own life. However, it means that you'll have to engage in them enough to get that energy outside of work hours. Something which I have yet to figure out how to do, but I thought it at least worth mentioning.

3. Employers are not your friends (and that's okay)

This last point differs from the other ones. Here I'm gonna have to be a bit more serious for a second. This point is uncomfortable for everyone, but it's one that I had to learn the hard way and I want to spare you that if I can. Employers are not your friend, and that's okay.

I am not saying you cannot have cordial, mutually beneficial, or even friendly relationships with your employer. Far from it. However, you are not their friend and you'd do well to remember that because they for sure will. The era of "company loyalty" has ended on both sides long ago, if it ever existed to begin with. Employment is a plain business transaction, simple as that.

I think people shouldn't have to be "thankful" for being able to work in a place. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be thankful for the things you have, but you shouldn’t feel gratitude towards your employer. They didn't give you that job out of benevolence, but because they need something from you. It is in their nature to get the most out of you, whether they do so in humane, ethical or even pleasant ways, is up to them. When you stop being able to provide whatever they need, they will end the relationship. As soon as they stop being able to provide what you need, whether that's money, career progression, a good work environment or anything else, you should move on.

This goes for your relationship with your direct boss especially. As much as flat hierarchies are trendy these days, your boss is not your friend, and your relationship is not equal. They sign your paycheck, and they decide whether you get a promotion. In a disagreement, they will win by default. I've found this to be the case in startups as much as it is in the government. That's just the nature of power. I'm not saying this is all deliberate or conscious, but it is how I have experienced things in the workplace, and it does neither of you good to deny that reality.

Because overt authoritarianism is quite frowned upon these days, I have found one realisation that can sometimes help. Some people are uncomfortable with the power they wield and would rather not acknowledge it. You see this a lot in what I'll call "faux flat hierarchies". You should know that you can simply not play that game. It's my policy that I will obey power when someone tries to use it, but only if they will admit aloud that is what they are doing. This is not a strategy for the faint of heart, but it has worked for me more often than I had originally thought.

None of what I'm saying here is meant to demonise employers or bosses. In fact, I've found that being clear about the boundaries of your relationship tends to improve them. It is hard to do but in my eyes, very worthwhile. Nor am I saying that this is how things should be. I'm saying that they are like that. And like it or not, you'll do better in the workplace if you're willing to acknowledge that and learn to work and deal with it.

As I said at the beginning, these tips are frustratingly vague and difficult, but hopefully you can get something out of them none the less. They are lessons that have helped me enormously along the way and I hope they will do the same for you. Hopefully, wherever you are in your career, these tips can serve you as guide stones, whereever you plan to go, and wherever you may end up. Good luck out there friend, you'll need it.

  1. So good they can't ignore you. by Cal Newport
  2. Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world. By David Epstein
  3. Daring Greatly. by Brene Brown
  4. Rising Strong. by Brene Brown
  5. Bullshit Jobs, a theory. by David Graeber
  6. "Waiting for Godot" Explained with Philosophy. By Abigail Thorn
  7. Doing the Small Stuff Feels Pointless. by HealthyGamerGG
  8. Dr. K, how do I focus? by HealthyGamerGG