“Your job is not what you do, it’s what goal you pursue.” – Fred Kofman
“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” – Vince Lombardi
A few years ago, in a screenwriting class, our instructor asked us the following question: “How do you prepare yourself to write? What things do you do to create an environment that’s conducive to writing?”
This was the third quarter with my fellow students – first class with this instructor – and I was comfortable speaking my mind. My answer went something like this:
“I don’t have time for that. I only have one hour at lunch to write. So I turn on my laptop and I write.”
That killed the conversation.
I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I swear. It’s just that I was in a place in my life where with a full-time job, the demands of the study program, training for a sprint triathlon – because I need to be physically fit to be mentally fit – and a wonderful husband who enjoyed my company now and then, I did not have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. That particular class required that we go from idea to completed first draft of a feature-length screenplay in ten weeks.
There was only one solution for me: channel my inner-Nike and “just do it.”
Pursue a Goal
In a recent Legacy Code Rocks podcast, Scott Nimrod said something that really spoke to me: “Human beings, by default, want to stay in their comfort zone.”
And I think that a “comfort zone” doesn’t even need to be comfortable for us to want to stay in it. Just good enough so that we’re not motivated to action. Because action means work. It takes effort. Planning. Trying new things. It means transition. Transition is demanding and uncomfortable. It brings uncertainty and environmental chaos (at times psychological chaos). It’s a lot easier to complain and maintain the status quo than to actually do something about it. Some would even rather settle and accept lives spent running on the hamster wheel, knocking off a never-ending todo list. Never truly pursuing a goal.
Not me. I’ve always said that when I’m 80 years old, sitting on my porch, in my rocking chair, I’d look back at my life and be proud. Proud, not because everything turned out the way I envisioned, but proud because I tried and dared. I refuse to be wondering: “What if I had the courage to…?” “What if I hadn’t been afraid of…?”
Of course, we took it a step further and spent a little over a year cruising on a sailboat and four years roaming around in a motorhome. But it doesn’t have to be that drastic. It can start with finding satisfying work.
Make a plan
Keeping in mind that no job will be perfect, overall, it should still provide more fulfilling moments than frustrating ones. And that can be cyclical.
Uncover what you really like to do.
Do you enjoy writing? Do you enjoy diving into codebases and finding inefficiencies? Do you enjoy coming up with novel solutions to existing problems? Jot down, in broad strokes, the types of tasks that make you feel accomplished.
Research what else is out there.
Don’t limit yourself to what you already know. There might be jobs and tasks out there you didn’t even know existed. To help you brainstorm, read job listings on LinkedIn or Glassdoor. You might see responsibilities that speak to you.
Address Fred Kofman’s point.
What are your professional goals? E.g. To help a company deliver a better product to its customers. To help clients reduce their technical debt. To contribute to a company’s blog by sharing professional lessons learned. State your goals as actions.
Flesh it out
Once you have those broad goals, you need to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
Make a list.
I’m a huge fan of lists. I use Todoist to keep track of everything. Otherwise, my mind gets cluttered, and I spend too much effort remembering as opposed to doing. Start thinking of what skills you’re missing, what skills need upgrading, and what you already can offer that makes you stand out.
Create a timetable.
Without due dates, that list will never move forward. Except for that first week or so when you’re all excited. But when that excitement wanes, and all that’s left is the actual work, you’ll need that timetable to keep you moving. Make sure to create small milestones. Achievable tasks that can be checked off and celebrated. Things like “write an app” is way too broad in scope. Break it down into tiny pieces like “come up with app concept,” “define app audience,” etc.
Upgrade your skills.
There are many ways to add or improve upon skills, from Extension classes (like the one where Scott lectured), to workshops on Skillshare (like Andrea’s) and Udemy, to bootcamps. If your budget is tight, there are many free classes – most MOOCs are free – such as FutureLearn, and training sites, such as Exercism. Also research free instruction through your public library. I know that mine provides free access to Lynda.com and other sites.
Life can be busy. Challenge yourself to get it done, but don’t turn it into such a time commitment that you start resenting having taken on this self-improvement project.
Keep yourself accountable.
Some people like sharing with others what their plan is and check in with them. They create some form of accountability group with friends and family. Every day or week, they share what they’ve done and encourage each other. But be honest with yourself. If that’s going to turn into a chat fest preventing you from getting things done, find another way.
Will = Effort
I can’t speak to what exactly Vince Lombardi meant when he said that will separated successful people from others, but this is how I interpret it: successful people stop making excuses, get off their butts and get it done.
Throw excuses out the window.
A long time ago, I learned that if I wanted anything in life, I was going to have to work for it. No one was going to give me anything; nothing was going to magically happen by wishing. In being forced to figure things out, I became resourceful and confident. Overcoming challenges makes you stronger and better equipped for what may lie ahead. Don’t shy away from these.
Borrow Stephen King’s muse.
A while back, I read this awesome book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. In it, he talked about his muse. He pictured his muse as this large man with a flattop crew cut yelling at him something like: “Get your a** behind that keyboard, King!” Sometimes, we all need that. We get tired. We lose enthusiasm. And we start to procrastinate. Or rather, we start with the busywork. We’re doing this and that and the other thing, but really, all we’re doing is getting ourselves “in the mood to write.” We might be fooling ourselves into thinking we’ve really made progress on learning that new language… by reorganizing our desktop. We are that much closer to completing that Up and Running with Python class… by ensuring our workspace has the right vibe. That’s when you need to pause and borrow Stephen King’s muse for a moment. Just long enough for him to order you to complete a task that’s actually on the todo list.
Use any motivational technique that works for you.
Your “muse” might also be a timer. I like using the Pomodoro Technique to motivate myself. On those days when I’m just not feeling it, I tell myself “One Pomodoro at a time.” It’s only 25 minutes of work before a five-minute break. Usually, once I get started, I realize that I enjoy what I do and find motivation in the work itself. There are days when that 25 minutes feels like forever. Thankfully, they are rare. But when they do show up, I accept it. A good friend of mine used to say to me (in yoga, but it also applies here): “Notice the pain, but don’t label it and don’t judge it. Just notice it, acknowledge its presence and move on.”
Don’t wait around for opportunity to come knocking on your door. Seek it out. Consider where you work right now. Are there any tasks or committees for which you can volunteer? That’s how I ended up with my first supervisory position. I knew I wanted the experience and kept talking about it. I signed up for workshops, read books, asked for advice. And when the supervisor became pregnant, and needed a replacement during her maternity leave, I was approached. If there really isn’t anything in your current workplace, Don had this great piece of advice: “Being between jobs is no excuse for not learning new technologies. You don’t have to be employed to get experience. Do your own internet startup.” I also had a career coach confess that when she started copywriting, she would seek out her favorite brands and create ads for them. Image, copy and all. It was unpaid, but it was a sample of what she could do.
Keep your eyes and ears open.
Hard work pays off, but not always in the way we expect it. There may be opportunities around you that don’t quite fit what you had in mind. Explore them anyway. They may open doors you had no idea were there.
Don’t be afraid to fail.
Failing is part of learning and growing. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. I’m not talking about blind leaps of faith. Just educated jumps. Take chances. Go down a road you’re unsure of. Explore. If things don’t pan out, you will likely have learned something. Even if what you learn is that you can’t stand something. I’ve found that, more than once, I didn’t know what I wanted, but I sure knew what I didn’t want. And, after a few false starts, things became clearer.
Keep Moving Forward
So many things in life are truly out of our control. I feel we owe it to ourselves to take charge of whatever small aspects we do have control over. Mainly, our attitudes and our actions. Otherwise, we’re just running on that little hamster wheel, hoping the stars and planets align for us. I’m sorry to say, hope is not a strategy. And if you start working at those goals, I think you’ll find that, for the hard workers, stars and planets seem to align more often than for the others.