Grabbing a shovel

“You’re obviously talented and sharp. But I have no idea how to use you”.

About the third time I heard this from different bosses, I felt like an utter failure. Why would someone as capable as I felt be so woefully misunderstood and underutilized?

As it turns out, it was 100% my fault, and the fix isn’t all that hard.

As I outlined in another post, a coworker shared the secret of his relatively stress-free work environment (the same environment that stressed me to the point of physical illness). He was a free agent. He was only there because he wanted to be. He woke up every day and made the decision to come to work because it was what he wanted to do, not what he had to do.

But I couldn’t just be a free agent. I didn’t know where to start to develop that sense.

As it turns out, a different piece of advice he gave me later was the missing piece, the building block that earns you that free agency. I was going around in circles worrying about how I, a brand-new programmer of less than 6 months, could contribute to our large and intimidating project. He told me this: “I’m looking for people who will just grab a shovel and get to work. If you can do that, great.”

On the marketing side, I’d spent so much time trying to convince people that I had good ideas that I never bothered to just get things done. It didn’t help that the department didn’t have any clue of what we should be getting done. We just knew we needed big ideas that could recoup our ever-expanding millions in losses.

But in my interactions with the development team, they weren’t interested in ideas. They were interested in execution.

This flipped my whole world upside down. Actually, it had been upside down my whole life, and this flipped it right side up. I realized that I could simply “grab a shovel” and start helping the customers by adding small improvements to the code. I would just dig in and add copy changes in one place, fix small things in another, or add features.

I had needed decent e-mail support as a member of the Marketing team for years. So I set about adding it in myself, and had it done in a matter of a couple of weeks. I asked our lead developer, “This was so easy. Why didn’t we have this sooner?”

His reply was a bit coy: “Because we didn’t have you to build it.”

That was the most liberating feeling in the world, because I was proving value to myself and to anyone who cared to pay attention.

The same fear that kept me from achieving at work now holds me back from contributing to open-source projects: I spend so much time being intimidated or hoping someone will tell me what to do that I would rather wait than start trying to contribute any way I can. I still let this happen too often, but from here, I plan to just dig in, find something to fix, and get it done.

In my new day job, I come in every day and try to grab a shovel and get to work. No one has expressed a lack of knowledge of what to “use me for”. Rather, they know that I am going to be digging, so now the only concern is to make sure that I’m doing so in the right place.

The process isn’t complex: I keep a list of the things I want to get done. I check in with my coworkers and tell them what I want to do for the day. At the end of every day, I know how I feel about what I accomplished. There’s no technique, I just know whether I feel good or bad about a day’s efforts, and so I strive to push a little harder so I can feel good at the end of every day.

I also keep my eyes peeled for places I can get things done and just go for it. I spent so much of my life waiting for permission that it’s a bit jarring to just start doing. But here’s what I learned: if you require permission for everything, I can guarantee you’re going to waste your talents and your life waiting.

So now, I try to take a risk, go out on a limb, and do something good without permission once in a while. It gets my heart racing to know there could be some negative reaction, but it seems like those are the times where I get real traction on the most important things.

If I’m hiring someone, I’d rather pick up someone holding a shovel than someone with a sign that says “I have some great ideas about digging if someone will just give me a chance.”

Stop talking about it. Grab a shovel and get to work. I promise you’ll be happier.