5 reasons it's amazing to have no idea what you're doing
It’s a safe bet to say I have little to no idea what I’m doing at least 80-90% of the time. And while that may cause me a bit of undo stress and dismay, I like to think that, for the most part, it’s a mindset that should be embraced and nourished rather than feared.
Bear with me… knowing your shit is grand and all but not knowing is the cornerstone of my personal growth and self-motivation. It’s precisely that lack of knowledge and experience that drives me toward self-discovery and ultimately (I hope), enlightenment.
Why would anyone wish to exist in this delightfully imperfect state of ineptitude? Well… here’s a list of my top 5 reasons I think it’s amazing to have no idea what you’re doing:
1. Ignorance breeds investigation
If you fancy yourself a serious self-starter, then your own topical ignorance will not sway you from discovering new frontiers of knowledge. Oh no. You will forge through, mind-machete in hand, slicing through the dense jungle of self-ignorance until you come through the other side, gleaming brilliantly with runnels of intelligence-sweat.
Ok, that last sentence got away from me but you get the idea. If you’re bogged down with a problem you can’t solve, you have two options:
1. Learn enough to overcome it
Of course, there is a third option: learn enough to overcome it, then build upon that education to go beyond ‘good enough’ and create a truly excellent solution to your problem. I’d like to think that’s what I do but it’s not always true. Many times I’ll do the bare minimum to just eke over the finish line and then be done with it.
Is that acceptable? Of course it is! Why? Because we all only have so many waking hours in the day and we can count only a fraction of those as productive. Add that to the ridiculous amount of things you may be interested and you find there’s simply no need to break your back over something unless:
1. You’re completely emotionally invested in the material
2. Your welfare depends on it
I often find myself mired deep in the 2nd option. Freelancing for almost a decade has taught me a lot of things about financial survival, mainly pushing me into things that I may not have pursued in the first place. Faced with the possibility of losing my house or starving my kids, of course I’m going to take what steps I need to get the job done and fill the bank account once again.
But to find that true calling - the one that you’re both passionate about and get paid for. Now that’s the dream isn’t it. For me, that’s writing and music. What is it for you? Think long and hard about it. We’re fortunate to live in a time where you can make a job out of just about anything. I mean, there’s a [bacon box subscription], for christ sake.
The investigation is the key. Taking the time to really invest in learning yourself and what you really want out of life and your career is important and should not be ignored. Hell, I’m nearly 35 and I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. It’s ok. Take a week, a month, a year if you can and just… explore.
2. Curiosity kills no one (not even the damn cat)
I often tell me wife, ‘there is no excuse for ignorance anymore.’ I truly believe that. It’s 2017. There’s a lot we can complain about, sure, but consider how incredibly fortunate we are to be living in the time we live in. It’s an incredible moment in human history. As Louis CK said, ‘[everything is amazing and nobody is happy].’ He’s right… at least about the amazing part. Especially when it comes to education.
Gone are the days where wealth and social class dictated your access to education (or even literacy). Gone are the days when you were required to attend a 4 year university to obtain world class knowledge and training. The sheer volume of educational material we have at our disposal is mind boggling, limited only by your access to a computer and an internet connection.
I’ve been aware of The Open University and distance learning programs for a long time. I still remember the old University of Phoenix commercials when I was a kid, outlining the amazing opportunities of pursuing an online degree. That was the mid 90s. Over 20 years ago. We’ve come a long way, especially with regards to free education.
You still have loads of options with pursuing an online degree, with many affordable options and financial assistance. However, if that’s not your bag (believe me, I wish I could but money’s more than a bit tight), here are some of the incredible free and cheap resources I use to jumpstart and further your education:
[OpenLearn] from The Open University
The depth of free courses offered on OpenLearn is breathtaking. There’s no other way to describe it. I could write dedicate an entire series of posts just to this platform. In fact, I might just do that. Stay tuned.
Now, this one is interesting. It offers a lot of exactly the same course material as you’ll find on OpenLearn but it has scheduled release and social elements built into it. Each course ‘starts’ on a given date and then runs for the designated term, e.g. 4 weeks.
During this term, you essentially take the course along with hundreds of other people, who you can message through dedicated social feeds on each lesson. Kind of like, Facebook - with a purpose. I think it’s an incredible tool, even if you choose not to participate in the social element.
The scheduled term feature is a bit of a moot point as you can probably find the same course material on OpenLearn but it appeals to the motivation and organisation side of my brain.
Reed is primarily a UK job board and recruiter but they also keep a list of further learning courses to help you achieve certification and skills in various subjects. This is where I first heard of FutureLearn and it’s a great tool for sussing out both free and paid courses that will help you take your career and/or personal development to the next level.
[Project Gutenberg] and e-books from your local library
Videos are great and all and structured courses are always fantastic but you simply can’t properly educate yourself without reading. Project Gutenberg has an incredible library of ebooks in the public domain - I can’t recommend it enough.
But what if you have an itch for something that’s not in the public domain? Of course, you could always [buy books]. Or use [Amazon’s Kindle subscription] (not a bad idea at all for voracious readers!) but what my wife and I have done is gotten a non-resident card with the Fairfax County library in Virginia, US, giving us access to their entire online catalogue, including audiobooks. Pretty cool! And what’s even better, there are other libraries offering the same service, so when you feel you’ve exhausted one catalogue, apply for another - it’s cheap and fantastic. Simple as.
This is an old post but still relevant, listing the libraries that offer non-resident cards: [Non-resident library cards]
I could go on and on listing free and cheap educational resources but this post is getting long enough. I’ll branch this out in a separate post in the near future so please check back soon!
I’ll say it again. There is no excuse for ignorance. There simply isn’t. Sure, all of this information at our fingertips [can be overwhelming] but if you have focus, determination, and a true thirst for knowledge, the breadth of resources can be a very, very good thing.
You just need to remind yourself to try to stop learning everything and focus not on what you’re learning, but why. If you’re curious about a lot of things and just want to dabble here and there, that’s great. But the trick to mastery is there are no tricks. Just focus and determination in specific avenues. The great thing about the age that we live in is that those avenues seemingly number in the infinite.
3. Collaboration is key
I love solo work and cringe at ‘group work’. I still have nightmares about my schoolteachers saying, ‘ok class… form groups!’ Shudder. That being said, I recognise and embrace the need for group collaboration. Which is why I find online educational platforms such as [FutureLearn] so interesting. The opportunity to connect with people who are learning the same thing you are at the same level is really promising and I look forward to pursuing it further.
It’s not just through online learning platforms that we can grow and nourish our skills with others - simply collaborating on mutually interesting projects has the benefits of not only realising results of greater complexity and depth but also of expanding your knowledge in ways you may not have thought to pursue yourself.
For example, my friend Pat has been trying to get me into coding in Rails for a long time. For those who know me, I’m not a programmer. Rails is a programmer friendly framework. So he’s had his work cut out for him. But I found, through collaborating on a startup project idea, I began to delve deeper into documentation, online courses, StackOverflow posts, etc., eager to bring my knowledge back to the table each day that we worked together.
Not only did I find myself increasing my knowledge of Rails, but of programming fundamentals, and in turn improving my JS skills (something I should have been doing already), which has helped me immensely at work. All this, because he just wanted to collaborate on a project built in a framework I may not have ever touched on my own.
You never know where your journey will take you when you throw your introverted caution to the wind and choose to collaborate with other people. I wholly believe everyone should have at least one mentor in their life. I wish I had one. I tend to defer to my wife most days which suffices in most situations but she’s interested in different subjects than I am so our collaboration only goes so far. I also hope to be a mentor to others, if not 1:1, then at least through posts such as these.
Working through a journey of self-education and discovery is a fantastic process but can be bolstered and nourished in ways you may never have imagined. Give it a go. Talk to someone about your passion, your hopes and dreams. Work with someone else or a group of people toward achieving what you want to achieve. Work together. Play together. Learn together.
4. Your comfort zone is so last week
I’m not happy with the title of this section. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m still trying to determine if that’s a good thing. Feel free to tell me in the comments. I won’t get mad.
Getting out of your comfort zone on a regular basis has the same benefits as collaborating with others. It forces you into situations you may have not found yourself if you rigidly stuck to your normal routine. Some things out of my comfort zone:
- Public speaking
- Large social gatherings
- Code interviews (or interviews in general)
- Writing blog posts
Yes, even that last one. Not a sentence goes by that I’m filled with self-doubt and questions like, ‘what does anyone care what I have to say?’ or ‘who’s going to read this damn thing anyway?’ I suppose the latter concern is the most relevant. One could say that writing into the aether without the knowledge of my writing ever being gazed upon by another human being is ~mostly~ partly what motivates me to keep going.
Perhaps. But the point is that I keep writing. It’s not without purpose. I am currently learning to improve my writing whilst increasing my body of work. An effort with a purpose - to increase professional writing opportunities and work toward a higher degree in writing and journalism.
This pursuit in its entirety is largely out of my comfort zone. I have, at the time of this writing, no professional credits to my name, and no formally accredited training. I can’t claim to be one of those authors who ‘always knew they would be a writer’ - I’ve always had an interest but I certainly never had that laser focus on my future profession. As I noted previously, I’m nearly 35 and still figuring myself out.
The point is, that I crave personal fulfilment not only in my personal life (I have that already), but in my work. Who doesn’t want to do what they love for a living? I code for a living. I don’t love it. Other people do. That’s them. But it is in my comfort zone. I’ve been doing it for so long and have been continuously paid for it so it’s become something comfortable. Which is a bad thing.
It’s made me complacent and lazy about my career. I’ve strung along on projects I’ve had zero interest in. A lot of them. I’ve done what I had to do to pay the bills. My wife says that’s not a bad thing and I’m inclined to believe her (she’s always right) but deep down, it feels like a bad thing. I don’t believe in souls, but if I did, I’d believe the ‘a job’s a job’ mentality is inherently poisonous to your soul.
Sure, we all have bills to pay. Those of us with kids know all too well the added stress of having another person depending on you for their very survival. But all of that is no excuse for slipping into the mundane day after day until years from now you find yourself at your desk, typing a 4500 word blog post, wishing you could do something that enriches you and fills you with a sense of wonder and joy.
When stepping, no, leaping out of your comfort zone stops being an option and becomes a necessity, that’s when you truly know it’s time to make a change in your life.
5. Imperfection is perfection
Trite but true, ‘nobody’s perfect’. Then why is it that so many of seem to be striving toward an unattainable level of perfection, only to find ourselves spiralling in self-doubt and stress? I blame Apple. And the internet in general.
But mostly Apple.
Let me explain. For starters, I’m not literally blaming Apple for our own petty insecurities involving the struggle for perfection. Relax, it’s merely an illustrative example.
Apple has become ridiculously successful on what boils down to a single principle: people will buy perfection. Or the semblance of perfection in Apple’s case because, as we all know… nobody’s (or no company’s) perfect. That doesn’t stop Apple from telling you they are though. From rock star like tech demos filled with their own cheerleading staff to overpricing and overpromising goods based more on form than functionality, Apple has honed and outclassed everyone else year after year in the ‘perfect game’. This has led to a global increase in copycats and wannabes, all vying to capture and cash in on some of that Apple magic.
So what does any of this have to do with us on a personal level? Accessibility and simplicity. Apple, and so many others in the tech industry, have become increasingly adept at making fantastically complex processed look simple. Want to take a picture? Easy - just swipe and tap. You instantly have a digital photo displayed in your hand and ready to store for the rest of your life (if you’re careful about your digital storage that is.)
The point is, modern technology - particularly the internet and the advent of advanced computing - has fostered the idea that we’re able to attain great things with limited effort. Imagine if Ansel Adams had his hands on an iPhone. Or if Magellan knew of air travel. In other words, we’ve got it good these days.
But it comes at a cost. The belief that there isn’t a need for hard work and complex thought to achieve excellence is a fallacy yet I see it time and time again, particularly in people of younger generations. I myself am guilty of this on a fairly regular basis. I don’t think a week goes by without me thinking, ‘there’s got to be an easier way to do this!’ There usually isn’t. That’s typically me trying to offload responsibility on to someone else, namely some developer that’s created a library or plugin that can do exactly the narrowly specific task at hand requires. I won’t lie that when I almost always find out that’s not the case, I’m a bit disappointed.
But I shouldn’t be and I have to remind myself of that daily. Instead, the opportunity to hash something out that hasn’t been done before or simply I haven’t done before is exactly that - an opportunity. An opportunity to learn new skills, a new process, even connect and collaborate with other people who may know more on the subject than I and who are willing to give up a few moments of their precious time.
Looping back to the main point - what does this have to do with perfection, or imperfection rather? Well, those feelings of ‘surely this has already been done before’ often can leave you feeling like you’re behind the curve, sometimes so much you feel like you should give up entirely on your career and go be an alpaca farmer or something (I’ve thought about it). The inability to quickly put together a perfect, finished product, whether it’s a website or anything else requiring a modicum of skill often leaves me feeling like I’m an old dinosaur who’s simply too slow because it just shouldn’t be taking this too damn long.
Maybe I am. Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel and leave it to the hip kids. Or maybe, a focus shift towards a continuous cycle of output with constant iterative improvement is the answer. Focusing on imperfection (what’s good enough to ship right now) vs perfection (I won’t let this see the light of day until it’s 110% perfect even if it takes me 20 years).
Of course, this doesn’t apply to all disciplines. Or maybe it does? Think of Apple again. Did they launch the get the iPhone perfect the first time? Of course not. They still haven’t. They still have issues with it. It’s an incredible piece of technology to be sure but it’s not perfect. Just like everything else, it’s fallible. And Apple learns from those imperfections on an ongoing basis, tweaking and refining and adding until they create better and better ([and more expensive]) models.
We’re not multibillion dollar behemoths but we would do well to utilise this same mindset in our daily lives, work and personal. My wife has been chipping away at our garden for the good part of a year now. It’s far from perfect and she knows it. But my wife isn’t wrapped up with this idea of perfection as some of us are. She’s embraced the reality that the garden is and will most likely always be imperfect. And she revels in it (despite her occasional moaning to the contrary) - she’s excited to make refinements and additions as she see fits but the key is that she keeps working at it. She doesn’t take a look one look at the neighbour’s immaculate garden and surrenders in frustrated defeat.
Embracing imperfection is a means to perfect end, or at least to as near a perfect end as you accept. That’s up to you. For me, nothing is ever finished. I’ll be here for the rest of my life, tweaking and refining until my mind and body close up shop.
6 (bonus!) Procrastination is ok!
I feel like I need to add this section in as it’s something I have personally struggled with my entire life and still do on a daily basis. While I often espouse the virtues of modern, technologically driven society, the increased speed in which many of us feel we need to live often leaves me feeling anxious and irritable. It’s not uncommon for many of us to feel the irrational urge to ‘get shit done right now’ or ‘I need to be at my desk because… well just because!’
We’ve all been there. Well at least the unenlightened majority of us anyway. I marvel at the people who proudly wear the badge of being super busy, as if their lives are somehow more fulfilling than the rest of us because they have no time for anything (Americans, I’m looking at you). Some people get off on working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. That’s awesome… for them. I wager that’s not most of us. Most of us don’t want to be so consumed with work that we literally have no time for life.
Let’s just be clear: life ≠ work (or, for you programmers: life !== work). I can’t understand for the life of me why there are so many businesses now that expect your entire life to be completely consumed by (and sometimes even physically based inside of) your job. Yeah, it’s cool you have free food in your onsite kitchen and sure, you have an actual slide or two in the building, and oh, you have a games room replete with all of the newest gear, and wait - did you say gym membership, and showers, and an onsite spa and massage therapists, and… ok, yeah it sounds pretty amazing.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe companies should treat their employees right and those perks are doing just that. If that works for you, and I know it does for some people, then kudos to you and your employer. Now, this is anecdotal so take it with a grain of salt, but I’m often unimpressed with these offerings as there seems to be an unspoken expectation that you’ll spend more than just working hours at work. Fostering a culture where you play with your workmates is a fantastic concept but it has the potential of alienating those of us who want to work when at work and, when finished, go home so we can live the rest of our lives.
What does all of this workplace griping have to do with procrastination? The same concepts behind overwork and a life-consuming job apply. Don’t let Sammy Speedworker fool you. Working 80 hours a week (many of which are free) is likely to burn you out, not make you a startup billionaire. Taking your time to figure things out before working, putting projects off until the concept has coalesced in your head, thinking before you act - these are all more worthwhile than many of us give them credit.
The rushed feeling that you need to dive in headfirst without thinking is often unproductive and can lead to feelings of anxiety and burnout. Which is not doing anyone any favours - not you, your family and friends, or your boss. Instead, take some time to plan, organise your thoughts, and strategise your course of action, whatever the task at hand may be.
For example, I’ve been planning this post for a few weeks now. I kept coming back to it from time to time but never really feeling like I had the right mindset and overall grasp - so I maybe wrote a hundred words or so but then put it away again. That might not work when you’re on a strict deadline and you just need to get something out now but most of the time, in my experience, a bit of procrastination in the form of mental preparation and emotional courage goes a long way in the final realisation of your work.
By the time I was properly prepared to write this piece, it took me just a few hours to write a few thousand words as the ideas flowed in a much more natural and unimpeded way.
This piece has clearly grown to astronomical proportions (by blog post standards) so I do feel the niggling urge to revise and break it up into smaller posts. Yet, I feel long form writing is something to be encouraged and publicised, especially given the short attention span nature of the internet. I can honestly say the most memorable pieces I’ve read on the web have been easily over 2500 words if not much, much longer and often have unique storytelling devices built in such as interactive imagery and stunning graphic elements. I figure, why not? We read countless pages in books, so why not countless words in well written online content? (Just for the record, I’m not implying this post is well written
If you’ve made it this far, kudos to you and thank you so much for reading. To sum things up after all of my mind meandering - I find a glorious spark of enthusiasm and motivation in not having a distinct path. Having a hunger to learn and improve both professionally and personally gets me excited to get to my desk every day and start working, whether on client work or personal projects. I don’t discount that feeling but rather cherish it - nourish it until it feels like a living entity inside of me that I can rely on to keep me focused every day.
I abhor busy work and revel in the mental exhaustion at the end of a day where I’ve flexed my creative and intellectual muscles. It’s like having a runner’s high for my brain. For anyone who questions their current role in life or their career, or who dreams of going down a path but fears the unknown, just do it - explore what you don’t know. Dive head first into the ignorant deep end, well outside of your comfort zone and learn to swim your way out, now armed with a killer breaststroke.
It sounds simple and believe me, I know it’s not always as simple as just saying it but in some ways, it really is that simple. It’s easy to start small. Take an entire day where you do something you’re not comfortable with but have always wanted to explore. Then try 2 days. How bout an entire week? You get the idea.
If you stay insatiably curious and continuously reach outside of your comfort zone, you’ll discover new avenues of interest, be more productive and prolific in your work, and find nooks within yourself you never knew you had. It can be a terrifying and exhilarating journey but hey, that’s life.
After all, we’re all doing the best we can at this whole adulting thing.