I always love talking to Matthew Ragan. It’s really a pleasure of mine. When you’re just getting started in the industry, you have a laugh with friends about how you’re trying to do a project without spending money. In the intermediate stages of your career, you have a laugh with co-workers about the horror stories on that last project. Late in your career, you have a laugh with other experts about your own psychology, choices you’ve made, and the wisdom you’ve learned over the years. In this post, I wanted to share a piece of golden nugget of wisdom Matthew told me through a fantastic joke, and the moral of the story is “Don’t raise goats!”
Ok, there’s no way I’ll be able to type the joke out here and have it be funny. The delivery is half of the joke. Anyways, here’s the premise of the joke. First I ask you “How’s your music career going?” Then the joke teller proceeds to tell you how they had to put it on hold to raise goats. The joke teller then goes on to tell a story of how they were playing violin and doing well in their career. Then they were always struggling to really express themselves on their instrument, so they decided they’d spend time to make their own violin. They put their music career on hold to go deep into the violin building business. After a few years of building violins, they realized no matter how good the violins were, they weren’t what he needed them to be because the strings weren’t what he wished they were. They then learnt that violin strings are made of goat intestines, so they decided they needed to raise the goats themselves to make their own strings. They put their violin building business on hold and started getting deep into raising goats. After a few years, now they’re just about to get their first batch of good goats raised to make their first sets of strings. This is where the joke teller says that after a few years they’ll have the strings they need to go back to their music career. Ba dum ching!
I told you, writing a joke really kills the humour of it. But there’s a good lesson in here that is really applicable in our industry. We walk a very blurry line where we’re the artist, developer, researcher, engineer, writer, delivery person, documentor, trainer, and more! Some days you might feel more like a developer than an artist or you might feel more like a delivery person than an engineer. Usually we’re lucky and between our own luck and our jobs, we find a balance over time as we continue to make installations. But occasionally we don’t find that balance.
We start to fixate on something and we start to go deep on it at the expense of all the other things that make us well-rounded artists. An example from my own experience is when I found myself making a LOT of documentation in my career. These were usually a combination of training manuals, installation documentation, project pitches, and similar types of documents. They took me a sizable amount of time to create from scratch each time, so I thought to myself “I should just grab a few templates from the web and use those.” So I hopped online and paid 100$ for some PowerPoint templates. This was a great step forward! All of a sudden I had beautiful documents and I didn’t need to work much on them. After using templates for a few months, I kept hitting little hurdles. The header just wasn’t right. The title pages were missing something. The templates were bloated. I came up with many different reasons and the result was that I decided to make my own template for myself (exactly like in the joke!). Finally, I could truly express myself if I made my own template.
I spent days and days working on my template. Making it just right. Making it dynamic so I wouldn’t have to mess around in it to change little details here and there. And where did I end up? To be honest, nowhere! I had spent all this time and energy and I ended up with basically the same result I had before when I spent 10 minutes and 100$ to buy some templates online. Except this time I had spent thousands of dollars worth of my own time and basically thrown away full work days for almost no return. Womp womp….
This isn’t the only time this has happened in my career and it’s definitely not limited to business practices. I once drafted up hardware plans for a small device that would act similarly to a Datapath fx4 but had a built in VNC server in it (so that you wouldn’t impact the performance of the main server by remoting into it). That took a while and got me 0 results. Same happened against with a bunch of internal software tools I made. The list goes on…
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So what should you take away from the great joke and my hilarious adventures? Two things:
- Always reflect on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you hope to get out of it. Really think about the time and energy you’re about to put into something. Will the reward be worth it what you put in? Does the reward even help move you towards your ultimate goal, or is it a reward that takes you in a completely different direction? You should ask yourself these questions before you do anything and after you’re done, you should compare your initial reflection with how things went.
- Set limits for yourself. This may sound counter-intuitive but it’s important to make sure you know what you want to do, and what you don’t think you should get involved in. I always tell students it’s almost more important to know what you hate than what you love. If you don’t set some boundaries for yourself, it’s very easy to go down the slippery slope of “well…let me just find out real quick…” and as you can guess, real quick is never actually real quick and all of a sudden you’re very far away from the thing you love and stuck in something you hate.
The lucky thing for me is that I have people around me whom I get to discuss these kinds of matters with regularly. Thanks again to Matthew for sharing the amazing joke with me and letting me use it for a blog post. In my work, I don’t get to wash away a bunch of time without either explaining it or talking about it with someone else. This has led me to really think deeply about how I spend my time and energy and the result of it now. Almost all of the things I do feel extremely rewarding and are rewarding in the right kind of ways. I think about all the options I have, the value these options might bring to myself or others around me, and can make more educated and accurate plans to achieve those. I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t end up down some rabbit holes still, but the overall percentages is leaning towards great victories. Hopefully this post gets you thinking a bit about what you’re actually doing, why you might be doing it, and helps you save time and get better rewards from your work. Enjoy!