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The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


Mike Rowe Has a Lot to Teach Geeks Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mike Rowe, famous for his work on the TV show "Dirty Jobs," has given a number of excellent talks over the years. One of my personal favorites is this one.

You don't have to watch the whole thing or even any of it to get the gist of this little diatribe I'm taking you on. But I'll bring up two points:

  • Following your dreams is probably not the best way to make a living.
  • If you think you know the one right way to do something, you're probably completely wrong, and there is no one right way to do things.

Often, especially in his address to congress, Mr. Rowe has brought up the value of a hard day's work, about the value of "making" things. He often decries the propaganda of "work smart, not hard." He makes a very strong point that this country has slowly devalued the person who looks where everyone is going... and walks the other direction. This is usually a statement about the value of skilled trades and how our nation's infrastructure is crumbling due to the lack of interest in those areas. But I'm going to hijack his thoughts for my own "Generation Y" self-interest.

Follow Your Dreams, Which (Probably) Lead to A Rainbow Made of Failure

Let's be honest. Your dreams are awesome. I don't care what they are, you probably have some of the most mind-blasting visions of your future. Your ideal career (the real one you keep in your head, not the one you write on HR screening tests) would probably make a part of my brain liquefy. I won't ever judge you for your dreams, and anyone who does is a jerk and you should ignore them.

But-- your dreams probably don't factor in things like market sustainability, or account for the ideal balance of measures of success and specific personal satisfaction. That's not the point of a dream: you don't shoot for the moon with a cost/benefit analysis calculator. You use a freaking rocket ship fueled by your hopes and dreams. Here's the problem: once those things have been loaded into your engine and burned up, they may not come back.

In his talk, Mike Rowe brings up the fact that the most compelling success stories he found were NEVER people who always dreamed of harvesting waste food in order to feed a horde of pigs. Sloshing through an active sewage pipe, he never stops and says "I always wanted to do this as a child."

But I feel like this applies in a lot of ways to a technology career. I myself always dreamed of doing music for video games. I didn't find out until I got out of my very expensive and challenging Music Composition program that the only people hired for those soundtrack gigs were contractors or famous film/TV composers, and the trend was trending rapidly towards the latter. Now I work on the Amazon GameCircle team, on a social engagement framework for developers to allow you to share your achievements, your scores, and so forth across multiple platforms. It's awesome work... but it's not even close to what I considered a dream as a child. It's almost a parody of it. But I'm happy, my life is awesome, and I still write music for myself and don't have to worry about pleasing someone who asks me to make a guitar sound "purple" (this literally happened on an indie film soundtrack gig I had a long time ago).

But this extends to more than just accepting opportunities you find or blazing a trail that's profitable: it's about doing something hard, something challenging and probably deemed "impossible" by enough people it hasn't been done yet. The problem is people only feel like they can do this in their favorite pie-in-the-sky dream jobs.

For the most part, the focus has been on the decreasing trade skill enrollment and the decay of our nation's infrastructure. But these numbers always contrast the rise of technology statistics. Breakthroughs every year reduce consumption and increase productivity. Fewer people are needed to work old jobs... but new jobs are being invented every day. They're not the jobs that children dreamed of having a generation ago, because the jobs didn't exist yet. And even if people had dreams, they quickly discovered that the dream they wanted was not the one that could sustain them.

If You Think You're Right, Prepare to Be Surprised

Take me, for example. I thought a music degree would be a viable (if difficult) career choice. I knew professional musicians would have to scrimp and save to make a living, but people were doing it, weren't they?

What I didn't realize is that the percentage of people who can make a living with music exclusively was nearing single digits. The number of people with music degrees in that same category was only slightly higher, but still only barely above single digits. That doesn't make it impossible, but a vast majority of people had to supplement their income with other jobs, or rely on a dual-income family situation. The biggest thing I didn't realize was that even if I were able to find steady work as a musician (gigging/teaching/writing) I'd have to play a lot of music I didn't want to play. I'd have to travel places I didn't want to go and meet people that annoyed me. I'd have to teach kids who didn't want to learn. As a bass player, I ended up doing a lot of gigs that I'd rather not have. But everyone needs a bass player.

The sad part is that this didn't dawn on me until AFTER I'd paid for the degree. I was so focused on my dream I didn't debate the concept that the realities of the job were so different from what I had in my head that they could have been conceived in different universes. I was wrong. My dream was never to make music for other people and get paid. It was to make the music I heard in my head whether I got paid or not.

This is obviously the macro scale. Big things we believe end up being wrong, and they end up being something we need to adjust as we learn and grow. But this discounts the things that happen every day on a much smaller scale. Even once you've found that job, the things that you were sure were true end up being not so. The things you were positive were right when you got up this morning and headed to work have the very real (and high) possibility of being false assumptions.

It's surprisingly possible (nay likely) that the project you've spent so much time working on was built in completely the wrong way to deal with a problem that you haven't discovered yet. But here's the thing: that's not only okay, it's good.

You can't possibly grow or get better until you fail. Constantly succeeding at things does not make you better at them, it only raises your expectations for yourself. It also means you're probably not putting yourself in a position to actually grow: you're repeating successful patterns.

This is a great way to go until it fails. If you keep mining the same spot, it will become bare. If you keep drilling for oil in the same location, it will eventually result in an empty sinkhole. This is less obvious in technological trades, but just as true. Microsoft pursued the same business model for years and slowly lost their stranglehold on the tech sector. Apple's high margins on high quality electronics seemed endless until they hit the ceiling and stopped growing, and now they have to pay dividends to keep people owning their stock.

Everything has a limit: the limit is often built into the thing. But even more often, the limit is within yourself. If you do not push yourself, you will slam full force into the limit within yourself and never test the limits of whatever you're doing. Don't let your only obstacle be yourself, or let people tell you that your ideas are dumb. Even if they aren't your dreams, they're just ideas.

Work is worth a lot

Ideas are worth nothing. I know that sounds cynical, and people always say the internet, technology, and computers are designed to unlock the power of ideas. But that's where all the work is, and that's where the value is. I'll say it again, for emphasis... ideas are worth nothing. I can't tell you how many times people have attempted to sell me an idea. All I have to do is all the work, and in exchange I get to keep a portion of the inevitable piles of cash. I've turned them all down, and have yet to get a call telling me "I told you so."

A bad idea, given enough work, will be something. Maybe in the process of work you'll get a better idea. Maybe your idea is actually terrible, but the work that comes from it is great anyway.

A great idea, with no work, will always just be thin air.

So go out there, get your hands dirty (metaphorically if you're a geek like me who builds software all the time), and do the work.

Though I am allowed to express my opinions and ideas freely, my employer would like me to point out that my views and opinions are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the the views, opinions, or values of Amazon and any of their subsidiaries.