I’ve worked with quite a few companies over my career now, many of them very large. Some patterns of behavior have started to emerge, which I now call antiskills:
Sure, they may sound like good things on first blush. And they are, in limited quantities and in the right context. But they can be very dangerous. For example, when they infect your private life.
Let’s dig into these antiskills and their antidotes…
At the beginning of my career, as an intern software developer at Hewlett-Packard, I would get tasks from my manager then go do them. If I ran out of tasks, I’d need to go back and get more. It’s a good thing I was able to get through the tasks fast, because I couldn’t work any smarter.
At Microsoft, as a Program Manager, I had larger goals, like “Add features to Visual Studio to help developers better debug their applications.” There was a lot of freedom to work within that goal. What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised that my developers collaborated with me in designing features. Tasks were no longer blindly handed over the fence. Not to me, and not to the developers I was working with.
A good manager doesn’t tell you exactly what to do - they share goals, then ask you to help them achieve those goals however you can. But you may not have a good manager. You may be in the unfortunate position of being told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. And to survive in that world, you’re practicing the skill of Doing What You’re Told. Maybe you’ve even gotten pretty good at ignoring your own thoughts.
This may be a reasonable short-term strategy. But without understanding why you’re doing something, you don’t have enough context to make suggestions for improvements. A far better strategy is to have enough context to consistently deliver value above and beyond the tasks you’re handed. With a wide enough perspective, you might even realize that you’re spending time on the wrong tasks entirely - a better plan would bring more business value.
The best kind of workplace harnesses more than your ability to do tasks. It demands creative thought. If you aren’t already in a place like that, you can either find a new job or show your manager the business value of your creative thought.
As a project manager at Microsoft, near the end of every milestone I would have meetings for multiple hours every day to decide which last-minute issues to fix. Everything worth talking about was high-urgency, high-priority. It was especially bad a couple days before the final build - our vigilance extended through the weekend.
High alert continued even after we signed the official release posters. Any issue we didn’t catch before release would have to go out as an immediate patch. We’d monitor customer feedback, still meeting frequently. After a few weeks we could finally start to decompress. Only then could I start to think about anything beyond the current week. Only then was I back to thinking creatively, moving forward on strategic projects.
It’s true; there are situations where it’s extremely valuable to turn up the frequency and focus primarily on mechanical tasks, connecting the dots, responding, reacting. The danger is staying in that reactive mode and never coming back to proactive, larger goals. The best kind of value you can provide comes from extended distraction-free thinking, then purposeful, focused action toward that plan.
In many cases, there’s a core reason behind that need for high-frequency reactive effort. What resources do your peers or team need to ensure that they can move forward without your help? Do they need documentation? Training? Do you need to get rid of folks on the team who just need too much handholding?
One of my big surprises at Microsoft was the length of the Visual Studio build time. Sure, I’d seen long builds - some of my C++ and Java projects in college had taken over a minute to build. But this was something else entirely. A full Visual Studio build, snapped in the late evening, took until the next morning.
I was dumbfounded. It slowed absolutely everything down, especially near the end of milestones. I asked around. “Is it getting better? Isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” They all shrugged at me. Everyone knew about it, everyone complained about it, nobody was doing anything about it.
Time for a quick test: In the last several months, have you seen or made any progress on something that you complain about frequently?
If not, you’re in danger of something called Learned Helplessness. It’s a psychological condition closely related to depression, whereby you believe that your actions have no consequence on things of importance to you. It’s a very dangerous mental state because it dulls your critical thinking and overall motivation.
As this thought process begins to leak past the original set of frustrations into your personal life, you consume more and do/create less. You watch TV instead of trying a new recipe or making art.
Probably not, and I don’t think we should try. May we always use them in small amounts, only as necessary for the job at hand!
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