Thursday, April 23, 2009

Not Knowing What You Are Good At

What are you good at? It seems like an easy question right? You get interested in something in college (or earlier) you take classes in said topic and get a job in said field. Or maybe you are so overly enthusiastic about the field you go on to get an advanced degree in said subject (ok maybe you just wanted to see if you can push the start button at the biggest particle detector in the world).

Sometimes you end up realizing that aren't that enthusiastic about what you got your degree in, or start poking around in another field that has some similarities and start moving your life in a new direction. Maybe you just think you aren't good at what you are doing.

I was talking to my Dad the other day and he laughed and said, "Leah, you've never thought you were good at what you were doing at the time." I laughed with him and agreed. I always look back on things I have done and with the usual 20/20 hindsight (I might have just said,"Jason what's that know like back vision". How that man is still in love with me is beyond me) and realize that I was good at whatever it was I was doing, even though I didn't feel it at the time. Hell I was good at selling shoes at Sportmart when I was 16. I mean that's just like a PhD in physics right? No? Ok maybe not.

My new (not that new anymore, but still pretty new) job has taken me on an even stranger path than I thought it was going to when I accepted it. I was in a mathematics, physics, sciency, engineering career for over 10 (!) years and so moving into software development with no previous formal training was a scary step for me to take. When I decided to go into software development it was because I thought could take those logic skills that I had developed over the years and apply them to programming and become a better more organized programmer in the process. Only I've found myself being in positions where I've been applying design to websites and getting frustrated at being put in that role because, Damnit I'm a physicist! I dropped out of the one art class I took in college how can I be good providing any value saying that the brown looks better and should be all of the background instead of two colors. Or, wait, what if we do this with the design instead which would make things a bit easier for the user to follow.

I had a talk with one of my bosses a few days ago about how the apprenticeship is going and we talked about my level of design ability. Not that I am saying here that I'm a designer by *any* means, but I can get through enough to provide value. I mentioned that it's frustrating that people think I'm good at the design when I have such a strong mathematics background and I don't really know how that's possible. He laughed and said, I don't know but you are. I've been thinking about that conversation for the last few days and even while I was in physics, my designy self stepped in frequently. Now it might have only shown up in my talks, and the graphs I would make...but I was able to make plots, and talks that were well designed, looked good and got the point of what I was trying to say across very clearly. Well that and I talk *really* loud when I give talks, so the point gets across :).

For those of you that have been following my photoblog you know that I've been getting pretty deep into photography and while I like to think that I've always had the eye for the picture, I've never been so good at the developing of picture. I've been teaching myself to navigate through photoshop for the sake of my photos and I keep thinking about it as my off work hours hobby and it doesn't really apply to work things. But in these last few weeks, I've been able to provide value to my company because of that ability to navigate through Photoshop relatively quickly, and add some nice design elements to whichever site I'm working on. It's nice when your personal interests and your job start to merge together.

After talking to the aforementioned boss, I've realized that I don't have to be frustrated at doing something I might be good at just because it's not what I have focused my energy on for the past 11 years. Maybe for once I should just breathe, think about the value I'm can add and enjoy it. We also talked about how I don't want to get shoved into a designer roll only because I can do it with some competence but to move around and learn all aspects of software development. I might not be able to jump the highest in graphic design, given my lack of ability to actually draw anything, but I really enjoy that I can add value on a consistant level and get the fun pieces of design in place.

Yesterday for example was a great day: I did some great pairing on some backend work on a small site we are developing, worked through a funny failing spec problem with Jake Scruggs (ok, I watched him figure it out but I learned not to ever do what the problem was. I'll discuss that problem over here on the Software Apprentice Tips blog shortly) added in some new design elements to that site, helped out with our company's webpage (using a photo I took as one of the style points on the page) and did a bit of photoshop work on another application I am working on. A little bit of everything helps the day move along, and I get to flex the small muscles I am gaining in the designy stuff.

It's not about forcing yourself to be in a box. It's about looking through the windows of the box, seeing something that could be interesting and charging forward. If you stay in the box, and continue to be mad that you aren't interested in what's in the box, and you're frustrated because you aren't yet great at what is outside of the box...well that just makes for a long and boring life. So step outside the box AND enjoy it. As my Dad says, "Life's good. Good and short." Get as most of it that you can, and have fun doing it.


lifestudent said...

Sadly in my life I have learned that I'm pretty ok at a lot of things, but not really GOOD at anything. I dont focus on one thing and tend to dabble. But I think you have to have a passion (like your photography) to truly desire to be good at something ;) I'm still searching for something I am passionate about!

LeahC said...

I want to be the Mario of everything. You know...kind of good at everything put I probably can't jump the highest in any one of thing.

Thinking more about's not that I don't love physics, math etc.....and I am sure that I will dabble in that for the rest of my life. But I do love to have my fingers in everything :), it makes things more fun :)

Laura said...

This is such a great post Leah! Thanks for sharing!!

Scott said...

"It's nice when your personal interests and your job start to merge together."

It is. I remember when I was building and designing things for my physics lab and it all just seemed like one thing instead of job-home. Now I've actually made some money with the woodworking skills I developed. You never know what's waiting down the road! Love this post and you're healthy attitude!