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Out of Control

Human beings are creatures of habit. By default, we seek comfort, order and familiarity. This should come as news to nobody. It’s just our nature — no doubt, an evolutionary tactic whereby order is deemed as a necessary means to survival.

And perhaps order and control truly are necessary to survival. It seems to jive with the idea of governing bodies (when they’re working properly), agricultural practices, peaceful co-existence, and certainly with our physical bodies (again, when they’re working properly). However, on a daily basis, these ideas seem to become more and more diametrically opposed to the principles of surviving businesses and also to surviving careers.

I’m currently reading a book called How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg (both Google alums of significant note). The book as a whole is fascinating and extremely informative but one quote in particular caught my attention today because it contrasts sharply with human nature:

“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

- Mario Andretti

If I’m being completely honest, the essence of this quote terrifies me. As a web developer and member of the tech community at-large, I understand this to be an absolute truth. Modern society, even more so in the tech-related disciplines, is advancing and changing at break-neck speeds. If I’m not diligent about staying ahead of the game or, at the very least, keeping up with it, I will be left in the dust. For businesses, this also couldn’t be truer.

And one of the best indicators of your diligence to stay relevant in your respective industry, perhaps unfortunately, is your level of comfort. For individuals pursuing a career path, comfort usually means one of three things:

  1. You actually have nothing else to learn. You’ve mastered your given skill set and, therefore, there’s nothing within the particular discipline that you could be presented with that would make you uncomfortable. I would argue that these cases are very few and far between. Unless you’re Yukihiro Matsumoto in relation to the Ruby programming language, John Resig in relation to jQuery, etc., then don’t kid yourself. There’s always more to learn. But if you do actually have mastery of a given skill set, you should be striving to learn something else that you don’t have mastery over. I can absolutely guarantee you that Resig and Matz are learning new things on a regular basis.
  2. As an extension of case #1, you think you have nothing more to learn. This is an incredibly dangerous mindset to have because in addition to the already unfortunate reality of slowly becoming irrelevant in your chosen field, you are completely oblivious to the fact that you’re slowly becoming irrelevant in your chosen field! Contrary to the popular mantra in The Matrix, ignorance is not bliss in this scenario.
  3. You’re comfortable in knowing that you’re in danger of being comfortable (say that 10 times fast). You know that you could be learning more, challenging yourself, growing in your skill set, but you’ve resigned to do nothing about it because you just don’t want to be uncomfortable. In general, the older you get the more tempting this becomes — so beware.

To frame the context of the above quote — for those who don’t know — Mario Andretti (now retired) is one of the most successful race-car drivers in the history of the sport. The key to a race-car drivers success is to go fast. Yes, in practice it’s significantly more complicated than that but that’s the basic premise. So it’s easy to take that quote as a declaration of confidence — a sort of daredevil mentality. But read deeper. His declaration is actually not one of confidence, but rather a humble admission of the fact that he doesn’t have it “in the bag”. That he has to work hard to achieve results. He did not win races because he was some sort of samurai warrior racing prodigy, with wings. He won because he consistently pushed himself beyond the boundaries of what he was comfortable with.

I find myself confronted with this on a daily basis. In fact, it’s something that I’ve struggled with since I was a child. On many occasions in elementary and middle school, if I was not comfortable with the homework for a particular subject matter, I simply wouldn’t do the assignment. I had decided that I would rather just not do something if I didn’t think I could do it really well. Essentially, it was the mindset that you can’t fail at something you don’t attempt. This was a horrible way to go through life. So even now, in my 30’s, I have to train myself and kick myself in the butt to keep pushing forward in learning and growing stronger in whatever discipline I’m pursuing. I readily admit that this process is extremely uncomfortable. But it’s absolutely necessary.

If Mario Andretti had resigned himself to going a speed that he felt like he had complete control over, he likely wouldn’t have been well-known enough to mention here. But since he decided to drive forward (no pun intended) despite the fact that he was often out of control, he forever changed the face of racing. Similarly, we should strive to be game-changers, strive to be driven (OK, maybe a pun was intended), strive to be out of control.


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