Dive 61: Finding Comfort in Truth
Hey, it’s Alvin!
When I started my career as a software developer, I knew nothing about the job. I remember being asked to fix simple bugs, like left-align all the text in a dialog box. How long do you think that should take?
That’s what I would have thought.
I’d stare at my code, trying seven different approaches for 30 minutes… 45 minutes… going on 60 minutes, having made zero progress.
But the fix had to go out, so the manager assigned the task to a team member with 30 years of experience.
He aligned all the text in 10 minutes.
When this happens again and again, day in and day out, it’s easy to feel like, “man, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
It seems many beginners feel the same way. I know because I’d find people online who would reassure us newbies that we shouldn’t worry since “no one actually knows what they’re doing.” Apparently.
And I get what they’re trying to do. On the surface, they’re saying, “you feel lost, but you’re not alone because even the most experienced workers feel lost, too.”
It’s an idea that still seems popular these days. Here’s Mark Manson saying it:
I hated that expression.
I don’t care for what I call “candy quotes.” A candy quote is a short, quotable expression that feels good when you first come across it. But it leaves you feeling worse in the long run because it has no substance. It’s like candy in that it’s short and sweet, yet nothing but empty calories.
I can’t be the only one who sees the B.S. in the idea that “no one knows what they’re doing,” right? For starters…
1. It’s false.
I like how Mark prefaces the idea that “no one actually knows what the hell they’re doing,” with “take comfort.” Because it highlights the true purpose of the candy quote.
To comfort you.
But is it true?
Do you really believe that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay doesn’t know what he’s doing in the kitchen?
Did tennis star Roger Federer not know what he was doing on the tennis court?
Do your doctors not know what they’re doing when they’re checking up on you?
If Mark Manson doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, then why should we listen to what he says?
Because let’s face it.
There are people who DO know what they’re doing. Maybe not all the time. But sometimes.
I know how to build an API, setup a database, and connect them together. Why? Because I spent a decade developing backend software. Are there still backend technologies I’m unfamiliar with? Of course. As always, context and nuance matters. But do I know what I’m doing with SQL queries? Yes. Without a doubt.
So this idea that “no one actually knows what the hell they’re doing” is false.
2. It’s meaningless.
To be fair to Mark, there’s a second part to his post that reads, “Everyone is just working off their current best guess.”
But if there’s a “best guess,” there must also be a “worst guess.” And guesses in between.
So, what’s the difference between a developer with 10 years of quality experience and a beginner? The experienced developer usually has a better “best guess” than the beginner when trying to determine the root cause of a software problem.
Maybe the experienced developer has seen similar problems before that the beginner’s never seen.
Maybe the experienced developer knows how the software was built having spent time on it.
This is the difference between Gorden Ramsay and a random junior cook. Ramsay has better guesses than the junior cook.
And how do you make better guesses?
Or, as Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus would always say, “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.”
And, of course, learn from mistakes. Yours and others’. Learning from a mistake means knowing how to avoid it next time. And what’s another way of describing a person who knows how to avoid mistakes?
Someone who knows what they’re doing!
So, if you break down Mark’s post, you can see that the second part directly contradicts the first. Everyone who’s “working off their current best guess” MUST know what they’re doing. Which negates the idea that “no one actually knows what the hell they’re doing.”
This is a perfect example of saying something and nothing at the same time.
It’s downright meaningless.
And we’re expected to “take comfort” in something meaningless? How?
3. It’s not even that comforting.
When I came across this idea that “no one knows what they’re doing” as a junior developer, it offered me no comfort. Why?
Because I wanted someone to show me how to do things right. I wanted to do the right thing the right way so I could effectively help other people. How could I trust my experienced teammates enough to let them help me if I believed that none of them knew what they were doing?
At a time when I felt lost in the dark, the last thing I needed to hear was that those I looked up to most felt as helplessly lost as me. If someone wants to spread falsehoods, you’d hope it’s at least comforting. Learning that you placed trust in someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing is anything but.
There’s a better way.
Seeking comfort in lies is self-sabotage.
Because when the truths inevitably reveal themselves, the lies fall apart. And if your life is built on those lies, what do you think happens to you?
Truths can offer us comfort, too. And we’re stronger and better off facing the truth. It’s just that sometimes you need to dig into the truth of a matter to find that source of comfort.
I once joined a new software development team. Any time you join a new team or company, there’s always a ton to learn. New technologies, new processes, and new people. I knew I had to ramp-up quickly, but already had a few tasks on my plate.
One of those tasks was to help debug an issue happening in one of our testing environments. I didn’t know what to do, so I reached out to our technical lead—an experienced member of our team.
The first question he asked me was, “have you looked at the logs, yet?” I told him I haven’t in part because I wasn’t familiar with their logging tools. And in part because the issue seemed urgent, and I figured he was in a better position to solve the problem faster. He could’ve just been polite and said,
“No one here knows what they’re doing anyway,” or
“I’m just as clueless as you,” or
“You’d probably be as fast as me.”
Instead, he was honest and truthful with me. He said, “well, yes, I’d probably be faster. But you’ll need to know how to do this. And we’re willing to absorb the cost of ramping you up so you can help the team with these issues.”
I found comfort in his honesty because it showed that he and the team welcomed me openly, flaws and all.
So, rather than lying to beginners with candy quotes like, “no one knows what they’re doing anyway,” let’s be honest instead.
Compared to experts, beginners generally don’t know what they’re doing. And that’s good. Because beginners will try solutions that an expert with tunnel vision might not consider. A beginner with ambitions and genuine curiosity could bring renewed energy to an aging team.
A skill that every great technical leader must learn is how to communicate with non-technical audiences. Not just clients and users, but also managers and executives. Especially those who approve budgets. Learning to communicate technical ideas so beginners understand them is one way to practice this skill. So, a beginner can be a valuable sounding board for those with more experience on the team.
All of this is to say, “no one actually knows what they’re doing” is a pessimistic, doom-laden candy quote. It’s not even true.
It’s time we stopped seeking comfort in lies. That only ever ends badly.
We’re better off building on the positives in the truth.
Because there’s comfort in truth.
Below the surface.
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Thank you for reading. Seek comfort in truth. And I’ll see you in the next one.