In our pursuit to become better professionals, it is common to get stuck in the multitude of choices in which to invest our time and energy. In the “My Job Went To India” book, Fowler describes how a mentor helped him by narrowing down the list of infinite choices to a set of just three, hence the “find a mentor” recommendation. As for myself, I have looked for mentors plenty of times, just to end up with lists of things to learn that were more biased than helpful. What struck me is the fact that most of these things were really important, and could improve my skills in some way (though some would require a mental leap to imagine how). What was then my objection to those recommendations?
If I asked a SAP/Netweaver programmer what would it take for me to become a better professional, there’s a very high chance she would recommend me SAP/Netweaver. The same goes for other languages. If I asked a network administrator the same question, he would probably point me some network administrator’s skills that I should learn – all that without even detailing what my goals are. With the interdependence of today’s many technologies and skills, many of these recommendations could be pretty much valid, yet it’s still a challenge to figure out how one would manage to achieve any goal at all if he is to study everything that is important.
In the posthumous “The Art of Controversy“, Schopenhauer recommends “extrapolation” as one of the techniques to counterpoint an argument. When it comes to such an overused argument as the importance, this strategy proves to be very useful. A hardware engineer may recommend to a programmer: “you should study the depths of hardware engineering, because it if weren’t for hardware, your software would have nowhere to run”. This argument can be extrapolated with the phytoplankton analogy: “you should study the depths of microbiology, because if it weren’t for phytoplankton, which produce almost half of our oxygen, there would be little chance for intelligent life, without which there would be no hardware or software”. The phytoplankton is extraordinarily important, but should we study the depths of microbiology, diverting ourselves from our programmer goals, just for the sake of its importance?
This extrapolation is meant to highlight how the importance of a subject is not necessarily related to its relevance to our professional lives. A subject may be important, my very job may depend on this subject, but that still is not enough to make this subject relevant. The relevant subjects are those that lead me to my goals, which, on their part, are very individual choices that are subject to my very own criterion. In other words: importance may be objective, but relevance is subjective, and it’s based on this subjectivity that my professional choices are made. Being a product of subjectivity, importance itself has nothing to do with it, although that is what our vanity wants to believe. When it comes to looking for a good mentor, it is then convenient to look for someone with a similar subjectivity, but in a higher professional level. As Fowler puts it: “It’s OK to depend on someone. Just make sure it’s the right person”.