Not Enough

I'm having a ... crisis of confidence isn't the right word, but I'm not sure what is. Let me set the stage. I work at a spectacular place, and have a job I care deeply about.

The success of our company depends on my performance. If I do my job poorly, our company could go broke, and all our employees could be out of work. (Lest you think I sound grandiose, there's a number of other people at our company who can make the same statements. I'm not unique; our company depends on the efforts of a number of very talented people.)

Our products improve the quality of life for thousands of seniors across the country, and there's other groups of people I can't talk about yet who may also start being helped by my company. If I do my job well, their lives get better, and if I don't, their lives don't improve as much.

Now, this is not life-or-death. I'm not a doctor or a pilot, and nobody's going to die if I mess up. But quality of life is important -- in the best case, our products could give a grandmother a few more months or years of recognizing her grandchildren. In the worst case, our work brings a smile and a slight lift to a senior's day.

So those are the stakes, and I have a challenging job I care deeply about. Where's the problem?

My crisis of confidence is that I've realized recently that I'm just not smart enough, and I know there's nothing I can do to get smarter. I reached the limits of what I could do with BASH programming -- so I taught myself Python, and began using that instead. Almost everything that I do involves editing text of one kind or another, on multiple platforms. After working with Vim and TextMate, I've settled on Emacs, and I'm working hard to master it. It's available on every platform I use, and becoming an expert will reward the effort I put in. I spend my free time reading technical or management books, trying to improve my skills. I can make myself both more efficient and more effective. But I can't make myself smarter.

The answer to all this is to simply to do the best that I can, accept that I'm doing the best that I can, and move on. Usually I tell myself that it's enough to make our procedures and our product a little better every day. And usually that helps. Not tonight.

If I were to suddenly have a 100-fold decrease in my job performance, could that torpedo the company? Yes. (Again, there's other people at work who could say the same thing.) What effect could a 100-fold increase have, both for the company and the users of our products? Hard to imagine, but it would be significant. But I don't see how a 100 times increase is possible for me -- I'm already busting my ass to get to where I am.

I'm not beating myself up because someone else attacking the same problem could do it 10% better than I could. Someone else (I don't know who, but let's imagine) might do it ten-thousand times better. There's no fixed endpoint, no race I have to finish. Part of this job is defining the endpoint, and a flash of inspiration could put it somewhere many orders of magnitude better than anything I can do.

I want to improve by orders of magnitude, and the best I can come up with is tacking on a few percentage points of improvement here and there.

Now realistically, I may not be the best, but I'm the best Dakim has, at least for my position. And Dakim would have a hard time replacing me if I left. But if there were some real rockstar to take my place (and people significantly better than me do exist), that rockstar could make my contributions look puny, and could take our product much farther than I've been able to.

Where does that leave me? It leaves me going to work in the morning, continuing to bust my ass and do the best I can. And hopefully, able to forgive myself for my best being what it is.