Incremental Gains, Web Dev and Being the Best

June 9, 2021 | By Paul Mackenzie Ross | Filed in: philosophy.

Taking Stock of the Successes from Incremental Gains

For over twenty years now I’ve worked my arse off to get to where I am today. I’ve humbly and modestly kept my head down, diving into my work with such drive and determination that I often forget to stop, take stock, and see how far I’ve come.

It’s a bit like climbing a hill or a mountain. The going can be such a physical effort that you’re tempted to pause every so often, catch your breath, and take a look back behind you. This way of climbing gives you incremental updates on your ascent, which is fine if you want to do that. However, I always say to my youngest daughter, climbing up to Glastonbury Tor “keep going” and to take the view in once you’ve made it to the top.

Doing the “baby steps” is great so checking in on your progress at stages 1, 2, 3… 9, and 10 is admirable, and in software development (and website build projects) the agile methodology encourages this. Yet when you start at 1 and then wait until you’ve reached 10 to take stock of progress… Wow! You started at ground level but by the time you reach the summit, you’ve gone from “the same level as everyone else” to being, quite literally, “on top of the world”.

Once you’ve climbed a peak, you always want to do another one. Success in life, and achievement, is addictive. You’re always pushing the boundaries and striving for perfection, trying to attain nirvana, and ever being satisfied even if you’re not quite there yet. Being the best you can be is always challenging, and so it should be. If things are too easy then you’re either;

  • an exceptional talent,
  • in the wrong job or
  • you’re no pushing the boundaries enough.

(You might be interested in a piece I wrote back in 2012 called The Business Benefits of Marginal Gains, discussing how incremental gains all add up. After all, “many drops make a waterfall”, right?)

This leads nicely on to a couple of things:

Oh My God I’m a Web Dev

This piece was inspired by a really nice comment from a new member of staff at the digital marketing agency where I work. I interviewed the guy for a senior web developer role and, after his second interview with the Managing Director, he came onboard a couple of weeks ago.

He’s already been a great asset and when I covered a couple of emergency jobs by fixing a nagging HubSpot configuration then launched a website our mid-weight developer had built, the new senior dev commented “Are you sure you’re not a developer?”

I’ve never called myself a web developer, ever! I built my first raw HTML web page in 1998, started my own website design studio in 2000, became a researcher at a dot-com start-up the same year before migrating into their web designer role for a few years whilst the original web designer was realised to be more of a developer. So we would have been what are now front-end and back-end developers.

Since then I’ve kept my hand in website design and development, assisting with web hosting, IT management, project management, content management, editorial and digital marketing (SEO consultant and PPC expert) roles. But that was a great complement and a nice recognition that I’ve still got some of what it takes to do web development.

Do YOUR Best or do THE Best?

Whilst musing on being what Russell Brand so eloquently calls an autodidact, being self-taught and getting to where I am today through sheer determination and self-learning is really empowering. But am I the best at what I do?

Being a generalist I’ve also honed a few specialisms, like being an SEO consultant, a content management and content marketing expert, a wily project manager, given half the chance, a keen-eyed data analyst…

But have I “done my best”?

It’s admirable to “do your best”. But there’s a vital aspect to that aspiration. Is your best THE best or is it just good enough? Because I hear a lot of people say things like “don’t be too hard on yourself” or “you should love yourself” or “don’t beat yourself up” and “if it’s good enough it’s good enough”.

These are all admirable sentiments but, sincerely, how genuinely aspirational are they?

Veering into the world of psychology here, there’s a concept called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a subject overestimate their own abilities. One funny observation came from the Australian comedian Jim Jeffries when he spoke about gun control in the USA; in his stand up tour he so effectively said “The trouble with stupid people is that they don’t know that they’re stupid”.

Now I’m not going to go into a tirade here about how thick the majority of people may be, but it’s like that saying “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. If you only know 10% of what there is to know about a subject then the guy who knows 11% is some sort of genius, right? If you’re the only person you know who knows what you know, then Mr 11% is pretty much a guru.

But then you and your new genius mate in your isolated bubble have nearly 90% of the knowledge in your subject ahead of you. And you don’t even know it!

Which ties in nicely with asking the question, are you being your best or being the best? Within the confines of a cognitive bias, your best may be just 10% of what there is to achieve. THE best is 100%. It’s obvious that you’ve still got a very long way to go so why not strive to be the best? By being content with “It’s OK, you can only do your best” you are limiting yourself, condemning yourself to mediocrity. You’ll only be like the other 95%, not pushing and striving to being the top 5%. The operative word in there being “only”.

How do you feel now?

Whilst we’re on the subject of cognitive biases, I’ve seen a lot of examples in the real world. One example is where people not only understand their limitations but wholly accept them. Even when there is a very clear opportunity to excel, they’re still happy with their lot in life. Knowing one’s lack of ability and willingly accepting it without the desire to self-improve is an alien concept to me. Why would anyone willingly and knowingly hold themselves back? What is that? Lack of desire, no ambition, lack of self-confidence, laziness?

It’s not for me to judge, if that’s what makes those people happy then so be it. It’s just “not me”.

Much like the oft-misattributed quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Which is the American writer Rita Mae Brown not Albert Einstein) there’s an insanity to doing the same thing over and over and never seeking to improve. It’s like hobbling along in discomfort with a stone in your shoe but you never remove the stone!

Stop! Take your shoe off. Empty out the stone. Put the shoe back on.

See? Now you can RUN…

Throw Off Your Mental Chains (Ooh, ooh, ooh!)

People who fail to improve when they know they can do better are self-limiting. Why would would they do that? Do they not have drive or ambition? Why would they limit themselves, do they not want to achieve or succeed?

If “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”, a quote attributed to Jim Rohn the American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, shouldn’t you be taking stock of your situation? That’s not just personal but also professionally too. What if you work with people with a lack of ability and an absence of desire? Are they holding you back, limiting not just themselves but you and your own goals?

When you work with great people who have both desire and ability, they can lift you up. You can all thrive off each other. Work with those who really know what they’re talking about. Work with people who can do, and if they have limitless ambitions, keep them even closer!

I used to be modest, used to “hide my light under a bushel” but now I know my worth and I’m proud of how far I’ve come, totally self-taught, in my profession. You too should throw off your mental chains!


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