OK Isn't OK

I have over 50 years’ experience typing. I took a typing class in high school. I took another block on typing in my tech school in the Air Force. I know where the Home Row is. I don’t know why, but I know where it is.

Typing is an integral aspect of my job.My hands are on the keyboard 6-10 hours a day.

In our culture, we value experience. We equate years of experience with skill and knowledge level. By that reasoning, I should be typing 600 words a minute with zero errors. The truth is, my typing isn’t any better than when I completed my first typing course.

Why is that?

The reason is simple: I don’t care. I’ve reached a level of performance in my typing that is “good enough.”

I’ve reached the Ok Plateau.

One year of experience 20 times

This begs the question, do years of experience actually correlate with superior performance?

Not necessarily.

In his landmark paper, The Making of an Expert (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007), psychologist K. Anders Ericsson tells us that research into expert performance indicates that the number of years an expert has been on the job doesn’t translate into superior results.

In fact, Ericsson notes, current research has revealed many fields where there is no scientific evidence that more experience leads to better performance:

One study showed that psychotherapists with advanced degrees and decades of experience aren’t reliably more successful in their treatment of randomly assigned patients than novice therapists with just three months of training are. There are even examples of expertise seeming to decline with experience. The longer physicians have been out of training, for example, the less able they are to identify unusual diseases of the lungs or heart. Because they encounter these illnesses so rarely, doctors quickly forget their characteristic features and have difficulty diagnosing them. Performance picks up only after the doctors undergo a refresher course.

This isn’t news to the software development community. In recent times it has become more and more common to speak of mediocre senior developers with twenty years of experience as having “one year of experience, twenty times.”

Yet, we all know excellent developers who have been around quite a while.

What’s the difference? What distinguishes an experienced programmer that doesn’t seem to have gotten any better with the passing of time, and one who displays continuous growth?

The Ok Plateau

The good ones are, in their own eyes, never good enough.

In the 1990s, Nelson Rockefeller, the richest person in the world at the time, was asked, “How much money is enough?”

Rockefeller famously responded, “Just a little bit more.”

If you were to ask good programmers the same sort of questions–how much knowledge is enough, how much skill is enough, how much better do you want to be–they would most likely respond: “Just a little bit more.”

Whenever you say, “I’m good enough”, you stop improving. It’s as if a switch flips and your desire to improve just powers down, along with any effort to actually become better..

That’s when you reach the Ok plateau.

In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Josh Foer defines the Ok plateau as “the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”

The Ok plateau is not always a bad thing.. No one wants to get better at tying their shoes or washing their hair. If you obsessed over the most efficient way to floss your teeth, well, that would be just weird. We love autopilot in those cases. Most of our habits and mannerisms are performed on autopilot, which frees up cognitive resources to ponder other things.

Moving Off the Plateau

One area that the Ok plateau does not serve us well is in our careers.

If our careers are on autopilot, then we are losing altitude.

And maybe you’re ok with that. Perhaps you are at a point where things are good and you are quite satisfied to coast along, hoping you have enough momentum to carry your through to the end of your career.

However, if you are not satisfied with your current state, and the thought of floating along for the next 20 years terrifies you (and it should!), then the ok plateau is not acceptable.

The important question then becomes, “How do I move off the ok plateau?”

Cultivate Dissatisfaction

The biggest thing you can do to get off of the Ok plateau is to cultivate dissatisfaction. You land on the plateau when you’re satisfied with your knowledge, your skills, and your performance. If you find yourself in that condition, then it’s little wonder you see no need to improve. You’re Ok just the way you are.

But, whether you know it or not, you’re not Ok.

You can do better. When you realize this, you begin the journey of improvement.

And What Else?

Here are a few other ideas that might help jump start your improvement engine:

Disable autopilot

We are on autopilot when we do the same things over and over out of habit, without thinking about them.

The key word in that sentence is thinking. We need to think about what we’re doing. That means deliberately thinking about our thinking, what psychologists call metacognition.

One way we can exercise metacognition is by brute force (“Think! Think about your thinking! This is me, thinking about my thinking!). I’m not sure that would work very well.

A sneakier way is to change up your routine. Turbulence can knock a plane off autopilot (I don’t know if that’s true or not.), and a disturbance to your normal routine will cause you to think about what you’re doing.

An example is when we drive to and from work. The route is so automatic that we often arrive at work with no recollection of the journey.

However, if there is road work that causes us to take a different route, we become keenly aware of the trip, particularly if we are not familiar with the new route.

The same thing happens when we change up our routine. It forces us to focus on what we are doing and can knock us off autopilot.

Practice deliberately

The nuts and bolts of improvement are to be found in deliberate practice. Oceans of ink have been spilled on this topic, so I’ll just give a few thoughts here.

You must be motivated to improve. That’s sorta the point of this post.

You must practice the difficult bits most. Most of our real practice time is taken up going over things we already know or skills that we find easy. This does little to help us. We have to practice the hard stuff.

You must get good, hard, honest, rapid feedback. Without feedback we are learning nothing. Find a coach, a mentor, a like-minded peer to give you feedback.

You must repeat, repeat, repeat. Practicing something once or twice will not help. This is a lifetime commitment.

For more information, check out books like Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin or Peak by K. Anders Ericsson.

Assess the competition

We are setting ourselves up for failure when we neglect the competition. And the biggest mistake most people make is to compete against the wrong foe. Our competition is not our co-workers or subordinates, even if they are gunning for our jobs. Our competition is not the bosses, no matter if they’re trying to help us or hinder us in our careers.

After all, the folks we work with are outside of our control. There is only one opponent that we know intimately, whose thoughts and attitudes are open to us.

Us. We. Me.

I am competing with myself. I am trying to improve, not compared to others, but to my former self. I want to be better than I was last week, last month, twenty years ago.

A Cautionary Tale

I was once firmly planted on the Ok plateau. I spent four years treading water at a development job where I didn’t do much to improve my skills or knowledge. I did my job, but not much more. The frightening part was that I thought I was good. Whether I was or not is almost immaterial. I didn’t see any need to learn new things or innovate at all in my daily job.

Then one day I was summoned to the owner’s office. I had not had two conversations with him since I’d started and now he was wanting to see me. Of course, I knew what was going to happen. This was a coach-wants-to-see-you-bring-your-playbook moment that I had joked about many times.

The company was in the midst of a rough patch and had to lay off a number of people, but they only laid off one developer: me. Looking back, it was a no-brainer for the company. I was getting paid a lot (for this company, anyway), I was not delivering value, and I didn’t even realize it. Buh bye.

That was my wake-up call.

What will it take for you to move off the Ok plateau?