Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How To Work Hard Without Seeming To

Today I was trying to figure out when I needed to start my next experiment, and head over to check the group schedule board. A coworker saw me walk in, the following scene transpired: 

[I walk into the room and head over to our group schedule board. A few coworkers idle close by.] 
Coworker: Hey Ruby, you know you’re working too hard.
Me: Um, okay. Thanks?

[I check the board, and walk out.]

And now you know why I’m an engineer and not a screenplay writer.

I’m still not sure how checking a group schedule board merited such an accusation. Maybe I was walking with too much gusto. Or maybe it was because my coworkers had forgotten my usual work methods after a few days of not seeing me. After all, it was a Monday morning, so morose melancholy is the work mode of choice for most people, making anyone who is acting at normal capacity seem to be excessively productive.

If you’re anything like me, you see yourself as having a reasonable level of productivity, yet you are constantly told how unexpectedly fast you work and what a workaholic you are. I love working with people who are quick and passionate about their work. And yet, when a coworker comments on my work ethic, it is with surprise and a little aversion. The accusatory manner in which my work ethic was greeted this morning was typical of how people react.

After some time in the work force, most people will slide into one of two well-worn paths.

In the first, category you become complacent and secure in your job. Some people in this category stop feeling motivated to put more than an average amount of work in unless under a difficult deadline. Other people in this category actively look for ways to get away with doing less work whenever possible. If any of these people do end up putting more work in, they feel cheated or like the company owes them something.

In the second category, you are recognized as a genius/expert in the company and your obsession with working is acceptable because you are so knowledgeable and passionate. The people in this category are who you go to for advice; they are the sage givers of wisdom; they are always willing to help you understand a technique/technology more in-depth; and they are always excited by new, innovative projects.

However, as the new hire/recent college grad, you have not been in industry long enough for the established employees to accept you in either category. I'm assuming here that you're excited about engineering, that you're excited about proving yourself, that you're excited about making a difference, and therefore that you are aiming to fall into the second category of expert/hard worker. Even if you're knowledgable and passionate, you won't be accepted as the genius/expert in the company until you've proven yourself. And let me tell you, the only way to do that is to consistently work hard and excel over a period of time. Yes, folks, my answer to your problem of getting people to accept you as a passionate engineer/scientist is super helpful: all you need is time.

Here is the obstacle that you will likely face: In trying to achieve this goal, you are going to be judged for working too hard. Working hard is a necessary step to being accepted as a hard worker, obviously. But there is a stigma attached to being an extremely hard-working newbie. Workaholism at a young age will be seen as a problem by most of your peers because you are lower on the totem pole, yet you will be making them look bad. It’s a giant flashing sign indicating how green you are and how different from everyone else you are.

So here’s my (sad) advice to you. Your productivity is a dirty secret. Keep it up, but keep it on the down low. When I make lists and flow charts to organize my day, I either do it digitally or hide the lists under a stack of folders. When I am doing background research for a new project, I only share the most insightful articles with the group, while maintaining a more extensive library of relevant articles in a personal folder on my computer.

Best of luck,

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