Want to be happy? Get a job and learn to cross stitch

When I talk to college students, I always give them two pieces of advice: go to class and get a job even if you don’t need the money. The reason for the first advice is hopefully obvious (although it is surprising how many college students pay a fortune for an education they believe they can get simply by reading the books and writing the papers). It is the second piece of advice is somewhat more subtle.

In college, I worked about 40 hours a week and the payroll office used to joke that I seemed to have every job on campus.  But the one that got me through school, and I don’t mean just financially, was working at the IT Helpdesk.

Anyone who has ever worked at a Helpdesk will tell you that it is a frustrating job much of the time: users don’t know why things are broken, are frustrated that they aren’t working, and expect that you will magically make them work immediately.  But it is also an incredibly rewarding job because of four simple factors.

  1. You know what you have to do.  When you start your shift, there are a pile of help requests and a stack of broken computers.  You may have to problem solve for each individual one, but the overall task is clear: solve the requests, fix the computers.  Many jobs are frustrating because what needs doing isn’t particularly clear, and so you spend more time trying to figure out what progress means than actually making any.
  2. You know how much is left.  At the Helpdesk, it is abundantly and viscerally clear the distance between you and the goal.  You can see the computers, count the open tickets.  Too often, jobs set some vague finish line that you can never really understand and instead of running a race, you’re on some sort of perpetual death march.
  3. You know how fast you’re moving.  Because the work to be done is clear, at any given point during your shift, you can look at the stack and get an update, which allows you to see how fast you’re accomplishing the task.  Jobs in which progress is only available in retrospect are almost always less satisfying.
  4. You know how far you’ve come.  At the end of each shift, you can look back and things have changed.  Broken computers are fixed, open requests are closed.  There is a special sense of satisfaction that comes with looking back on progress, and a special sense of hopelessness with feeling that at the end of the day, you’re in the same place as where you started.

The reason these are so important in college is because most schooling fails all four of these tests.  You can spend hours working on a paper and while you’ve made actual mental progress towards your eventual goal, it is impossible to tell how far you’ve come and how far you have left to go.  Which is why a job is so important: while you’re bashing your head against the academic wall, you’re going to want something that lets you feel satisfied every day.  Get your hands dirty – you’ll feel better.

For startup folks, this may come down to motion versus progress.  You can do a lot (motion) without actually getting anything done (progress) simply by shuffling back and forth from side-to-side.  And if you’re in any kind of management position, a huge portion of your job should be insuring that real progress gets made.

So look back to those four guidelines.  Does every single member of your startup know the explicit macro-goal of the startup, as well as the sprint-level goals?  Do they know what their part is in achieving them?  Can they visually, viscerally see at some reasonable interval (at least daily) how far they’ve come, individually and collectively, and how far they have to go?  If the answer to any of these is no, get on it.

And of course, this applies to the rest of your life as well.  On a diet?  Want to exercise more or perfect a skill?  Make sure that you understand your progress.  That is what is great about cross stitching: you’re working from a pattern you established in advance so you know what to do, there is an exact number of stitches that needs to happen, and if you sit down for an hour, you can see exactly how many you get done.  Not all of life can be so neatly quantified, but the premise is still there.

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