Competitive Engineers

A new year is upon us and with it comes New Year’s resolutions. One of my resolutions for this year is to blog at least once per week. I’ve read a few people disparaging New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve found them to be somewhat motivating.

Another thing that motivates me is competition. Not the overt type of head to head competition that we experience when competing in a sport or contest. But the more subtle type of competition where I want to be the smartest person in the room. I think most software engineers feel this way; it has driven most of us for our entire lives. We couldn’t always be the most athletic or the best looking, but when it came to the acquisition of knowledge (primarily in school), we knew we had a shot at winning.

Life as a software engineer is similar to school. There is a constant stream of new things to learn (Hacker News, Twitter, blogs, Github, startup celebrations, etc…) where we can chose to to be competitive. As a software engineer it is incredibly easy, and actually preferable, to be constantly confronted with things that you don’t know.

However, once you encounter something that you don’t know you have to make a choice about what to do with this new piece of information. Should you find out more about it to broaden your knowledge? Should you ignore it? Should you minimize it and poke fun at people who are interested in it? Whatever your reaction, two things have happened: you have just been confronted with something that you don’t know and somebody knows a lot more about than you do.

And that’s the rub – somebody has more knowledge than you do. If you didn’t encounter this new piece of information, you wouldn’t know this person existed. But now that you know that they exist, you are immediately in competition with them. Sometimes it’s easy – Lebron James can jump from the free throw line and dunk a basketball and I can’t do that. However I’m not a professional basketball player so I don’t need to be competitive with him.

However what happens when you are confronted with something that you didn’t know in a field where you call yourself a professional? When I read a post by a person doing something new in Ruby I feel some competition with that person. I say things to myself like “pfftt, I knew that…” or “Oh damn, I didn’t know that, I better read up on that”. Either way, it’s a competitive reaction where I don’t want that person to be better at something than me.

I’m guessing that being competitive is hard-wired into us as human beings. When confronted with another human being that has something we don’t we are either dismissive (“I don’t need that”) or competitive (“I’m going to get that”). However the negative side of competition is that it is easy to spin yourself into a tizzy and get caught up in it. I think that breeds a constant feeling of inadequacy and helps to explain why some people are so mean on the Internet, they don’t feel good enough and worry that they may never be good enough so they need to take people down in order to compete.

However, it is the thirst for knowledge, the understanding that there is more to learn, and the constant curiosity that we have that will determine our happiness and success. Those that believe they have mastery, and have nothing more to learn, are bound to be surpassed by the competitive and the curious.


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