The Balance of "doing" and "knowing"

Let me paint you a picture. Or rather, let me outline a particular situation that you have probably been in before (whether you realize it or not). I’m going to frame this from a software developer’s perspective, but really I think this idea is relevant for just about any job.

You’ve been assigned a particular task. You’re allowed some autonomy in your work and have been granted at least some agency in exactly how you complete that task. There are probably multiple paths that you could take to get to complete the task. And turns out you’re also a pretty curious person. You like to learn new things. Hey, that’s even a big part of why you have this job. Lots of opportunities to learn new things. Great, let’s dig in.

More than likely there are trade-offs with any path you choose (not a revelation here as that’s basically just how life works…but you get my point). How do you choose a path in this situation? In one direction you’ll get to learn a lot as it’s all pretty new to you. You haven’t really been down that path, but you’ve heard it’s great and have been wanted to explore it for a while. It might be the best path, but you’re not totally sure.

Another path feels pretty obvious. It maybe doesn’t feel like the best solution, but you know it’ll work and you know how to do it. You’ve been down this path before.

So again, what path do you choose?

A spectrum

I find it helpful to consider a spectrum when making a decision like this. On one side you have “get the thing done” and on the other side you have “learn and understand everything” (notice there’s no “done” ). On one side we know we can get the task completed. Might not be the most enjoyable or even the best solution, but it’ll be predictable and we’re nearly certain we can meet expectations. On the other side is a sea of unknowns. We do know it’ll likely be interesting to us personally, but past that it’s a black box. Might end up being the most efficient, best solution, but we can’t say until we take that path.

We all fall somewhere on this spectrum. Most often we land somewhere in between maybe tilting one way or the other. It’s helpful for you to consider where you typically land on that spectrum. This isn’t something that is exactly the same it all circumstances and it does change over time based on our interests and experiences, but having a sense for which way our brain tends to tilt is valuable.

I’ll give you an example. Here’s how I’d describe myself on that spectrum right now. I tend to lean more often towards the “get the thing done” side of the spectrum. I like to build things and see the fruits of that work a bit more than deeply understanding everything along the way. I don’t love not understanding all the pieces, but I’ll prioritize getting something on the page before getting stuck on something that likely doesn’t matter every time. I find it easier to get something done more quickly and then going back and refining and filling in my gaps in understanding.

What do I do with this?

So what does this mean for your work? Understanding this in yourself allows you to sense when you’re veering off path. It can help you to queue up your work that sets you up for success. Do you have the tendency to go down rabbit hole on just about everything? Well, set up the work in a way that clearly outlines how to complete the task ahead of time. Do the thinking, planning, brainstorming with a teammate before you start the execution so that there’s a path ahead of you.

This awareness can also help you realize when you need to adjust based on the circumstances. If you love to learn everything about the work that you’re doing, but you’re working on a really tight timeline and budget, you can be really intentional about putting up the guardrails for yourself and actively push yourself to the other side of the spectrum. If a project is more theoretical and experimental then perhaps some of the output are the learnings along the way. It could be important to try something new and report back on how it went. In that case, perhaps you need to break away from trying to get something out the door as quickly as you can and take some time to experiment with something new and try to really understand it.

More than likely what you’re working on lands somewhere in the middle. Here you can pick points in the project that are ok for you to lean toward your own tendencies. This is important too. We need to enjoy doing the work sometimes too and allowing your natural direction take you is what is needed. The reality is you’re moving along this spectrum throughout the project working to balance both what you need and what the project needs.

These are pretty general examples, but the point is that it’s helpful to understand what your predispositions are and also what point on that spectrum is best for the work ahead of you. Being aware of those two things allows you to choose the best path for you and for the situation and hopefully help you move toward a successful project.