Monday, January 16, 2012

The Road to Awesome is Paved with Lots of Suck

In an earlier episode of The Powder Keg of Awesome podcast, the co-host (and my friend) Jackie quipped, "The road to awesome is paved with lots of suck." She and co-host Jerry pontificated on the notion that success and mastery are achieved after driving oneself through "the dip" (an idea by Seth Godin from the book of the same name) with focus and determination. When worthy endeavors become difficult and struggles become commonplace, it takes fortitude to slog through the low points, to carry on the upward momentum, and to reach a level of tangible success.

Recently I experienced my own challenging journey through the dip. At my IT job, we are required to keep our credentials current and relevant--which makes sense, as technology is always evolving. We were told last spring that we were expected to study for and pass several technical certification exams which somehow relate to part of our daily duties. It was implied that we were to study mostly on our own time. We were expected to have earned our certifications by end of 2011.

I initially began studying for the certification exams during summer but soon became derailed. The official study guide books which we were loaned were full of errors and detracted from understanding the material (one of the study books by itself had 86 pages worth of errata!). I became discouraged and stopped reading the books--and I didn't explore other avenues of studying the material at that time. The litany of excuses couldn't mask the realization that I had put in an half-assed effort during that time. I let time pass.

Six weeks before end of the year, I took the exam and failed. This was a strange experience, since I'm generally good at things that I put effort into learning and mastering. I didn't do anything differently while studying for these exams as I had done several years ago, when our job duties had the "pass-the-exam-or-perish" ultimatum--I passed those exams with little difficulty. I spent time reading the study material again--despite its flawed accuracy--and barely passed first of the two exams in early December. The very next day, I took the second exam and failed with a disturbingly low score. The experience of repeatedly failing tests about a body of knowledge that I was expected to master made me question whether or not spending time studying for this stupid exam was worth the effort. In best-case scenario, we use about 10 percent of the contents of the technical exam in our current job responsibilities: it seemed wasteful being forced to obtain certification for some technical subject with minimum return-on-investment when there are other types of professional development studies that are more relevant to the workplace. During these challenging weeks, I often related to old Depeche Mode lyrics--"It all seems so stupid it makes me want to give up, but why should I give up when it all seems so stupid?"

There were times where I seriously thought about giving up and walking away from my job. I couldn't see the benefits of putting my entire non-work life aside just to focus on certification studies. I seriously questioned if this ordeal was worth overcoming: perhaps I could find more satisfying work situation elsewhere. In the end, I decided to lean into the dip and work towards attaining the certification, despite my misgivings about its value at work.

Several things led to my decision. I was blessed with constant encouragement from "yay-sayers" from all aspects of professional and personal life--the creative colleagues in different departments, a smidgen of helpful and supportive teammates, kindred spirits whom I had met at past professional conferences, blogger and podcaster friends who show others how to live their lives to the fullest, and a rich melange of friends. Receiving their support, tapping into their energies, and accepting their occasional kicks-to-my-butt fueled my desire to get myself out of the daunting nadir and push onward. Reading and absorbing a very thought-provoking blog article by Johnny B. Truant (6 Steps to Kicking Failure's Sorry Ass) helped too.

I also realized that the raison d'ĂȘtre for enjoying my work factored into the decision to pursue the certification (and by extension keeping my job): I make awesome at work and delight my customers, and if I don't obtain the certification, there will be no making awesome or delighting my customers in the near future.

So I spent most of December trying to steamroll over lots of suck. I gave up many activities which I would normally enjoy during this time of the year. There were no holiday lights viewing excursions, annual Swedish holiday parties, piano practices, gym workouts, band rehearsals, or leisurely culinary experimentations during that time. I ordered take-out pizza several times, and had stretches of days eating pizza exclusively, usually in front of my computer while studying. I turned test material into iPhone flash cards and turned small amounts of idle time into impromptu study sessions. It was an inconvenience freezing my hands while using the digital flash card app while waiting for buses during cold December mornings, but it had to be done. I scoured the Internet for resources relating to the exam subject and topics covered. During what little social events that I attended, I brought my study material along. I spent most of the ten-day vacation in Florida and New York City in front of my laptop engaged in serious studying.

Near end of the vacation, I took the exam in Elmhurst, Queens--and passed. The proverbial weight on my shoulders vanished at that moment, and I triumphantly walked into the cold and windy Roosevelt Avenue with the neatly-stamped certificate folded inside my pocket and with uncontrollable bounce in my steps. I also unleashed some jubilant profanity-laced interjections of glorious exaltation for a good measure.

What did I learn during this experience? Forcing myself to embrace the uncomfortable was a challenge, but it led to a positive outcome. Exerting self-discipline on a regular basis felt unfamiliar at first, but became somewhat routine as the weeks passed. I regret having missed out on many festivities and activities, and the recent vacation seem like a faint blur now. But since I had put myself in the precarious situation by procrastinating throughout the year, I had to make difficult choices about what to focus on.

With the exam ordeal behind me, I'm now curious about what I can learn by pushing the boundaries of my comfort and applying discipline to activities that I want to pursue (such as exercising, practicing piano, and studying new subjects) and routines that I want to turn into habits (like setting consistent curfews, making nighttime preparations for the next day, and increasing dietary awareness). Perhaps over time, I can overcome my fear of discomfort and stop rationalizing excuses for inertia.


  1. I am still puzzled by your employer's insistence on certification exams. While your struggles are a good learning opportunity for all of us - and certainly an example of growth for you - just what do those letters and certificates get you??

    Keep up the awesome.

  2. The employer's insistence with exams are rooted in some back-handed circumvention of union labor laws. Several years when we had the huge reorganization within the department, a new job position description was created and the bar had to be set high (and often unreasonable) in order to avoid grievances from those who were displaced.