Self-Improvement, or How to Work Up to Your Potential

Have you ever been told you have “a lot of potential”? My teachers told me that. Some of my early managers told me that, too. I thought I was working up to my potential, so I was frustrated when I heard that.

Then, I changed a few things about how I worked. I used inch-pebbles, so I finished work every day or every two days. I used deliverable-based planning, so I could show progress, not documents. I used timeboxes, especially for things I hated to do.

I wasn’t perfect. I still heard that I had potential. I started keeping an engineering notebook of all the times I had made stupid mistakes. I didn’t mind making smart mistakes, but infinite loops, off-by-one, or pointer problems? Those were stupid mistakes. I learned how to make fewer of them.

I wish I could tell you I paired or used test-driven development back when I was a developer. Nope, I didn’t. I did pair briefly in the ’80s, and not by choice. I did use continuous integration and frequent testing. I loved CI and quick tests. They told me whether my product was working.

My engineering notebook was the catalyst for my working up to my potential. I had the opportunity to review my notes, see the decisions I’d made, and perceive the effects of those decisions.

When I became a manager, that engineering notebook turned into my management notebook. I needed to understand the effects of my decisions because the effect often had a lag time from the decision.

I found writing things down, journaling, to be a big piece of living up to my potential.

Here is what I did:

  1. I decided I would work to my full potential, whatever that was. Deciding was a key factor for me.
  2. I gathered data about my daily, weekly, monthly work.
  3. I delivered small and often. As a developer, I integrated small features into the code base as often as I could. As a manager, I delivered my work in chunks and iterated on the work. I made my decisions as transparent as possible.
  4. I could show other people my progress and get feedback.

I had the opportunity to assess my potential and see if I was living up to it.

How about you? What do you do to live as full a life as you can? You might have your own way of living up to your potential. I’d love to hear about it.

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