Don’t Let Them Know You’re Good at Something

“Don’t let them know you’re good at something,” a woman said to me on Monday, “or they’ll make you do it every time.”

Such funny advice from someone who is clearly older, wiser, and even more bitter than I.

I’m always amused and frustrated by people who can’t or won’t learn from their mistakes. This week, I was charged with finding out why a computer didn’t work correctly. When I asked what symptoms had caused concern, nobody could tell me. I was intent of solving this problem, but I was not comfortable just “fixing” the computer and leaving it at that. I am just a temp. These folks need to learn how to set up this computer themselves, and troubleshoot these problems on their own. The next time this problem arises, I can guarantee that I am not going to work here. I went over to the site where the computer had caused problems, and figured out really quickly that the computer wasn’t genuinely broken. I was basically just going through a lot of performative activity in order to assuage the nervousness of the presenter who needed to use the computer to give a lecture the next day.

In checking out these computers, I was working with a classically resigned IT guy and this older woman. Resigned IT guy just wanted to go to lunch, and quickly walked me through every possible permutation of setting up the projector. Not too hard. As I futzed and tested, the older lady asked me about myself, and then imparted that piece of advice. If they know you can do it, they won’t ever learn.

I have never, in my whole career, thought of taking the initiative as being a bad thing. I almost always invite new projects, new skills, and more work. I like to learn. What I don’t like is when other people refuse to learn things because they  think that I will always just take care of the problem. That does not fly with me.

I have also learned really quickly that if I don’t find polite but firm ways to say “no,” managers and colleagues will come to expect that you will always be willing to do certain (usually crappy) things. But how do we develop a balance between being willing (and able) to help, and being the “go-to” person for every special project or problem?

In this instance, I tried to gather as much information as I could, followed through, solved the problem, and then documented the problem and the various solutions so that other people can move forward, not from square 1 but from square 2 or 3. I have found that documenting these processes, so that you can direct other to “external resources” (ie, not you) is a great way to keep from being bombarded with requests.

Am I being too judgmental? Is it the role of “junior” staff and younger workers to solve problems? Is this how people get ahead, by doing the work that others won’t? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

1 comment
  1. “Won’t you do that? Oh, but you’re so good at it!” Sound familiar? I think there’s a balance to be struck between taking initiative and problem solving, and just becoming a low-level troubleshooter. I suppose you can always refer to these experiences in interviews when you are asked about taking initiative, but you need to take care that it doesn’t become a total time sink and prevent you from learning other skills.

    When I finished my long placement for my teacher training, I was given a card by one of my supervising teachers who had more or less left me to it, mainly as his workload had shot up as a result of the head of department being long term sick. It said “…I’m sorry I haven’t been around very much but I have only been able to do that because you were doing so well. In case you haven’t realised yet, in teaching you always pay the price for being good.”

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