Complacency and competency are two sides of the same coin. The more skilled we are, we the more likely we are to become too satisfied by our skills. A software developer who’s been programming for 10 years can write cleaner code than a university student, but tends to be less hungry to learn new software skills. A pianist who practices three hours a day will outperform one who practices only one hour a day, but may be satisfied with their existing expertise and be less ambitious to improve.
When we’re already at the top, we tend to lose the incentive to keep climbing higher. After all, if you’re already the best, there isn’t as much external motivation pushing you to continue. We become satisfied with our skills and stop learning. Meanwhile, those who did not reach the top are still hungry to climb and over time, they surpass the top.
This happens frequently at UWaterloo. Before interning at large companies, many students are hungry to strengthen their software skills, such as by building side-projects. After a year or two, they land an internship at IBM (or another well-known company)! Great! They made it! They’re at the front of the pack! But then, they become complacent, satisfied and no longer hungry to keep learning. Meanwhile, peers who didn’t get that IBM internship stayed hungry for growth and continued to strengthen their skills. A year later, they’ve acquired more technical skills and end up landing possibly better internships at Google or Microsoft.
What can we learn from this observation? Experience leads to complacency only if you allow yourself to be complacent. One way to stay hungry is to recognize that there’s still a lot to learn. When we think we’re at the top of the game, it’s good to look around…maybe we’re actually just at a local maxima. Maybe we’ve become a big fish in a small pond and it’s time to swim to a bigger pond. Or perhaps, we overestimated our skills and weren’t as good as we imagined.
In business, giants also rise and fall. There used to be a time when Kodak, BlockBuster, Sears, and BlackBerry were household names. Now, they are no longer. I heard that about 15 years ago, UWaterloo students used to describe co-op as “IBM or bust”; today, they say “Cali or bust”. Change is the only constant and those who become too complacent will become replaced.
During each of the six co-op application periods, I tried to co-op at a large company, but it wasn’t until my final internship did I achieve this goal. In hindsight, I begin to see some benefits of not having gotten an internship at a large company sooner. Had I interned at LinkedIn earlier (or gotten an offer from Apple during my 5th internship, or Bloomberg during my 4th, or IBM during my second), I might have been led to believe that I was “good enough” at programming. As a result, I would have lost my hunger to learn more programming skills by building hobby projects and reading software-related books. Without as much self-learning, my excitement for programming would not have grown and I would never have gained the technical skills I now have. Interning at a large company early on would have made me complacent, trapping me in a local maxima.