It can be difficult to track, measure, or describe a sense of progress, especially early on in your career. At times you may feel like you’re flowing and growing rapidly, while at other times you may feel stagnant and wonder what the next step looks like.
Atomic’s accelerator program has given me the space to think about the concept of making progress, in addition to the way I perceive progress itself. Here are the recent results of my exploration (note that it’s a work-in-progress).
Types of Progress
Your perspective influences the way you view progress. I tend to categorize progress in two ways: Abstract and Concrete.
Abstract progress tends to be characterized by feelings or emotions, related to your ability to perform some task. Aside from personal intuition, it isn’t easily measurable. An example of this might be confidence built over time.
When I started at Atomic, I believed in my capacity to learn and grow, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to contribute and be productive on a software project. Nearly 18 months later, I now feel not only confident, but ready and able to join a team, learn about the ecosystem of a project, and identify ways to provide value.
Concrete progress tends to be more goal-driven and is often associated with a metric. It is characterized by repetition and continual achievement.
Throughout my college basketball career, I practiced shooting mid-range jump shots off the dribble. I had a specific number of shots to make from a spot, and I kept track of the total shots it took for me to hit my mark. Eventually, as I further developed my skill, my training logs showed that it was taking fewer total shots to hit my mark.
Understanding the type of progress you’ve made can help you further understand the current phase of progression you’re in.
Phases of Progression
Progression is typically nonlinear. You don’t just constantly get better or worse over time. In my experience, there tend to be two or three kinds of phases when learning things.
These are the fun phases and tend to be the first phase of any learning progression. The growth factor here is naturally high, and you may experience both abstract and concrete progress as you ride the high of this upward trend.
In this phase, you are constantly learning and being a sponge, absorbing knowledge and information. You’re also frequently being “tested” as you work and test your ability to apply what you’ve learned.
These phases can be rather frustrating, and the growth factor is much lower than in rapid growth phases. It can be difficult to identify any progress at all here, and it takes active effort to extract the value from being in this phase.
You may feel stagnant, as familiarity begins to replace the feeling of freshness that each challenge brought when you knew less. Experience, and your ability to pull from it, have given you a way to approach new problems and break them down. You’re experienced now, and it’s great that you developed the skill set you set out to acquire.
But is this your ceiling? In my experience, this is the duality of the plateau phase.
I don’t typically consider this a phase because it seldom will happen. However, in some instances, there may be times where you feel as if you’ve regressed. You may encounter a valley when you leave something for too long and it continues to change (like a programming framework). The knowledge and practical ability you built may simply have become outdated or even irrelevant in the time you were away.
I would argue, though, that this isn’t really regression, but rather realizing the evolution of the environment around you. With time and effort (maybe a new Rapid Growth phase), you’ll climb out of the valley.
I’ve always struggled with plateau phases, but recently I’ve identified some ways to help keep myself engaged during mundane times.
Have a personal retrospective.
Spend time with yourself and reflect on the journey to this point. Make a list of the things you’ve worked on and use it to identify any holes in your knowledge. Look for opportunities to polish and improve upon past work.
Seek opportunities for more responsibility.
This can potentially unlock new tracks of work. Getting more involved may push you to think outside of your current context, which you’ve become accustomed to.
Use new tools and technologies.
Explore and leverage new tools. Try to discover new ways to unlock productivity in your own workflow, and maybe even for your team.
We can consciously and regularly identify the progress we’ve made on our journey. If we do, we’ll be better equipped to transform these periods of stagnation into more growth opportunities. Learn to master the boring and be grateful for the time and space to reflect.
Masters of all crafts are masters because they continuously dedicate themselves to progression. Ultimately, progression is about what you gain from the journey, not arriving at each destination.