Very early in my career, I was setting up some pressure sensors. The sensors had tiny wires coming off them, which someone had soldered to shielded co-axial cable running back to the data acquisition board/laptop.
My task was to fasten the sensors to a frame, which I completed quickly and thoroughly. My boss checked in, complimented my framed sensors, and mentioned that the way the tiny wires connected to the co-ax was too flimsy for our application. He worried they would break.
“Oh that wasn’t me, those were already like that when I started,” I explained.
My boss replied “I didn’t say you did it, I said to fix it.”
That exchange has stuck with me for the last 10 years because in one brief moment he exposed to me the fundamental nature of professionalism.
I immediately realized I wasn’t hired to do specific fully-defined tasks, but rather to further the goals of the team and company. It’s up to me to learn voraciously and think critically about the problem, the solution, the constraints. It’s up to me to become fully aware of all my contexts - business pressure, schedule, financial considerations, deployment strategy, etc etc. Then it’s up to me to do whatever I can within my sphere of influence to help the team succeed.
I was in essence arguing “that’s not my job.” But responsibility follows autonomy. If I’m able to do something to help the team, then I am expected to do it. Instead I put the burden on my boss to babysit me. Failing to identify the risk was my own error. Ignorance of a problem is no excuse. Autonomy means actively searching for barriers to the team’s success.
And to be honest I knew those wires needed fixing before he came in, yet I didn’t fix them or even mention it; an even more egregious abdication of my responsibility.
The correction stung a little; I was proud of what I accomplished. I chose to assume that because I hadn’t made the mistake it wasn’t mine to address, so I considered it a job well done. My pride made me defensive and stifled my autonomy.
Humility completes the cycle. I could have held fast to my opinion, clung to my limited definition of success. But instead I took my lumps. I accepted the guidance. I accepted the challenge of fixing the wires. I accepted my place on the team.
Most importantly, I accepted that I possessed autonomy and responsibility all along. In my pride I had rejected it to make myself feel good. By letting go of my pride I once again accepted my expanded autonomy. I allowed myself to think more broadly, to consider new possibilities. More autonomy led to more responsibility, which in turn led me to realize just how much I still don’t understand about the world and my industry.
And so the cycle continues.
Autonomy, responsibility, and humility can be uncomfortable. They can be tiring and complicated. But a mistake isn’t the only opportunity to work on them. Sometimes it’s about raising your hand when you see a hidden risk that could cause trouble later. Sometimes it’s about keeping an open mind when others are speaking. Sometimes it’s just about admitting you don’t know everything and making an honest effort to learn something new.
This Is Professionalism
This is exactly what I’m so often looking for in my career! Autonomy. Responsibility. To be respected, to be treated like an adult.
It’s no surprise as I look back that the times I’ve grown the most are the times I’m the most humble. The times I’ve felt constrained are the times I’ve clung to my pride. The further I go in my career, the more difficult it becomes. I know a lot of things now I didn’t know before - but the world is infinite, and so must be my humility.