I’ve mentioned Robert Cooper’s book “Get Out of Your Own Way” a few times in my recent blog entries. I love the title of chapter 13: “Constructive Discontent Drives Growth”. I don’t think any other chapter title could describe my life so well. “Constructive discontent” means that you’re not satisfied to simply repeat past successes; instead, you seek out new ways, new paths. Before I start to sound like a fluffed up motivational speaker, let me pull some real examples from my life.
Twelve years ago I worked for an ad specialty company – as their courier. The owner found out I had a knack for navigating Adobe Illustrator to create image files for our embroiderers. (Bear in mind I have zero graphic design talent – this was simple image editing!) My good friends, Kyle Chowning and Shawn Stewart, were both involved with the burgeoning web/graphic design industry – and, though I wanted to learn about their world, I ruled it out, thinking I was simply too far behind to ever catch up. But the healthy level of discontent that is constantly with me would not let me settle down into ‘easy’ paths and stick to job skills I knew. I borrowed an HTML 4.0 book from Kyle, and after a couple of meetings to discuss web development, I dove into learning everything I could. At my next job, working as a PC repair technician and logistics coordinator, I was quickly frustrated with rampant inefficiencies in data entry & research. I created a department website internally to help me (and other co-workers) automate tasks and more quickly find answers to common questions. While I was thankful for the success I’d had, I soon realized that the site needed more capabilities – but to deliver on new features I had to leave my fledging pursuit of web design to learn about web application development. Each new door opened up more doors of information and exposure. Within a year, I was developing database-backed applications using Cold Fusion. Since that time I have consumed 40-50 technical books easily, accumulating far more hours learning about software development than I spent earning my bachelor’s degree.
Constructive discontent helped spur me on in the face of “you’re too far behind, you’ll never catch up to guys who’ve been doing this for years.” Constructive discontent enabled me – a music major – to lead a team of 7 developers, nearly all who had degrees in Computer Science, a mere 5 years after I switched careers to software development. Constructive discontent also helped make it clear when it was time to let go of the comfortable leadership position I had, leave working from home for 5 years, and go join a local software team with talent and leadership far exceeding my own.
A healthy discontent helps guard you against complacency and apathy. It helps you cultivate the habit of asking “Is there a better way to do this?” It abhors the idea of being a “big fish in a little pond”. A constructively discontent person would rather serve on the greatest team possible than ‘rule’ in mediocrity.
Ah, but there are catches. It is difficult to cultivate this kind of healthy discontent across a community. As Cooper points out in his book, there are centers in the brain that thrive on routine and predictability. Those parts of the brain will cry out loud to be heard, in an attempt to drown out the parts of you that want to take risks, try something new – take a leap of faith. Because discontent breeds change, many people resist it. Not all change is change for the better (pause, and consider that in light of current events!); it’s the right changes that we want to push for. We must guard against being obsessive in our discontent, and the tempting aspects of making it blindingly personal.
My discontent is driven by a desire to learn more & to be a part of excellence. Because of it I have learned more than I could’ve ever thought possible and formed some of the most rewarding relationships of my life. Because of it, I never see the future as dull, but loaded with opportunities to learn more, discover more, and teach more.