21 Jan 2014
Chris Hadfield has quickly become something of a hero of mine. His book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is delightful and I highly recommend it.
In one section, Hadfield talks about his experiences working in teams of astronauts, who (unsurprisingly) make for highly competitive colleagues. He writes, “It’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s true: promoting your colleagues’ interests helps you stay competitive, even in a field where everyone is top-notch.”
One of the examples Hadfield gives is of a colleague who expresses an interest in learning how to pilot the Soyuz, even though it’s unlikely he’ll ever need this knowledge, and very clear he won’t need it for the specific mission they’re training for. Instead of brushing him off though — Hadfield spends extra time training with his colleague to help him learn these skills.
This is not, I think, a typical reaction. Hadfield’s response to potential competition from his colleagues isn’t to withhold information that allows him to maintain his status as a specialist — it isn’t even to say, “Sure, learn that on your own time.” His response is, “That’s great — here, let me help.” The way he stays competitive in a field of incredible competitive colleagues is by helping them get better.
I suspect we can all see how this might be beneficial in the life and death stakes of, you know, space travel, but I think it’s vital for all of us working on the web, too. No, it isn’t rocket science, but we have an opportunity, collectively, to make a huge impact: together, we shape the space where our fellow humans spend an ever increasing portion of their lives.
We have an obligation to them, to each other, to ourselves, to make that space as good as it can be. We are, as Paul Ford reminds us, entrusted with the incredible responsibility of trillions upon trillions of heartbeats.
It is tempting to make only our corners of the web shine — to show how much better we are. To keep our little fiefdoms intact. Certainly, there is the potential for short-term glory on this path — you can stand above your colleagues, be lauded for your exceptionalism, and reap the rewards of that success.
But I think there are more risks to this approach than we sometimes acknowledge. The very definition of a zenith means we can’t be at ours forever. Whatever you do for a living, there will always be someone who has a new perspective, a brilliant idea, or is just hungrier for that glory.
If we are truly going to make the web as good as it can be, I think part of that means pushing for the collective successes of our colleagues. We learn and grow and advance the web faster when we’re all performing at the top of our game — we’re all motivated to improve when the people around us are getting better all the time.
By supporting each other, especially those who are newer to the field, we’re ensuring we have great colleagues for years to come.
The opportunities for us to accomplish great things increase exponentially when we are surrounded by talented, creative people who want to do more. And there are so many great things we all need to accomplish, so root for those you see advancing your field, and do what you can to play a part in that. Push your field forward.