How to Avoid the Complacency Trap


illustration of man climbing up a row of pencils.
Illustration: Dan Page

By: Mark Pesce

As I swam around the pool of blood, I said to myself, “There’s a lesson here.”

It hadn’t felt that way when my lecture agents first invited me out for a “talk.” Critiquing my skills as a public performer, they put it bluntly: “We’re getting top dollar for you. And we think you can do better.”

Better?

“You hide behind your iPad. Put it aside. Engage. Connect.”

That advice landed like a ton of bricks, compacting my ego just enough for me to hear the truth in their words. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and suddenly unqualified, tumbling from the top of the world to suffering impostor syndrome in less than a minute. I grew quiet, and my agents grew worried. I’d never truly learned how to take criticism without first feeling wounded. This time, with the breath knocked out of me, I chose to ignore the sting, setting my eyes on an opportunity: to be something more.

All of us walk a path throughout our lives. With a bit of luck, it leads to a comfortable destination, where we can make ourselves at home. Yet we need the occasional sleep on a bed of nails to remind us that we could benefit from some exercise. Movement keeps us trim, sharp, and healthy. Though we need rest, it should never be our goal.

Instead, take advantage of opportunities to walk with others, connecting and sharing and learning and teaching. For me, that means keeping pace with an enormous network of active and talented individuals from whom I can learn.

The day following that momentous meeting, a friend who also does public appearances recommended a class in improvisation. “It helped,” she said. Before hearing those words, I’d never thought of needing theater skills for my craft—but of course I do. I enrolled in an improvisation workshop that evening. The following weekend I found myself swimming across that imaginary pool of blood, riffing off an idea offered by an improv partner.

Feeling now as though I’ve been jolted out of a lazy sleep, I hunger for more—for new skills, challenges, and opportunities. How can I be a better storyteller? Should I learn mime so that my body can tell the story? Voice-over skills? How to smile and speak to the camera? It feels like the first day of school, and I love it. So much to learn, so much to become. The best part: It never ends.

Though there could be more method to our growth. How often do we take the opportunity to reflect on what we can do well, then imagine what we want to be able to do? Can we write it out, naming it with, “This is where I excel, and here I fall short”? Putting ourselves in a place where we recognize our incompleteness may be uncomfortable, but it leaves us better able to imagine ourselves headed outward on a trajectory, making course corrections, toward an evolving destination. On my trajectory, that means acquiring theater skills. On yours, it could mean mastering millimeter-wave antenna design, or lidar, or memristors, or…

No one knows where we’ll be in a year or a decade, but we have the power to decide for ourselves whether we’ll be standing still or moving forward. With so many opportunities to connect with and learn from friends and colleagues, we need never remain in place. And if we remember to offer what we ourselves have learned, others will walk alongside, keeping stride, learning from us.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 20 February 2020.