What Can a Laser Teach You About Your Career?

An essential part of your career growth is figuring out how to prime yourself to meet the challenges you’ll face. Once you do, you’ll be impressed by just how much and how fast you can grow.
Headshot of author Todd Shepherd
Todd Shepherd
Expert Columnist
April 21, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Todd Shepherd
Todd Shepherd
Expert Columnist
April 21, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

One of my favorite movies of all time is Real Genius, due in no small part to its endlessly quotable script. Even though it’s an ’80s movie, I drop lines from it to this day.

The plot concerns Mitch, a 15-year-old genius who gets a scholarship to the fictional school Pacific Tech, described as one of the leading research institutions in the country. He graduates high school early and begins his collegiate experience in the mid-winter term. Because of his ingenuity with laser science, Mitch wins a spot on a major research team.

Unfortunately, most of the other team members immediately bully him because of his age. His only ally is his roommate, Chris Knight, played to perfection by a young Val Kilmer. Chris is an astoundingly brilliant senior who, in stark contrast to the stiflingly fastidious Mitch, has learned to approach everything with a sense of humorous chaos and only the slightest, fleeting hint of seriousness, if any at all.

I rewatched this movie recently, and I noticed something about it that never really registered with me before. Mitch had coasted through school and was way ahead of all of his peers, constructing functioning iodine laser arrays for high school science fairs while other students were still making baking soda volcanos. It isn’t until his first term at Pacific Tech that he faces any real challenges. Suddenly, he’s surrounded by people who are as intelligent and talented as he is, if not more so. Not only is Mitch no longer gliding across the big waves, he has to kick things into overdrive just to stay afloat. To succeed, he must make some major adjustments and grow up fast.

Art shows us reflections of ourselves, and what we see changes over time as we do. Perhaps my new perspective on Mitch’s struggles arose out of my own recent experience. My team is at the tail end of a major upgrade to our heavily customized Dynamics 365 installation. The underlying data structure of the new Dynamics version has been significantly updated from the version we were running, which means more capabilities. But it also meant a major overhaul of our forms, entity configurations, synchronization scripts, UI and UX design and workflow logic. Basically, almost every component in our installation had to be retooled somehow.

When I first joined this team, I knew nothing substantial about Dynamics. But since I had demonstrated an ability to learn and adapt, I got the opportunity to expand my horizons. Due to the scope and pace of the project, I knew that I had a lot of both to do and little time in which to do them. I was miles outside of my comfort zone.

So, when I saw the overwhelmed look on Mitch’s face, I anticipated sporting a very similar look myself as I set about my work. My project didn’t involve lasers, but that’s probably a good thing. The last thing I needed while I was trying to wrap my head around a new system was access to light beams that can put holes in things.

More From Todd ShepherdGazing Into the Crystal Ball: 3 Spaces Primed for Disruption

 

Don’t Fear the Tapioca

The head of the laser research project directs the team to give Mitch copies of all of their data so that he can get up to speed. Kent, one of the movie’s main antagonists, tosses Mitch a large stack of materials and exclaims with sadistic glee, “This plus your regular class load should turn your brains to tapioca in less than a month!”

Kent clearly sets Mitch up to fail. Mitch can only stare in frightened disbelief at the amount of additional work that has just been literally thrown at him. Think about a time when you’ve experienced a feeling like that. Although you may not have been as demoralized as Mitch, you’ve almost certainly felt overwhelmed by your workload at some point.

I certainly did when I dug in and saw just how many details I had to bear in mind. For example, if I didn’t set up the security properly on a particular part of the system, then it would be either completely unavailable or inconsistent and critical work would grind to a halt. The rest of the project depended on my ability to do my part well.

Systems have all sorts of internal and external dependencies, which can be difficult to track. Having control over how those dependencies work makes the system customizable, but it also means you can more easily break things. As I learned more about those dependencies and their parameters, I would occasionally feel a sudden wave of intimidation wash over me. Frankly, there were times when I would feel inadequate and wonder if I even possessed the ability to complete my parts of the project at all.

In those times of despondency, I realized that everything boiled down to two choices: I could either bow out or keep going. I would encourage you to keep going each time you face a similar choice. You may well encounter tasks that are beyond your current grasp. Those are the moments when you should challenge yourself to grow.

As a technical professional, you’ve done this numerous times before. Think about how much your knowledge base and experience level has grown in just the past five or 10 years. Things that are relatively routine for you now would have thrown you for a loop not too long ago. So, take the opportunity to once again rise to the occasion and meet the challenge. Show ‘em how it’s done. Don’t fear the tapioca. You get bonus points if you read those words to the Blue Öyster Cult tune.

 

Split and Jam

One evening in the laser lab, Chris tells a frazzled Mitch to charge the laser to full power. As the capacitors charge, the power in the lab goes out. Chris muses about whether he should have shorted across the building transformer, then activates the laser. To Mitch’s surprise, the beam is reflected by several mirrors situated all across campus before entering into a beam splitter that turns the laser into a glowing sign for a “tanning invitational” in one of the academic buildings.

Several people follow the beam and walk into the building to find that Chris has turned one of the auditoriums into an indoor beach party complete with a grill, a water slide and a pool. Even then, some of them are reluctant to join in until Chris offers some encouragement and jumps onto a surfboard in the pool. That does the trick: Everyone briefly looks at one another before practically running to join the fun. Mitch dons a straw hat and lei and sits down, smiling and content to observe the others.

As I started to gain ground on my project, my natural inclination was to put on more steam. Since I’d made good progress, I reasoned that more focused effort should produce even greater results.

To the contrary, however, I found a steep dropoff in the yield curve with additional, prolonged focus. It wasn’t long before I might as well have been trying to glean wisdom from a bowl of alphabet soup.

As such, I decided to take a step back, decreasing the intensity of my focus but still trying to absorb the system knowledge I needed. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work at all.

I had recharged my energy level but still found myself unable to effectively process the information I was after. Ultimately, I had to completely step away from it and occupy my mind with something else in order to reset my ability to absorb and retain new information about my project work. In doing so, I also found that I had much better understanding, retention and recall of what I had already learned.

When you’re entrenched in a new project, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and hyperfocus on acquiring new information. And even though you understand the need to step away, actually doing so can be difficult because of deadline pressure or other similar influences. When you feel yourself starting to hit that wall and everything seems like it’s jumbled together, step away for a bit. Find an unusual light beam and see where it leads. And when you’re presented with an opportunity to really unplug and enjoy yourself, take advantage of it.

It doesn’t matter if you’re content to just relax and take in the good vibes or if you’re in the middle of it dancing to Don Henley and Bryan Adams (hey, it’s an ’80s movie). Your project will still be there, and you owe it to yourself to allot some decompression time so that you can come back to your work sharpened and truly ready to give it your best.

 

Chrises and Mitches

On the surface, Chris and Mitch couldn’t be more diametric opposites. But at their core, they’re more alike than they are different. And they need each other in order to reach their own personal bests. Mitch’s strong work ethic and openness to learning pairs perfectly with Chris’ experience and affinity for constant jokes. The balance they bring to one another’s work enables them to produce a laser with even greater power output than was required by the project.

I am fortunate enough to work alongside a developer with a lot of experience and a good sense of humor. Our status meetings are peppered with movie quotes and one-liners. And when one of us is feeling the pressure of the project, the other is right there to inject some levity and smooth things out again. I’m very much the Mitch here, but I’m working on becoming the later-in-the-movie Mitch who understands the value of balance and is able to enjoy himself.

This project has been a richly rewarding one, and it has increased my understanding of what’s involved in a large-scale undertaking like this system upgrade. That better prepares me for the next big project, and applying what I’ve learned with this one will enable me to grow even more through the next one.

Every Mitch on the team needs a Chris, and vice versa. This balance brings out the best in everyone, building trust and fostering personal and professional growth by working through those individual traits and dynamics toward a common goal. Ideas build on one another, and solutions are developed together by incorporating insights from everyone. Maybe you’re feeling more like Mitch right now, finding yourself in brand new territory and trying to better understand the challenges you face. Or maybe you’re a Chris.

You’ve been around the block and you know how to tackle tough challenges in stride and with a good sense of humor. Do yourself a favor and find your counterpart on your team. Notice and appreciate your differences, and learn from the other’s perspective. Together, you’ll get the work done and you’ll enjoy the process. After all, the paycheck is sweet. But it’s even sweeter if you enjoy what you do.

Now, I can look back and appreciate how much I’ve learned about both the systems involved and myself. Embracing new challenges and creating opportunities for growth and development is vital both for your professional life and your personal one. So, as you start ramping up for your next daunting project, allow me to offer you some encouragement. I would also offer you a laser, but they don’t trust me with those just yet.

Keep GrowingDoes Your Work Style Need a Makeover?

Expert Contributors

Built In’s expert contributor network publishes thoughtful, solutions-oriented stories written by innovative tech professionals. It is the tech industry’s definitive destination for sharing compelling, first-person accounts of problem-solving on the road to innovation.

Learn More

Great Companies Need Great People. That's Where We Come In.

Recruit With Us