Believing in the value of conceptual labor

Ideas are funny things. It can take hours or days or months of noodling on a concept before you’re even able to start putting your thoughts into a shape that others will understand. And by then, you’ve explored the contours of the problem space enough that the end result of your noodling doesn’t seem interesting anymore: it seems obvious.

It’s a lot easier to feel like you’re doing real work when you’re writing code or collecting data or fixing firewall rules. These are tasks with a visible, concrete output that correlates roughly with the amount of time you put into them. When you finish writing a script, you can hold it up to your colleagues and they can see how much effort you put into it.

But as you get into more senior-type engineering roles, your most valuable contributions start to take the form not of concrete labor, but of conceptual labor. You’re able to draw on a rich mental library of abstractions, synthesizing and analyzing concepts in a way that only someone with your experience can do.

One of the central challenges in growing into a senior engineer consists in recognizing and acknowledging the value of the conceptual labor. We have to learn to identify and discard discouraging self-talk, like:

  • Time spent thinking is time spent not doing. When you’re a senior engineer, thinking is often the most valuable kind of doing you can do.
  • It’s not worth telling anyone about this connection I thought of. As a senior engineer, you will make conceptual connections that no one else will make. If they seem worthwhile to you, then why shouldn’t it be worthwhile to communicate them to others?
  • My coworkers are all grinding through difficult work and I’m just over here ruminating. Working with concepts is difficult work, and it’s work whose outcome can be immensely beneficial to your team and your org, but only if you follow through with it. Don’t talk yourself down from it.

Perhaps for the first time in your career, one of the skills you have to develop is faith: faith in the value of your conceptual labor. When an idea looks important to you, have faith that your experience is leading you down a fruitful path. Find that idea’s shape, see how it fits into your cosmos, and put that new knowledge – knowledge that you created by the sweat of your own brow – out into the world.

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