In your career, be a Maverick or a Riker

December 27, 2023

One of the aspects of the Top Gun: Maverick movie that I found interesting was about career fit and doing what you are supposed to do. In the movie, we learn that Mav’s career has not gone according to what others think it should be. The Navy is structured so that as you advance in your career, you take on more and more leadership. But what Maverick loves to do, the thing that he is best at is sitting in the seat of a fighter jet and flying that plane. That is where he feels most at home, where he is most alive.

It is similar to the situation Commander William Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation finds himself in. Others have been concerned about his career for years and wondered when he would assume his own command over a starship. But Riker continues to resist. He knows his place. He is the “loyal lieutenant 1.” He is perfectly content to serve as the “number one” under Captain Picard. He knows where he fits best even if everyone else tells him to seek advancement and look out for his career.

James T. Kirk faces a similar dilemma as he ages. Admiral Kirk, in the movie, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, struggles with wanting to remain in the captain’s seat instead of the duties and responsibilities of a higher-ranking officer. The opportunity comes for him to assume command and he relishes it. He knows where his best fit is–in the captain’s chair on the Enterprise. Two movies later when he is reprimanded for disobeying an order (in the next movie, The Search for Spock, but then saves the Earth in The Voyage Home), he is demoted to captain where he has “repeatedly demonstrated unswerving ability.”

So why do I share all of this? I share it because I have felt that same tension in my own life. There is pressure to move up the ladder and assume more leadership and responsibility as you get older. A lot of times that means moving more into a management position than continuing to be a practitioner, especially in the Web industry, both in design and in development.

I have had to face that choice in the past. At one point, I interviewed for a job that would have been a leadership and managing position. But it would have taken me away from the thing I love, the thing I most enjoy–doing the actual work of making a website. I felt a lot of tension because there was a feeling that I should want to do that. There was a financial incentive because it would have paid more than the positions where the work was happening. Fortunately, that opportunity never materialized into a job offer so I did not have to make a difficult decision. I have found those things usually work themselves out.

I have felt the familiar pull in recent years. As our team has expanded, I have considered taking on more managerial responsibilities. But I have wanted to do it as a player-coach. Where I would still be involved in the work. Not as much as before but still would be a significant amount of time. But my team has never really grown to where I have had to make that decision. I have been able to play and try some things out but in more of a mentoring capacity.

The thing is I have had to be confident that I know myself best and know what is best for me in my career. Despite what other people might say or what other people might expect. Or even to go against what seems to be just the way things are in a career. I have had to hold the line and resist the pull toward something that I am not.

Jon Hicks spoke to this subject in a tweet almost two years ago. I would encourage you to read the whole thread.

Jon put into words what I have often thought about and continue to wrestle with. I don’t want to follow a route where I am no longer spending significant time writing the code. Writing the code and making a website come to life is what I love to do. I still enjoy the work (for the most part). Managing people does not stoke my fire. Mentoring others and being able to leave a legacy is a bit more appealing.

The takeaway from all of this. Don’t let others try to make you into what you are not. It will take courage and fortitude to stand fast behind your self-knowledge. I would encourage you to know yourself. Understand what motivates you. Understand what kind of work feeds your soul. It is okay to want to continue doing the work you love to do even when you feel the pressure to advance internally or externally.

You are the best judge of what is best for your career. You are the best caretaker of your career because you know you best. Plenty of people will have advice or opinions. But in the end, it is up to you. Trust yourself. Don’t doubt just because a lot of other voices tell you differently. Be a Maverick (or a Riker).

1 This is a description of a person who is comfortable being the second in charge. The person is glad to support his captain and does not necessarily want to replace that person. I believe it came from the FIRO-B assessment but I have been unable to find any supporting evidence in my limited Internet search.

This post is part of my attempt to post something every day for a month. I was inspired by Michelle Barker, who recently participated in National Blog Posting Month.

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