Scaffolding: Nothing Good Comes Easy


Why we're bad at planning

Let me ask you this – do you ever put something in your microwave and then stop it before the time's up? You know, you put in those pizza rolls (don't act like you don't love them!) and set it for 3 minutes. But then what happens? You pop open the door at 2:45, don't you? “They look done,” you tell yourself. But what's really happened? It's simple, you got impatient, didn't you?

Want to know why we all suck at strategy and planning? Ready? Here it is: it's our microwaves. Seriously. You'll laugh, but it's killing our ability to plan. Because tied to that ability is the ability to wait.

Did I catch you on this one? You can admit it. It's going to be our little secret – just you, me and the web.

But this is the case I'd make: The microwave has turned us into people who want everything immediately.

I think the last time I heard the your-microwave-is-done-cooking chime was in 2002.

There aren't any shortcuts (but you already know this)

I spent the weekend at WordCamp Phoenix with a group of highly talented programmers and presenters and the one thing they all had in common was the time it took to reach their level of competence. They made difficult things look easy. But just because they looked easy didn't make them any easier to master.

The truth is that you can't take shortcuts to become truly excellent at something. In fact, if you've read the Talent Code, you've read about Anders Ericsson and his 30 years of research into expertise and how long it takes to reach that level.

It's simple to remember: 10,000 hours and 10 years. 

And if mastery is your goal, then putting in the time is a requirement. And maybe you don't need or want expert status, so 2,000 or 5,000 hours is a better goal. But just like there's no alternative for putting in the time, there's also not one for having a plan – a roadmap, if you will – that will help you get the most out of the work you do.

Mastery requires scaffolding

Whether you call it layering, sequential learning, or scaffolding, the truth is the same. Expertise comes in stages, as you build the layers of experience to support your goals.

We all seem to know this. It's common sense: you can't run until you can walk. But if we all know this, if it's truly common sense, why do I have so many conversations with people who have no strategy for the next several years of their professional (or personal) lives? As a result of that lack of strategy, they rarely think about the experience they're developing.

Don't be someone with 2 years of experience five times in a row. Be someone with 10 years of experience.

I'm not saying the plan has to be detailed. After all, when I wrote about the 1400 days to becoming a WordPress ninja I created something of a plan, and it had no details. But it did have a structure. It highlighted what you needed to focus on in each year. And year two leveraged what was learned in year one. And it continued. That's what I call scaffolding.

Next Steps

The whole notion of scaffolding is that it lets you get higher than  you were able to without it. That's what  a good high-level training plan looks like. It's a way to help you step up your game.

So what can you do if you don't have a strategy for your next few years? Well I wish I could tell you there was a single perfect way to solve this challenge but there's not.

Here are three quick ideas you might try:

  1. Find and hire a coach. Folks who have been where you are today exist who can help you.
  2. Join meetups. As you hang out, you'll find great resources who like sharing. Befriend them. Then ask for their opinion.
  3. Read great biographies. You'll be impressed with the backstories and may find a source of inspiration.

However you do it, get a plan together that helps you know where you're at and where you're going. And don't stress about how long it may take you. Just “work the plan” and keep focusing on your progress. One day you'll look back and be surprised at how far you've progressed.