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What You’ve Done is What You’ll Do

I can’t claim these words, but they’ve stuck with me from an old (2009 maybe?) Adobe MAX talk by Erik Natzke, and so I thought I might pass them forward here.

I love learning new things. Being a part of the web industry right now, it’s essential to constantly be learning new things if you want to keep up with the latest and greatest. But there’s a cost to focusing on that idea too much. Worrying about figuring out how to keep up can be a huge emotional drain, and with all the avenues there are to explore it’s quite easy to burn-out on the burden of learning.

‘What you’ve done is what you’ll do’ manifests for me in my daily life in two main ways:

Scoped Learning

First, it reminds me that when there is something new to learn, I can break it up into two major buckets: “Do I want to know how to do this?” or “Do I just want to know about this?”

The latter question carries a ton of utility while removing a lot of the burden that comes along with learning how to do something. If I can hear a business case from a client or even coming from my own ideas and think of a technology I may know about that fits the bill, that’s all I need in that moment; the doing can come later if it needs to.

Most importantly, I find that explicitly setting this scope of learning for myself up-front provides a boost to my drive to dig-in, because the expectations are set; I know, generally, the size of the hill I’m about to climb and so I can prepare accordingly for the trek.

Power in Doing

Don’t get me wrong, the last paragraph was all about NOT DOING if you don’t have to, but I think closer to Erik’s point in his talk, this idea is also all about leaning in extra on what you know how to do already.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and that’s ok!

You’ve put that extra learning time into what you do. You wield your craft. Be proud of it, and then find the places you can keep doing it. The whole generalist vs. specialist thing sort of rubs me the wrong way, because as a self-proclaimed web generalist, I find that I have a very specific set of skills: the things I actively do! And I think that’s actually true of most folks.

If you ask me to build a site, I’ll probably use Eleventy or Vue or just vanilla HTML/CSS/JS, I’ve done that. If you want to start an online store, I might push you over to Etsy, I’ve done that. If you need some generative art I might make it with P5.js or Processing, I’ve done that. Need an API? I’ll build you one with serverless functions, I’ve done that. Want a custom 3D printed trophy, I’ll design it in illustrator and fusion 360, slice it with Cura and print it on my Ender 3 Max printer, because I’ve done that.

Part of it is that, yes, I put in the time and got experience in doing these things, but the other important piece is that getting to that point also means I must have had a good experience, I must have liked it, at least somewhat, to the point that I can continue to come back to these skills as the core of what I do.

Sure, I’ll learn to do more things in the future and I can continue to build out this list. But do I have to? I don’t think so, as long as those skills remain relevant, I find it incredibly useful to remind myself that what I’ve done is what I’ll do, and that’s great.