Professional Basketball Player Syndrome

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

This is a question that many of us have heard, and some of us even think about as adults, albeit phrased differently: what do you want to do with your life?

I’m a software engineer by profession – which is a pretty good gig. But basically everyone’s heard of the kids in school who wanted to grow up to become a professional basketball player. There might be many motivations: the fame, the money, and maybe even simply love of the game, among others. But everyone also knows that the road to becoming a professional basketball player is very narrow, and very few can make the cut. Where does that leave everyone else?

So, while I had no desire to become a professional basketball player as a kid, I certainly was aware that I didn’t want to take on a crazy pursuit like that. I did want a niche for myself (to become a bilingual software developer/translator working to translate Japanese video games, which thankfully never came to pass), but more than that, I was interested in a career which didn’t have the crazy level of failure as going pro with sports.

However, for a short time in the relatively recent past, I did have a somewhat crazy dream – and maybe it hasn’t totally died off, but my opinions about it have got much more nuanced. I had the crazy goal of going on NHK’s Nodo Jiman The World as a foreigner who would sing Japanese songs in front of a Japanese audience including many famous Japanese TV personalities. I took vocal lessons for roughly 2 years, mostly with a local instructure, but also for several months with a Speech Level Singing instructor, trying to get some of those Michael Jackson singing chops – or more honestly, just trying to develop my range and get to where I can sing higher without singing badly.

I didn’t really have much of a vision beyond doing that, aside from perhaps singing some X-Japan songs and maybe getting recognized by Toshl or Yoshiki… It really was a dream, but without that much substance to it, and in recent months I’ve come to recognize that – and to recognize the time and effort that goes into becoming a music star, and the time and effort that many, many people spend to do so and whom end up ultimately falling short. Becoming a musician, while it doesn’t quite have the same artificial “hard limit” as becoming a pro basketball player, does basically fall in the same category of professions.

And even for those who do “make it”, what is their lifestyle like? How much does their work control their life, as fantastic as their work might be? It’s not the type of lifestyle I think I can really expect to live, especially already having a family. Not impossible, but certainly difficult.

So, while I was never really seriously considering going pro as a musician – well, maybe just a little – these thoughts all came to me. And so, while I might still try to do something that scares me and try out Nodo Jiman, and while I might even get lucky and get a tweet from Toshl or Yoshiki if they hear about my performance, not much is likely to come out of it since I don’t really have the commitment to that type of lifestyle. It’s basically just dream fulfillment – which is not unimportant, but needs to be kept in perspective.

Let’s turn back to my profession as a software engineer. I currently enjoy a good job working for Intel. But am I satisfied with that?

There’s many “rock stars” when it comes to software development: Martin Fowler, Kent Beck, Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin, to name a few that immediately come to mind. All three of them are known for something in common: being software consultants. Ahh, the dream! Being your own boss, making the big bucks – even bigger than those typically enjoyed by “mere” software developers. And throw in the recognition, etc. Being a legend in the software community, someone that everyone wants to talk to, all that jazz.

I’m certainly not a perfect developer, nor will I claim to be one of “the best”, but at least from what I’ve seen at my experience at Intel: I seem to be ahead of the curve. I consistently find myself in positions of technical authority and/or leadership. If people around me have a problem regarding Python that they don’t know how to solve, I’m often the person they come to. I am respected for my experience and ability.

Don’t I owe it to myself to push for more? Intel’s great, but they need to look out for their bottom line – I need to be the one who pushes for what my desires are, be that work, title, or pay.

So, maybe software consulting is what I should do! Maybe I should leave the security of Intel and venture off on my own, build a customer base and start charging top dollar for my time.

Maybe that is what I should do. But again, I’m feeling the “pro basketball player” syndrome in this again. How many people work as consultants? And how many of those really make much more than normal software developers, especially if they’re working for larger consulting companies? I don’t really know. But my gut tells me that the situation may not really be that much different. The work would be different, and it would be challenging and likely have more variety than I have now. But it’d also have more unpredictability, which may or may not be worth the extra money there may or may not be.

And even then – just being a consultant doesn’t make you an Uncle Bob or a Martin Fowler. Books, talks, blobs, conferences, branding, and perhaps to some extent, being at the right place at the right time – that’s what they seem to be known for, and some of the ingredients in their recipes for success, in perhaps varying mixtures and degrees. It’s certainly not for everyone. And that’s for them – others are known for other reasons! There is likely not one path to get to the “dream” I have of becoming a respected and known developer.

Anyway, I’ve touched far too many threads with this post. Pulling this together, my thoughts are:

  • There’s many professional paths which can be similar to “going pro” in sports in terms of difficulty and chance of actually “making it”, and which for most people may simply be unrealistic. If you have a true passion for something, go for it – but be wary of “illusions of grandeur”, or of spending too much time with something for which you lack adequate passion.
  • It’s important to have a dream (or dreams), but it’s good to have an idea of how you want to pursue those dreams and how much you wish to invest in those dreams, rather than pursuing them blindly.
  • There’s far more than one path to success, and far more than one definition of success, and even within the same field, “success” is different to different people. Likewise, how people find meaning in their work is very personal and not something to just be emulated. There’s nothing wrong with using role models, but ultimately you need to figure the details of this stuff out for yourself.

Finally, one last thought: what really should you focus on?

For me, I think the honest answer is: I don’t know! And that’s okay! But I want to experiment and find out. I want to try to figuratively go out into the world and create something, and see where that lands me. I don’t know if that involves me changing jobs, doing open source work, or more seriously pursuing my singing.

My key point is both to recognize realities of how hard it can be to reach certain definitions of “success”, as well as to encourage exploration and to simply get started with doing something. And for some, that might even involve less focus on specific goals and more focus on just going out and creating something. Just start, and see where you end up. You want to blog? Blog. You want to write a book? Write a book. Indeed, this blog is part of that experimentation that I’m doing for myself, as I try to find the most rewarding way to explore my talents, make an impact, and perhaps ultimately find some personal meaning and fulfillment in the work I do.

…That all being said… I’ve nothing against role models, and Kent, I’d be totally up for a chat. 😉

(Intel is a trademark of Intel Corporation. This is my personal blog and my opinions are purely my own.)

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