Motivated People Don't Need a Job Title

15 Jan 2018 Gregory J. Stein
Tags Editorial

After making quick progress during a summer I spent doing research at Sandia National Labs before my senior year of college, I was invited (at the very last minute) to present at a conference one of my mentors was helping to organize. Rather than pay dues for the conference, I was flagged as a student volunteer. However, while the other 30 students were all pre-assigned specific tasks from a grid, as a late addition, I was not. Instead, I was told “just make yourself useful”, with the expectation that I wouldn’t do very much.

Having students staffing academic conferences is pretty common practice; they do not have to worry about paying for the registration and have an opportunity to interact directly with the high-profile researchers organizing the conference.

The reality was entirely different.

Instead of sitting on my hands during my requisite volunteer time, I walked around the conference looking for problems. One of the student volunteers who was staffing the registration table had not yet eaten lunch: I took her place for 40 minutes so she could go grab food; a VGA cable in one of the conference rooms was occasionally failing: I talked to the venue staff and found a working one; the list goes on. After a couple days of this, I became the de facto student coordinator: whenever someone had a problem they couldn’t resolve on their own, their response was “go find Greg”. If one of the students wanted to excuse themselves from their volunteer assignment so that they could attend a specific talk, they would ask me for permission.

It was only because I was the sole volunteer without specific tasks that I was able to accomplish twice as much as anyone else.

Google’s famous 20% time reflects this idea: motivated people need time to act on their creativity.

In moving through my career, I have taken this lesson to heart. Too many times, I have seen brilliant and hard-working people constrained by the tasks they’ve been assigned. Resist the impulse to overburden these people. Having too many specific tasks is limiting and can stymie the creative impulses that give rise to fantastic employees. Finally, try reducing the load on the employees you already have and instead encourage them to simply look for problems to solve. You may be surprised at what they’re able to accomplish.

I welcome your comments below or on Hacker News.