From George Leonard's book, the appropriate excerpt.
The Hacker has a different attitude. After sort of getting the hang of a thing, he or she is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. He doesn't mind skipping stages essential to the development of mastery if he can just go out and hack around with fellow hackers. He's the physician or teacher who doesn't bother going to professional meetings, the tennis player who develops a solid forehand and figures he can make do with a ragged backhand. At work, he does only enough to get by, leaves on time or early, takes every break, talks instead of doing his job, and wonders why he doesn't get promoted.
school vs my previous job
In my previous job, the one I had before I moved back to India, this was me to perfection. Except I was completely clear on it and did it intentionally. I did enough to get by, maintain a reasonably good standard of work - quality and timeliness but had zero ambition as I did not see a future in my career doing what I was doing. In fact, this is the role I've played a bit too much in my life, going back to school. I'd do enough studying to get a reasonable score in the exams, I played cricket reasonably well enough to be on the school team - hacker of many, master of none. The crucial difference between doing this in my teens vs in my late 20s as I was unaware while doing the former and aware in the latter.
Being a hacker during school taught me a lot of bad habits, ones I've spent a lot of time trying to get out of. Being a hacker at my last job where I clearly had a plan played a crucial part in where I am today - I spent every waking moment thinking, reading, devouring fitness and nutrition - blogs, videos, training plans, books. I'd block my calendar between 12 pm to 1.30 pm, during which time I'd go and lift at the gym and come back to my desk and eat at my desk and work at the same time. I can't recall staying late at work or ever having to do work on the weekend.
For many years, I was just a hack playing Ultimate frisbee. I knew to do a couple of things well and as my work-life got busy and I started to spend lesser and lesser time practicing, I'd revert to just the one or two tricks I had when I was out on the field. While I recognised it, I did not do anything about it. There are essentially three options - practice, or stop, or continue being a hacker and play at the appropriate places. All are fine options coz it depends on what makes me happy and what works for me. And I realised I was not having fun on the frisbee field anymore and made the sensible call to stop playing. Until then, it was fun to play a sport with my friends but now that I can look back with a bit more clarity, I realise I should've stopped a few years before.
Being a hacker at certain things can be productive and useful. In one case personally, as I explained above, it allowed me to have the time and space to work on what I wanted to work on.
Playing badminton, for example, with friends might dictate that you be a hacker. You are just out there having fun with your buddies, playing at the same level you always have. Goofing around, having a reasonably competitive game but not trying to get better at it by taking coaching lessons and what-not. You find the level you want to be at and enjoy being there because it serves the purpose.
In places where it does not serve the purpose though, it is important to be aware and take the appropriate call. Places where you are just fooling yourself and/or wasting your time.
What reading this book reiterated for me, and I hope it does for you as well, is to recognise what you are in which situations in your life. What persona are you taking up over where? Then, using that lens to figure out what you want to do.
Not happy with how your career is progressing? Well, are you just hacking your way around? If so, what else do you think is gonna happen?
Not happy with how crazy your work hours are and a lack of relationships outside and in life? Well, maybe the Obsessive comes into play over there.
There's a time and a place for each persona. To be obsessive when you are the founder of a startup, for example. Mark Cuban talks about not taking a vacation for 4 years. There are 1000s of such stories.
But you got to know when to stop. You got to know when it has outlived the usefulness.
And for things you truly care about, the long-term is to aim for mastery. To be a student. More on that next week.
A useful exercise for you to do might be to look at 3 things in your life and see which one of the three you fall under in each of them. You don't have to do anything more - knowing and being aware might be all that you need to do.