What do you do

Monday, March 1, 2021 by Louie Bacaj

What do any of us do?

The most obvious answer to what we do, for many of us, is that we do what we can and what circumstances and opportunities permit.

For example, I started working at a young age as a busboy because my family needed my help, and we needed money badly as immigrants to this country. Being a busboy wasn't a chosen profession of mine; cleaning tables when people are done eating in a restaurant for tips probably isn’t for most people. Occasionally you get yelled at by the restaurant owner, your waiter, or the customer. It's not all bad, and as a kid, it's nice to help your family and have a little money of your own.

Eventually, if you do it long enough as I did, you could go on to become a waiter. They make it seem hard, but you could learn everything they do as a busboy by watching the waiters work. Then as a waiter, you are no longer at the bottom of the totem pole; you can do a little yelling at the new busboy yourself. Restaurant work is stressful, and they don't say if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen for nothing. Then if your career as a waiter goes well, you could go on to become the maitre d', or the bartender, as I did. My career in the restaurant peaked when I was a bartender and manager on certain days.

When I told them, at the restaurant, I had finished college and was starting my career as a software engineer, they were shocked and said, "Are you crazy? Why would you quit now? You are about to become the main manager of this place."

I do remember dreading the job at different points of my life, and although I was not too fond of certain aspects of it, I also needed the job. It helped me pay for college and all of my expenses. I probably got a lot of good out of it too, getting paid on tips teaches good foundational skills like how to communicate, delight customers, sell, build relationships, and so much more.

The answer to what I was doing at that stage of my life was determined by the opportunities near me and what I could do at the time. Also, I can't rule out that fate and the winds didn't have a part in it either. I think this is the answer for many people but is it the right answer?

What could we do?

So then the question comes back to us, what could we do with our time anyway? I think the answer to this in our modern society, with all of the technology and tools available to us, is a lot. We probably suffer from too much choice.

We could learn new skills from online courses or take classes in person. We could become high-paying software engineers, or designers, through non-traditional methods such as lambda school. We could become writers, poets, artists, journalists. We could teach courses and earn money through the new creator economy. We could sit back and let the money work for us by becoming investors. We could take jobs at startups or big companies alike. We could get paid a lot and get no equity; we could get paid a little and take some equity; it's all up to us.

We could start a business and bootstrap it, raise capital from venture capitalists, or borrow money from the SBA and buy one with debt. Thanks to the internet, we could earn money in more ways today than has ever been accessible to anyone in human history.

We suffer from too much choice. The opportunity cost is high for all of us, even if we never bother to think about it.

What we shouldn't do?

One thing I know for certain whatever you are doing, whether it's busboy, software development, leading people, or starting a company in your spare time, you better make damn sure you are doing the very best you can at what's in front of you. This I know in my bones, even if I don't like what I am doing, I will do the very best I can at it. Don't half-ass anything.

Nobody respects, rewards, or wants to be associated with work that has been half-heartedly done, and I mean nobody. You won't make friends, you won't attract mentors, and it will only make it harder for you to get out of that line of work that you hate and get to do something you enjoy. People will just assume your work ethic. Rather than half-ass it, just quit, or if you can't quit, force yourself to do a good job. Besides, as I already mentioned above, we have far too many choices in our modern world to be half-assing anything.

We probably shouldn't be doing things just for the money either, although many of us have no choice for some periods of our lives. The money is good, but doing something because you love what your doing is far more rewarding.

What do my mentors do?

I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with some great people in my life, and what they did and found worth doing might surprise many people.

Take Enzo, for example, who owned the restaurants I worked in for the earlier part of my life. He would go on to take many risks, open many restaurants, stress, and stretch himself incredibly thin. This, despite having a wildly successful restaurant in The Bronx, the best Italian restaurant in the whole borough in fact, and he probably could've stopped there. He wouldn't stop, though, because he was crazy ambitious, and even when some of the risks didn't pan out, he always salvaged the situation because he was incredibly smart. He licked his wounds, made another deal with the devil, and kept going.

Joe, a good friend and manager at the first legit big tech company I worked at as a software engineer. He quit that job at that company that made software for big banks to start his own making similar software.

Sumaiya, who ran Jet's marketing, an eCommerce startup I joined as an early employee, would become Chief Marketing Officer of all of Walmart after that startup got acquired. I worked closely with her in Jet's early days and learned a lot, watched her create the marketing strategy, set up the playbook that the team could run through, set her small team up for success, and then execute. Much of what I built in those early days for Jet as an engineer was via her direction. Nearly every single thing she asked me to build worked out; she wasn't guessing. Sumaiya ran Walmart's marketing for about a year after the acquisition and then quit. Without another job lined up and without much worry about what she will do next.

Moose, my manager at Jet, helped me grow from an individual contributor to a leader of multiple engineering teams and still gives me great advice to this day. He, too, quit as Executive VP of Engineering for Jet to become CTO at a smaller company. I was fortunate to be a part of his decision-making, and it gets right at the heart of what's worth doing. Moose has principles; he then proceeded to follow those principles as a guide for what he should be doing, even if it meant leaving lots of money behind. That is, once his principles were not aligned with what he was doing, he moved on to do something else.

There is a similar pattern here; all these people are incredibly successful members of society. They might not be famous, but their work has impacted many people's lives in one way or another. What did they all do? They all took on risk, never got complacent, always quit to do bigger things, and if they failed, they just kept going.

So why do I admire these people and count them as mentors? Is it because they quit, had little fear and regard for the money they were risking or leaving behind? Is it because they always did what they thought was right at the time? Maybe it's all of the above, but I admired many of them even before they quit or took on that risk. I admire them because they always do the very best they can with what they have in front of them.

I think there is just a certain type of energy and aura that people on a mission give off, regardless of where you encounter them on their mission. I find that aura to be there even if you don't know their mission and they don’t quite know it yet either; you can just feel their courage and ambition come through it.

What do the titans do?

The titans of our society, the ultra-successful and wealthy, the Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musks of the world all have books written about their lives. Their reasons for why they do what they do, their guiding principles, and their framework for picking what to do is readily available to all of us. I admit that I have probably read far too many books that mentioned these people than I should have, but lucky for you, dear reader, I will try not to bore you and distill it all into a few paragraphs so we can get at the heart of what we should do on our journey together on this world.

Jeff Bezos has a framework for picking what's worth doing and how he decided to do what he did in his life. He calls it the regret minimization framework. The way it works is that we are supposed to project ourselves in the future, or at an old age, look back at the decisions we are about to make, and think will we regret not having done this thing or made this decision? That way, we do things in life that minimize the amount of regret we will have later.

Ben Horowitz talks about doing hard things and you are what you do. As his Wikipedia page says, Ben is an American businessman, investor, blogger, and author. He is also a venture capitalist and co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, also known as a16z. Marc Lore, who I was fortunate enough to work for, talks about setting a goal and then making sure every single day you do the most you can toward achieving that goal. Marc is an entrepreneur recently turned investor. Before that Marc used to work in finance at the big banks, and before that, he was part of an Olympic running team. Will Smith talks about building your life like a wall, brick by brick. Will says all we need to do is focus and lay down each brick to the best of our abilities. Will, of course, started out as a rapper, turned actor, then film producer.

So what should we do?

Dear reader, we are near the end of our journey, and I have to answer the question that I am most frequently asked, what do I do?

Currently, I run a few engineering teams for Walmart; specifically, I run the pharmacy engineering groups out of Hoboken. Which begs the question, why did I stick around after many of my mentors and friends left post-acquisition? The answer to this for me is easy; I have enjoyed working with the people around me. The new domain of Pharmacy was interesting, certainly very different from pure eCommerce. I have felt like I am still growing and learning. On top of all of that, unlike a Startup, at least my nights and weekends have been mine to do with as I please. That means spending time with family and, of course, working on lots of side projects when they go to sleep.

I also write a little bit in my spare time; I am taking a course on becoming a better writer. I have a small passion for real estate, tinkering with technology, and learning. Although I may not be great at many things, I do like to think that I try my very best at whatever I pursue.

However, I think all of this misses the point. While this is what I am currently doing, who knows what I will do next. So then the better question that we should ask of each other is what should we do?

The problem with the modern world's tie-up of self-worth and what we do, or have done, is that this will change for many of us many times throughout our lives. Whether you are a busboy, an engineer, a manager, chances are few of us are trying to do that forever. Nobody does anything forever. Even Jeff Bezos recently stepped down as Amazon's CEO, a cushy role he held since he founded the company. We all have limitless possibilities of what we could do.

When answering what we should do, I could say something cliche like, do something you love, do something you are good at, or just leave it up to fate. None of those would be terrible answers either.

Dear reader, in case you haven't guessed yet, I have no idea what you should do. I do think there are things we can glean from all of this; there is something nice about doing things that will force us to learn and make us grow. There is also something nice about doing things where we will be working with and around smart people. There is something nice about taking risk to grow. There is also that aura and energy we can exude when we get on a mission, that can help us attract other great people to the mission.

But whatever you decide to do, do it fast, and do it well; the faster you do it, the faster you will learn if you like to do it, and the better you will get at it too.