You should probably stop reading and stop going to meetups

When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn't change by the man that's elected
If you're loved by someone, you're never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it
- The Avett Brothers, "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise"

In November-ish of last year, I was lost. Not the sad sort of lost where you’re wandering around in a daze, but a sort of musingly confused lost. I had experienced a spurt of crazy personal growth while moonlighting for Routeam that had propelled me forward as an engineer, then experienced another spurt when I took my first full-time front-end engineering role, but I hadn’t had anything after that for almost eight months. I no longer felt like I was producing excellent work that was pushing me forward.

Around that time, I asked a mentor (name changed to Dave to protect the innocent) for help. I cannot be thankful enough to Dave for this - he did not know me very well but was still willing to take some time out of his day to talk career advice with a budding engineer. I’m paraphrasing our conversation below to get to the good parts:

Joe: Dave, I built a v1 of a startup product about a year ago, I've built some reasonably complex Python projects since then, I'm not a bad front-end engineer, but I'm stuck. How do I get to the next level as an engineer? What do I need to read or study to move forward? 

Dave: Stop going to meetups, and stop reading a bunch of stuff on the Internet. Go talk to people, and go build things. 

The dichotomy between where I was mentally and where I needed to be could not be more stark. At the time, I was lost because I wanted there to be some how-to guide, some magic blog post that I’d read on the Internet that could tell me where to go. I think those things are amazing for engineers as they’re starting out in their careers, but eventually you have to graduate past them. You have to pick something you love doing, and you have to go do it.

Meetups get in your way here. You start going to meetups with the purest of intentions. You want to learn about new technical topics (good) and you want to meet new people in the technology scene (good). But eventually they turn on you. You start to realize that you’ve accumulated enough expertise in a meetup’s subject matter that you’re not learning anything new, and you start to realize that the same people are showing up to the same meetups. You do not have time for this. You need to be building things.

Reading gets in your way here too. When you’re in this mental state of limbo, your reading choices start to represent that mental state. You slowly shift away from “I’m going to hunt for this bit on cybersecurity in Django that would help me with a project RIGHT NOW” to “I should read about Clojure. I don’t know how to program in Clojure and I don’t have any serious plans to learn, but I should read about it.” Your reading becomes a way to dodge taking real action.

To advance past this mental state, you have to make a choice. You have to choose something that you’re going to invest in, and you need to double down. It might be learning a brand new language, or a new framework, or a new use case for a language you already know. Whatever you choose, it’s going to require a lot of dedicated cognitive resources. And meetups and scatterbrained reading will suck up those cognitive resources.

So if you’re in that mental place, I urge you - pick up a hard problem. Turn off the distractions to solve it. That’s the only way to break through.