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Surgeon vs Secretary

What to do when you're good at everything

Megan Preston Meyer
Megan Preston Meyer

The Surgeon versus the Secretary problem goes like this:

There’s a surgeon, and he’s the best brain surgeon in the world. He can also type 120 words a minute; this guy’s just gold at whatever he touches. His secretary is a great guy, too, and also pretty good at his job – he can type 70 words a minute.

But the brain surgeon is better. He could type 50 more words a minute: 3,000 more words an hour, 24,000 more words over the course of a workday. That’s, like, half a book.

The brain surgeon would objectively be the better secretary, assuming the metric is how many curly little sheets of paper you can fill with typewriter text. But he leaves that to his employee, sacrificing 6,000,000 words over the course of a year.

Why? Because the secretary can’t do brain surgery.

Six million typed-up words is nothing compared to the countless procedures that the second-best brain surgeon would botch if our hero was taking dictation instead of giving it. It’s opportunity cost, plain and simple.

So what’s the opportunity cost of the work that you’re doing? Are you stuck coding when you could be leading? Or are you stuck leading when you should be coding? Are you adding the most value you can add?

If not, why not?

Sometimes, it's your boss

Sometimes, you boss just refuses to promote you. Maybe she hates you – but more likely, it’s because there’s a whole team of neurosurgeons and you’re the only one in the secretarial pool.

You may have the potential for greatness such that the world has never seen, if you could just lead a team/take on a more strategic role/not have to deal with pesky end-users all day, but if that particular flavor of greatness doesn’t align with the corporate objectives, it’s not going to happen. Companies (sorry) don’t exist to optimize your career trajectory.

Companies hire to fill gaps that they’re experiencing. If you’ve been hired recently, or hired for a specific skill-set, then you’re likely adding the most value you can to the company already. If they had needed a Senior Enterprise Architect, they would have said that. They needed a Front-End Developer, and you took the job, so front-end-develop you shall… at least for a little while.

You don’t have to do it forever – just until the gap no longer exists or until you can make a strong enough case that you can add more value elsewhere in the organization. But if neither of those conditions has been fulfilled, promoting you out of your gap will just leave it wide open again. Unless your boss is some sort of Whack-a-Mole enthusiast (weird), they’re probably not going to go for it.

So what do you do?

Well, here’s what not to do: Don’t be the guy your boss can’t live without. The #1 reason people get pigeon-holed into a job they don’t love is because they do it too well.

Don’t hoard your knowledge. Don’t make yourself indispensable. Document everything you do, be transparent about the work involved, and share your best practices with anyone who will listen. Make it easy to fill your gap so promoting you to greatness makes business sense.

Sometimes, it's you

Sometimes your boss holds you back from achieving your true potential – but sometimes, it’s you. It’s easy to sit at our consoles and fantasize about how far we could go if there weren’t all these external forces holding us back… but objects at rest tend to remain at rest.

Doing what you’re good at is easy and comfortable; trying new things is scary and hard. So even though you‘d probably be really, really good as a writer/speaker/career-advice blogger, you sign yourself up for yet another Senior CRM/BI Analyst role and think maybe this time you’ll be happy.

I’m not saying you will be or you won’t be; I’m not advocating either way. This is not a Follow Your Dreams and Do What You Love thing where I tell you to throw the typewriter out the window and go cutting into people’s brains willy-nilly1 because you’ll find it more fulfilling.

Sometimes, we’re secretaries, and sometimes we’re surgeons. The trick is identifying which one you are currently and which one the company needs. After that, decide whether you truly want to move up, and if so, how much you’re willing to invest in getting there.

So do your analysis. Look at the opportunity cost – for you and for your boss. If you’re a secretary, either commit to being the best damn secretary the world has ever seen, or else convince your boss that the value you’d add as a neurosurgeon is greater than the gap you’d leave behind.

Then put in the work, put down your pencil, pick up your scalpel, and surge.

1 I AM VERY MUCH NOT ADVOCATING THAT and accept no liability whatsoever