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Know Your Limits

A little over a week ago I roughed up my back moving sound equipment after a ministry event. I have tried to take it easy, but truth be told, I've not rested it like I should have. There's always so much going on that "resting" is usually not an option (and everyone knows that's not true, but it's the little lie we tell ourselves). This past Sunday, I dug up a garden area where we used to have these ugly bushes. The folks that take care of our lawn offered to pull them up for free. They are neighbors of ours and it gave them an excuse to bring the four-wheeler to work. They had fun yanking out those bushes! And when they were done, there were several areas where soil needed to be turned over and nourished to make for flower beds. One of those areas was my project on Sunday. Unfortunately, those bushes throw out a lot of feathery roots all over the place. So while the bushes were easy to remove, part of getting the soil ready meant going at it with a pick and removing all the remnants. I was looking to do so because my six year-old daughter wanted to plant sunflowers. We got it all done, but I was hurting afterwards. I didn't realize how much I had overdone it until Monday morning rolled around.

Yesterday I went into work very miserable. I made it through the day but I'll admit that the last hour or so was an eternity. As the day wore on, my back got tighter and tighter and therefore more and more sore. So the first moment I could, I shot out of work, drove home, found the heating pad and the ibuprofen, and hit the bed. My body was overloading on pain, something I hadn't experienced in a few years, and when that happens the best thing I can do is just sleep. So that's what I did, for four hours. I got up, made it through the rest of the evening and woke up this morning still in pain. My wife was able to massage some of the muscles in my back, enough so I could get going in and take a shower. But when I got out and coughed, I almost went to my knees. I felt the muscles tighten up and I knew driving into work wasn't a smart idea.

Unfortunately, I was scheduled to teach a class today on understanding and analyzing web traffic. And I was supposed to give my Windows Internals presentation to my SQL Server user group, Midlands PASS. And tomorrow I was supposed to give a speech for Toastmasters. I weighed the idea of going in late, doing the class, going home, then heading to the user group, and then trying to do the speech without a whole lot of practice tomorrow. That's the way I think... what do I have to do and how can I do that even if I'm in no condition to really be doing any of it? And then I stopped.

The reason I was in a world of hurt was because I didn't take it easy on my back in the first place. Trying to meet that schedule and not giving proper rest to my back would just mean I would continue the condition. Not exactly a smart thing to do. So I called in to work (via email) and said I'd be working from home. I got the trainng class postponed until next Tuesday, the user group meeting to the Tuesday thereafter, and I gave up my speaker slot for Toastmasters. I didn't want to do any of these things but I knew in the long run I needed to in order to get my back healthy. There are too many things riding on it, like my own personal fitness goals. As long as my back is in this state, what I can do is limited. Like the work around the house we've been pushing to get done. Moving furniture, working in the yard, putting up closet organizers, disassembling furniture, and the like don't happen with a bad back. I could go on, but I think you see my point. My back is telling me there's a limit to what I should do right now. I'd be wise to listen to it.

In life, especially in our careers, we have to know our limits. As a SQL Server DBA I'll be the first to say that I'm pretty good on security, especially when we cross domains into Active Directory (pun intended). After all, I did AD work for 7 years. But if you ask me to do any sort of specialized stuff in SSAS, I'm going to tell you that I don't know it that well. That's not to say I can't learn it, but I won't commit to something I can't possibly meet. If you need it quick, you need someone else. If you can afford to let me have the time to look into it, then I'll probably figure it out. What I don't want to do is tell you I can do it and then fail to deliver. If you know your limits, you have the ability to set expectations in others as to what you can deliver and when.

Knowing your limits is key to growth, too. If you know your limits well, you know what kinds of things to try and take on, and what kinds of things to look for help in. Asking for help and then digesting it is a good opportunity to expand yourself. Not only that, but if you know your limits and you don't like where they are, you have the ability to set goals and put a plan together to overcome those limits. Once upon a time I didn't know how to read a network trace. Now I do and I find the ability to do so very, very helpful. But it came down to me admitting that I wasn't able to troubleshoot where a problem might have been because I didn't know how to read the trace. I intentionally worked on it and got better at it to where one of the first things I want to see when I troubleshoot communications or delay problems is that network trace.

Finally, knowing your limits helps you realize the abilities and skills of those around you. If you know someone is a T-SQL guru, and you're not, then you begin to appreciate what that person brings to the table. That increases your respect for said person and be more likely to ask for help when you really need it. As you start to see the respective abilities of the folks around you, and as you begin to appreciate them more, that helps the whole team dynamic. Chances are that as you start showing those folks more respect due to your growing appreciation for their skill, they'll return the favor. And that leads to a more tightly integrated, self-less, and functional team. You can't go wrong with that.

K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Steve Jones on 10 May 2011

Excellent advice, and I'd add a bit more. Know when to reset your limits. I learned over the years that I did less and less with hardware, and I wasn't qualified to actually mess with the pieces and parts of many servers or PCs. I've started to acknowledge my limit is lower and ask for help.

The same physically. I don't steal bases in baseball anymore, and I have lowered all my limits in sports. It's safer, and ultimately while I can work hard, I don't want to find those limits anymore as I get older. I just push and stop before I hit a wall or break anything.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 10 May 2011

I agree.  Knowing your abilities and the abilities of those on your team is overall good practice.  It's ok to step out and try to learn a bit more - but know when to ask for help.

Posted by Martin Catherall on 11 May 2011

Some good advice. I think part of knowing your limits is learning to prioritise and be able to pass off work to others when we have too much - there's a lot be be said for being part of a good team. Also, wanting to study too many new topics can ultimately lead to studying no one thing well. A good read.

Posted by Mark Horninger on 12 May 2011

Well said Brian!

Posted by Mark Horninger on 12 May 2011

Well said Brian!

Posted by lbtrudeau on 12 May 2011

Use Icy/Hot on your back. It works wonders.

Posted by Dwayne on 12 May 2011

A tip from my chiropractor. For back pain, you may be better off using ice as opposed to a heated pad.

Posted by lowec on 12 May 2011

I admit I didn't know where the article was going but glad I read to the end. We all recognize the title as a general Cliché but thanks Brian for the practical examples which works well to remind us knowing your limits applies to all areas. I venture to say we have not often reassessed concerning our job responsibilities in doing what is best for the team, the company as well as ourselves.

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