Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Whose Critical Path Are You On?

These words are pouring out of me almost faster than I can type, and without much editing ...

I just had such a tremendous moment of clarity that captures the essence of all of the interactions I've had with all of my mentors throughout the past 13 years as a student, summer intern, and junior employee in the software industry:

If I was on my mentor's critical path, then they would fight hard to make sure I got the help that I needed to succeed. Conversely, if I wasn't on my mentor's critical path, then I was usually left to fend for myself.

By critical path, I mean the path of work that is critical for their career advancement or fulfillment at the given moment in time.

In my fledgling career so far, I've had 14 formal mentors: 9 research advisors in academia and 5 corporate bosses in industry. And the above statement has held true for every single one of them. It's shocking how consistently this statement has held, given that these 14 people are so, so, so different from one another in terms of personality and working style.

To clarify, when I worked for mentors on projects that were not on their critical path, they were still supportive of my work for the most part, and I'm very grateful to them for their kindness. But since I wasn't on their critical path, it was fully on me to pull them to help me rather than them proactively going the extra mile to guide me along the way.

Now that I'm transitioning to become a research advisor myself, it just became frighteningly clear to me why the bolded statement at the top of this article holds true in such a diverse variety of work environments:

  • Everyone has projects that are on their critical path for career advancement, as well as projects that interest them but aren't on their critical path.
  • Everyone is too busy to devote themselves to all of the projects that they could possibly be working on at any given time.
  • Thus, people naturally filter their attention to focus most on what's on their critical path. They can't help it, since they have limited mental energy.
  • So if you work for someone on a project that is on their critical path, then they are much more likely to devote the effort to ensuring that you succeed.
  • And if you work for someone on a project that's only tangentially interesting to them, then they would like to help you but simply don't have the mental energy to do so, since they're thinking the most about their critical path projects.
  • In the worst-case scenario (which I've seen happen to some friends!), if you're working for someone on a project that opposes their critical path, then they might actually sabotage your project.
    • How the hell could this ever happen? Imagine at a company there are three people: X is the boss of Y, who is the boss of Z. X outlines a broad division agenda and assigns two specific projects to Y. Y takes on one of the projects himself and must delegate the other one to Z, because he can't do both by himself, and probably because his boss X encouraged him to do so. Now Y and Z are working on conflicting projects, even though Y is Z's boss. Y doesn't want Z to succeed, since that will “one-up” him to X, who is his boss. So not only will Y not help Z, he might actively withhold valuable information from Z so that he fails. It's just terrible all around.

The above observations explain such a wide variety of professional interactions, both good and bad, in both in academia and industry, such as how students work with professors as research advisors, how junior employees work with their managers, how middle managers satisfy their next-higher-level managers, and so on up the corporate hierarchy.

So what's the take-home lesson here? If you get on someone's critical path, then you force them to tie your success to theirs, which will motivate them to lift you up as hard as they can. Of course, not everyone is a good mentor, and some might just be cracking the whip to get as much work out of their subordinates as possible. But given that everyone is busy focusing on their critical path, the only possible way to even get a chance of having a good mentor is to get on someone's critical path. Otherwise even the most well-meaning and compassionate person might end up neglecting to give you the attention that you need ... not because they don't like you or your project, but simply because they must focus much harder on projects that are higher-priority to them at the moment.

And just because someone is assigned to be your advisor, manager, or boss doesn't automatically mean that your work is on their critical path. Imagine a manager with five people working under them, some given to them by higher-level forces in the company. Chances are, some will be working on more critical projects, while others will be working on less critical ones. As a junior employee, you want to get on critical projects, since that's how you will get the best help and attention. Or imagine a manager who has already peaked in their career and isn't hungry to tackle any bigger challenges. In other words, they're just comfortably coasting. In that case, they might supervise your projects out of sincere interest; but since you're not on their critical path, they won't be naturally motivated to go the extra mile for you. (Of course, if you want to be more independent and accept the risks that accompany that strategy, then you can purposely get off of your mentor's critical path.)

Finally, I'm not telling you to blindly do what your mentor says without question. On the contrary, I strongly believe that people do their best work when they feel a genuine sense of autonomy and ownership over their projects and aren't just executing on someone else's micromanaged plans like a squishy, meaty computer. So how can you get on your mentor's critical path while still working on a project that you are proud of owning? It's all about working with them to craft ideas that simultaneously appeal to both of you. The best working relationships I've seen are those where the mentor and mentee are on the exact same page and concurrently executing on a shared vision. For more details, read Lead From Below. And good luck!

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Created: 2014-08-26
Last modified: 2014-08-26
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