As far as metaphors go, there are no greater cliches than using treading water to represent staying in one given place in your personal or professional life. However, every once in a while, the metaphor is warranted, so I hope you will not begrudge me using it. I use it now not to describe whether or not treading water is lame or counterproductive. I think that it is fairly obvious that not having a direction or reaching for something is a universally panned activity. At the very least, we pay lip service to trying to find your passion, and swimming against the current as if they were they were virtuous in their own right.
My invocation of this metaphor is much more centered on the idea that treading water is quite probably dangerous in addition to generally being a bad tactic for achieving what you want in your life.
Imagine for a moment that there are two people in an office. This office has a number of IT professionals, trainers/teachers, management, and support staff. It is generally a high functioning office in that people show up to meetings on time, everyone seems to like each other enough to be civil, and people get paid on time. The first person in this office does not blog, tweet, podcast, post status updates on facebook or connect with anyone on LinkedIn in a professional capacity. The second person does have this kind of connected online presence. Both get a decent amount of work done within their teams and they have been reviewed well in the past few years. Up until this point, there is very little difference between the two of them.
I would like to make the case that the person who does not have an online presence is treading water. While he may be advancing his career, there is no record outside of the office that this is the case. His general direction is measured based upon exactly what the company’s general direction is. So, while the company may be moving forward (perhaps even as a result of his efforts), he is still really in the exact same spot within the company. The ocean waves are moving, not him.
I would also like to make the case that the second person has a direction. Through her daily tweets and weekly blog posts, she is reflecting on what has transpired within her job. She is asking questions and finding answers for what is going on within her profession. Her forward momentum always outpaces that of the company. Even when the company has a major setback, her network keeps her legs churning and her arms moving through the water with intense energy.
So, why is the first person dangerous for treading water?
This first person is dangerous because you can’t tread water forever. Eventually you have to reach solid ground or you will drown. This person is even more dangerous because he will drown others while he is trying to stay afloat.
If you have no external voice through a modern network, you are easily outsourced. If your company doesn’t know that losing you will have the effect of losing all of the experts that go along with you, you are sunk. If your work stays within the confines of the company, credit is easily obfuscated.
Treading water isn’t a strategy for the future, it is simply a method of keeping your head above water. The danger of not posting or preparing a presence online is that you cannot represent yourself or your company to the people that need to see it. You cannot be an advocate for the things that your school district needs in order to to keep on working. In essence, if you are not sharing what it is that is important to you and your office, you are going to bring it down. If you have other competitors (and you are kidding yourself if you think you don’t), they will win. If you can’t place yourself into the great evaluative system that is the web, there is little chance for people to see that you have any value.
While this metaphor may be wearing quite thin at this point, I think it bears repeating. If you are treading water in your job or in your life, you are a danger to yourself and others.