Here’s an exchange that occurred just the other day: colleague A asked colleague B for some help in PowerPoint. B says, “It’s easy, I’ll show you how to do it.” A immediately objects: “I don’t want to know how to do it, can you just do it for me?”

The dialogue continued for a while, with A not happy to have to learn something new and B not happy to become A‘s lackey.

The traditional twist in a story like this is to say that in fact I was Colleague B. Only I wasn’t. And no, I wasn’t A either. But the whole conversation put my teeth on edge.

This is a supposedly smart and experienced guy but he shows a complete unwillingness to both learn something new and to be self-sufficient.

This is whatever is the complete opposite of a winning combination is called.

I have regularly come across both traits in my working life. Most often you get the Java programmer who is only interested in Java. These are usually career programmers, people who are in the industry because it pays the bills and little more. There is nothing wrong with that of course. Do people ever get passionate about accountancy? Actually, probably some do, but my point is that to most it’s a job.

However that kind of outlook is limiting. Lapsing into cliché for a second: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This isn’t a problem most of the time. Usually getting the job done is enough. But for the really interesting problems a little Lisp or functional programming or the dining philosophers can make all the difference.

My colleague didn’t even want to learn more about PowerPoint which, given his position, pretty much should have been his job.

But an unwillingness to learn new stuff would have been fine had he been able to work unaided. Unfortunately he needed pretty much constant support. Everything from PowerPoint to making a cup of tea required someone else’s help. Naturally, it wasn’t an inability to make tea rather he was unwilling to do so.

The key here is that it’s not about ability. In your first few weeks in a job there are going to be lots of things that you need to ask about, lots of things that you need help with. But what I really hate to see is an unwillingness to learn, a lack of intellectual curiosity and no desire to be self-sufficient.