Be prepared to suck at something new

Many of us have been conditioned to see our careers as linear.  Specialise in an area, master the skills required, and progress up the ladder.  Perhaps make some lateral moves but in service to moving upwards ultimately.

There’s plenty of great business thinking that challenges this mindset – such as the Squiggly Careers books by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis.  We know that a job for life is a concept from decades ago, and that we may have to work well past 65.  If we’re in good health and there’s opportunities available.  And we’ve heard about ‘portfolio careers’ and perhaps about the idea that we should be prepared to see our income go up and down as we navigate shifts that give our careers longevity.

And yet, particularly in the times of uncertainty we are still traversing with Covid-19, even in this time of the ‘Great Resignation’, there is a tendency to feel the need to play it safe – to venture into familiar territory.  After all, many recruitment processes are predicated upon demonstrating relevant past experience.

But if we want  – or need – our careers to last the distance, it does seem that we need to become more comfortable with shaking off the comfort blanket of the familiar, and trying new things that challenge us.

I’m no expert in this.  I don’t mean this to be some sort of career development #humblebrag.  My lack of expertise is the point, actually. 

Through Covid, something has propelled me to seek new experiences in work and co-curricularly.  Perhaps it was the prospect and process of turning 40 in the pandemic.  I’ll admit, I’ve found myself increasingly unsettled by the various awards that celebrate young high achievers, and opportunities that had suddenly closed down because I was deemed too far into my career.  Or seeing countless founders who set up their businesses while barely out of education.  Suddenly I felt on the ‘wrong’ side of the coin.

Ridiculous, really. What I’ve learned through throwing myself into novel challenges over the pandemic is how important it is to keep trying to learn.  Just the act of attempting something different is hugely beneficial in itself.

Over the pandemic I’ve done… a bunch of stuff.  Mostly to a mediocre standard.  Sometimes badly.  A few things have struck me.

Breaking your mental models

My trickiest mental models to break have been tech-related.   In my day job, I could navigate the server on autopilot.  I knew exactly how to do everything I needed on my Lenovo laptop and familiar MS Office programs.  Across various other undertakings I’ve had to figure out how to use Google Docs, Notion, Trello, bespoke university tuition platforms, Slack and more.  And everything on my personal Mac rather than my trusted work PC. 

I’ve been astonished at how much I’ve struggled to use different systems.  By how slow I’ve been.  But I’ve persevered because I’ve had to, and now I’m really glad I have because I feel less daunted to try new technology.  And I feel like I’ve challenged my brain in a simple but important way.  It might seem basic but it feels like a valuable process at 40.

Trying something really different

There is nothing so confidence-building in work as doing something that appears on the surface to bear little relation to your background and training.  For me, this has been getting involved in a startup.  I’ve never worked in a startup.  There was a job description but it didn’t totally match what I could deliver part-time, so we figured out something else.  I’m not sure I’ll deliver what I set out to, but that’s startup life.  It’s a constant process of learning, adapting, trying different angles.  Being prepared to fail, and being ready to change your thinking.  It’s been an incredible developmental opportunity and I just hope I give the startup a little more than I’ve got out of the process.

Not taking knowledge for granted

In my day job, I’ve been used to working with people who talk the same language, and whose experience shortcuts the need to explain why X needs to be done in a certain way; why Y is the only option; why Z is a good result.  Even in working with diverse clients across sectors across a wide range of briefs, there’s so much more common ground than I tended to recognise.  In various work-related side projects, I’ve encountered people with different sorts of backgrounds, who don’t bring the same expectations to the table, and it’s been such a useful lesson in a) challenging your assumptions and b) justifying your thinking better.

Meeting new people

This relates to the above point.  Especially in the studies I’ve done, I’ve collaborated with people from different industries, in diverse roles.  I’ve been astonished by the talent I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with in educational projects, and really enjoyed working in teams with interesting people I would never normally cross paths with, and learnt so much from them.  I’ve often felt like the stupid one in the virtual room, and that’s been a good thing, if uncomfortable.

Embracing the joy of learning

I’d seen studies as a thing of the past.  I had hoped to do a Masters alongside work recently but struggled to find the time and headspace to process the application, which told me something about the dedication I could bring to the course itself. This had weighed on me as a failure. 

But of course now – and especially thanks to the increased shift towards virtual learning as a result of the pandemic – there’s a wide range of courses we can do.  Some are free, many don’t cost much at all relative to embarking upon a degree.  Most business schools offer diverse virtual short courses in really interesting topics.  I know by most people’s standards I’m not old at 40 but the very act of finding myself back studying – and most recently at my undergraduate university too – has been an incredibly energising experience. 

Unquestionably I’ve sometimes bitten off more than I can chew.  I’ve not engaged my brain fully in everything I’ve done.  I’ve not always figured out how to strike the right balance between rigour and efficiency.  Sometimes I’ve wasted my time, sometimes I’ve skirted over stuff I should have pored over more closely.  

I’ve also had to make trade-offs and haven’t been as physically active in the past couple of years as previously, as my waist-line will testify.  But thanks to the ongoing virtual way of working, no-one needs to see that for now.

Overall, I’ve learned so much from sucking at trying new things.  And I resolve to do much more to a mediocre standard in 2022.  I encourage you to do so as well.