One of the greatest joys of my job is coaching and mentoring super smart and super ambitious young people.
I find myself doing this a lot lately.
Here’s a common pattern we find at Fab (and, I’m sure, at many startups): Young person leverages his or her brain, passion, ambitions and talents to rise up to a senior role very quickly. They take on a ton of responsibility and they kick ass at it. But, then, invariably, the young superstar hits some sort of a wall. Often it’s a burnout wall. Other times it’s a managing-down wall. Other times it’s a managing-up wall. Other times it’s just a bruised ego. Most of the time though it’s just youth. There’s value and maturity that comes from experience and pattern recognition. And, for young people who rise to the top quickly, there’s a natural impatience that flies in the face of waiting for that experience and pattern recognition to guide the way.
Here’s a quick list of 5 things young people generally don’t know.
Or put another way, here are 5 things I wish I knew 10 years ago.
(Apologies in advance if this comes across as preachy. It’s only meant to be helpful.)
- It’s better to do one thing exceptionally well than to do many things really good. Everyone who knows anything about me knows that I’m a big believer in this “one thing” stuff: Find the one thing in the world that you are the best at and focus on just that one thing. Let other people do the rest.
This is very tough for young rising stars to grasp. There’s this urge to show the world that they can do everything. That’s a mistake. The best you can do is find your one thing and then work with other people whose own one things complement your one thing. One of the biggest signs of maturity amongst young managers is the ability to not be involved in stuff they are not as good at.
News flash: Specialists get farther than generalists. If you want to rise to the top, own something. Be known for something. Have your one thing that you are simply the best at. And own it with pride.
In my career I’ve found that people who have unique talents tend to rise to the top because they offer that unique something that others dont. Now, that unique talent can also be something broad like being a general, or being the the guy whose best at code reviews. My point is that you’ve got to be really good at something, not just kinda good at a lot of things.
I’ve been through this exact experience in my own career. I started off as a generalist and was constantly frustrated that I couldn’t get as much done as I wanted. It was only when I became a specialist that I realized that I had solved the “get shit done” problem. I found my own one thing that I could be the best at and quickly discovered that getting shit done was all in my own hands. (Ok, shit in the hands probably isn’t the best imagery, but hopefully you get the point. If you want to get shit done, own something.)
- It’s ok to say I don’t know. These are the 3 hardest words for a young person to say: I don’t know. Yet, they are three words that are a sure sign of maturity. Guess what? You’re not supposed to know the answer to everything! That’s why we invent stuff everyday. That’s why we take risks. That’s why we make mistakes, and celebrate our mistakes. The simple smart person thinks that saying I don’t know is a weakness. The smart smart person knows that saying I don’t know is the f-in honest truth. Don’t sugar coat it. Just say it as it is. Say I don’t know, then come back with a well researched response.
The young person who pretends that he or she knows all the answers comes across as sneaky and hard to believe. The young person who says I don’t know and then who comes back with smart well though-out answers, earns respect and trust.
- People will do great things for you because they want to, not because they have to. Here’s another lesson I learned the hard way. I used to think that people did things because of chain-of-command — I’m superior to you so you need to do what I say. Not true. People will do things for you because they have to, but they’ll only do great things for you because they want to. That means you need to spend as much time getting your colleagues to like working with you as you do getting them to respect your work.
Just because you are smart will not always mean that you are effective. If you want others to want to do amazing things for you / with you, you need to inspire them and ingratiate yourself to them.
- It’s not the end of the world. Simply put, whatever you made a mistake on today we’ll fix tomorrow. There’s always another release. There’s always another campaign. There’s always another sale. Hopefully, there’s always another customer.
Make mistakes, just don’t f- it up too much.
This gets back to the pattern recognition thing. If you’ve been to battle a few times, shipped code a few times, gotten customer feedback a few times, seen the ups and downs of the process a few times, you come to realize over time that it’s all just part of the process.
The ups and downs are just that, ups and downs — what matters most is the long term shape of the curve.
- It’s not about you.
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