You are not a train, so don’t live your life running along tracks laid by others. Explore the world freely and discover as many possibilities as you can.
At university, I majored in psychology but after graduation became an interaction designer. Since then I have worked as a User Researcher, Product Manager, iOS developer and even as a Project Manager. I never thought I would learn so many things … but it did happen ... and I it has been a great journey.
What forces us to obey convention and limit our growth? Role is one factor. While clear expectations and responsibilities of a role are the signs of maturity of the organization, blindly following a role’s parameters keeps you on a track defined by others. The benefit of having clearly defined roles is that it’s easy to choose a specific direction in which to develop. The disadvantage is that you will forget that “your role” is just a tag. Should we limit ourselves by these tags? Don’t we want to learn anything beyond the realm of the role or that tag?
The other slippery path is sticking to what you already know. Refusing to leaving your comfort zone and discover unfamiliar territories will keep you on the tracks stop you from exploring further. When you master a specific skill set in a specific area, you are likely to be confident. You arrive at a solution quickly, irrespective of the complexity of the situation. But the situation is likely to be completely different when you are dealing with a completely new domain requiring different skill sets or experience. Suddenly you don’t know how to kick-start action or what to do next. The quality of your work may suffer and you consider giving up and going back to your comfort zone.
I hadn’t realized how these factors were limiting my world prior to joining Thoughtworks. But one day after I joined this company, I was inspired suddenly by Hu Kai, the erstwhile Office Principal of Xi'an and now Managing Director of Thoughtworks China. He ran a session about his work journey, telling several stories about leaving the comfort zone, which in turn enabled him to meet greater challenges.
He talked about the feeling of panic while treading carefully into a new domain but also of the sense of achievement after conquering the challenge. ‘I have never worked as Project Manager (PM), but that project needed a PM and my leader told me that I was the most suitable person on the team to take that role. It made me quite nervous, but I took on the role.’, Hu Kai said then.
That’s when I realized I’ve stayed too long on someone else’s track. I was avoiding taking on new roles on any project. I let myself run along comfortably as an interaction designer. It was very familiar and I feared being laughed at if I took on a new role like visual designer.
It was around this time that one of my colleagues wanted to build a website to help people borrow books from each other. He sent an internal email asking for a visual designer on the team. I was both excited and nervous, eventually convincing myself to undertake this challenge. At the time, I had no idea about the fine points of color, visual style and so on. In order to meet the commitments, I researched a lot online. Today I’m rather critical of that design, but back then, when I had showed it to my teammates, they encouraged me immensely.
After that, I explored a growing variety of new activities that I wouldn’t have experimented with in the past. When I wanted to make an iPhone APP for the hearing and speech-impaired community, I asked our lead consultant Wenbo Liu to teach me Objective-C coding. He joked saying ‘Wow, a UXer is trying to snatch a programmer’s job!’ When a tough project needed a PM urgently, I wore the PM’s hat all while seeking help from and leaning on senior PMs. We finally got the job done with several terrific developers. When we needed a hardware device to enhance the hearing and speech impaired person’s user experience, I requested the hardware expert to teach me how to weld.
All these project were fulfilling experiences to say the least! I’ve discovered that growth is a process of challenging yourself. First, be aware that you are not a train. You don’t only run on tracks laid by others. Second, you won’t learn anything if you just stick to your comfort zone. Break away from existing constraints.
Finally, be mindful of the type of company you work at. Many mature companies aren’t anxious to for you to experiment on their grounds. Pick those where off-beat ideas are encouraged. Enforced even. Find a place where your biggest asset is a community of of friends who will encourage and support you. They will give you the courage you need to keep going one step further.
My first leader, Chen Jinzhou, once said that “People want to be free, but once they get it, they often don't know how to walk without direction given by the others”. The challenges of life are endless. When your direction isn’t determined by someone else, all you need is a strong heart to guide you ahead and an even stronger will to not give up!
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.