After having just dropped out of university, at 19-years-old; I received a line of advice that changed my life.
On one unforgettable evening, I got to attend a meal that sat some of the world’s leading experts on food health and safety. Each of them had flown in from different parts of the world, as they gathered for a board meeting for the scientific journal my father founded. During the dinner, one member of the board, Dr. Joseph Jen (who oversaw four agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Bush administration) turned to me and asked what I was up to. Despite his self-assured nature and intimidating presence, I took the opportunity to honestly inform him that I had just left university upon feeling unchallenged and that I was looking to satisfy my ambitions somehow. I then asked him for his advice as to what to do about the matter.
This is when he uttered the line. The line that would stick with me for years to come. The line that would help focus my efforts as I revisited it time and time again before contemplating a career shift or life decision.
“Think of your career as a toolbox: your job is to fill it with as many tools as possible.”
Years have gone by and you can now find me overseeing the product development, user experience design, and culture for an app company as their VP of Product. How did I end up here? Besides the usual variables outside of my control, like luck; it was in fact my adoption of the Toolbox Strategy that Dr. Jen gave me that one evening in 2016, that uniquely positioned me as a tremendously valuable asset for the job marketplace.
For years, I had worked from the preconceived notion that in order to be any good at something, and thus valuable to the job market, you would need to be a specialist at that very thing. This was a great cause of anxiety for me during my first few days at university.
The course I was about to begin studying was Information and Interface Design (BA). What I had discovered early on, was that all of my coursemates had some classical, academic training in either graphic design or art. Some students had even completed an art foundation year beforehand on the recommendation of the course leader. Meanwhile, there I was, fresh out of school, with no relevant qualifications to hand, having previously studied philosophy, ethics, and English. And in my mind, my lack of a pertinent academic background marked me as doomed. From the very first moment, I felt completely behind. I feared that I would never become a great designer.
But by comparing myself with my coursemates with specialism in mind, I was starting on the wrong foot. I could only see the value that an individual brought to the table through a narrow lens. Over time, however, I began to look at my value in a different manner. With each project, there was a presentation. And with each presentation, I started to see that my mismatch of previous academic experience was giving me a slight edge: for all the research work I did to study different cultures and backgrounds in my ethics class, allowed me to better understand the needs of people I was designing for. All the deep thinking that I did in philosophy made me consider more options as I chose which creative solution I would design. And all the extensive writing I did in English essays, gave me the tools to tell more engaging stories and better explain my process for how I came to my design solutions. These skills didn’t make me a better designer, but the combination of such skills served me in a way that put me paces ahead.
And so, by the end of the year, I was beginning to grasp the underpinnings of the very strategy that Dr Jen would later give me the words for. I was widening my lens. Readjusting my focus. Discovering how the combination of unrelated past experiences was actually serving me this entire time.
I was adopting the Toolbox Strategy. Where your career is a toolbox; and your life is a constant pursuit of various skills and areas of knowledge to fill it with. Then, in order to equip yourself with rare insights, you simply cross-reference your learnings from the pursuit of each tool. Thus making you: uniquely valuable.
Professor of Brand Strategy at NYU, Scott Galloway, advises that in order to be remarkable, you must “develop not just one area of expertise, but two skills that don’t naturally go together.” Galloway compares young careerists to Lindt Chocolate and their ability to bring dark chocolate and chilli peppers together to create something uniquely valuable, as he asks: “what two attributes are you going to bring together that differentiates you?
Develop not just one area of expertise, but two skills that don’t naturally go together - @profgalloway
Likewise, after consulting with a great mentor of mine on a long afternoon walk; he advised me that if I were to be ambitious about anything in my career, it should be to develop what he called: “4 pillars of understanding”. That I should master the practices of four seemingly separate fields to build an amalgamation of ideas that no one else could possess. My mentor of course walked-the-walk before giving such advice as he built a successful business on the back of his specific knowledge in Maths, Computer Science, Economics, and Psychology.
For years, I believed being valuable required creating the largest possible circle of competence. But what I have realised, is that by adopting the Toolbox Strategy, each skill and area of knowledge that you acquire gives you another circle. The unique value that you can then offer the marketplace is clear. It is, in fact, derived not from the circles themselves, but rather from the Venn diagrams you create as the perimeters of your circles’ overlap.
So how do I best acquire my tools?
Work in a startup. This is as prescriptive as my advice can get. And whilst I’m sure there are other ways in which you can develop more than one skill at a time - there is simply no better place in the working world for someone who wants to acquire an abundance of tools for their toolbox. Join one early enough and wearing multiple hats will be the very nature of your job. One day you’ll be designing user flows, another day you’ll be managing product development, and in another, you’ll be figuring out how to better market your product. At a startup, not only will your range of skills acquired be large, but your rate of learning each skill will be rapid. You will learn things by the end of the week that you will wish you had known at the beginning of it.
Seek out uncomfortable jobs. As a designer, it can be tempting to join a company that already has design rooted in their culture. Being the, even the eighth, junior experience designer at Airbnb does seem tremendously exciting and sexy. Thinking about having so many of your colleagues validating your seat at the table is delightful for any creative. In contrast, the thought of joining a company that has never recognised the ROI of design or simply considers it to be a process to make things ‘look nice’ may be completely uninspiring. Thinking about how much you’re going to have to fight for your existence can seem exhausting for prospective creatives.
But be warned. If you take the former job, whilst you’ll leave with an impressive company to flaunt on your CV, you will lack the skills to match the expectation that future employers will have of you. Since you didn’t do the work that made Airbnb known for design in the first place, you will struggle to create any of the impact required from you in the role to justify the pay or title.
For designers, the companies that seem least interested or knowledgable in your field are usually the very best to work for. High risk, high reward. And for anyone else, become the marketer that takes a company from zero-to-one, rather than the tenth marketer who optimises funnels for an already well-known brand and your job will grant you tremendous insight into the very skills that actually help build products, strategies, and companies.
Be okay with not having a linear career. Your goal is to align yourself with learning a range of skills, not with having a slowly progressing series of job titles. As you acquire your range of skills you will find yourself doing different things for very different people. You will be an Associate Customer Success Manager in one company, Junior Marketer in the next, only to find yourself as Head of Product in following. Rather than seeking validation in climbing some invisible ladder that ultimately leads to the same work just with more responsibility and stress, find comfort in the fact that your odd-looking LinkedIn profile is an indicator that you’re likely developing an incredible range of skills.
The same goes for your salary too. To truly develop skills from multiple disciplines, you will be required to walk in and out of companies playing in different markets. Each company will, therefore, look at your CV with differing opinions of your value. This means that if your salary at each position you take in your early career were to be charted on a graph, your line should look less like the sensible, Apple stock price - and more like the volatile, Bitcoin price.
If your salary at each position you take in your early career were to be charted on a graph, your line should look less like the sensible, Apple stock price - and more like the volatile, Bitcoin price.
What’s in your toolbox?
Even now, in my role as VP of Product, I’m very much still in pursuit of tools for my toolbox. I’m constantly studying different fields: including economics, psychology, and brand strategy. I’m making use of deliberate practice to develop new skills such as Interior Design, persuasive writing, and making life operating tools in Notion. It’s not entirely clear to me yet how each of these tools will overlap. Or even if they will at all. But it is most definitely clear that Dr. Jen has given me the ability to be excited about my future. To feel as though I can walk into any interview for any number of roles, and know that what I bring to the table, whilst not always relevant at first glance, will always be of unique value.
So travel far and wide. Never settle your curiosity. Become a multi-hypernate-professional by filling your toolbox with as many tools as you can: and soon enough you will become, as author Tim Ferriss beautifully phrases: “too complex to categorise”.