Managing yourself

One game-changing decision that can shape your career

As a team lead, you’ve spent years honing your craft and internalizing lessons from mentors that have, no doubt, shaped your career. While your chances of going back in time are slim (unless you’re Marty McFly), you can help your less-experienced teammates better understand the decisions they have in front of them, and mentor them to choose the path that will ultimately help them succeed. A few weeks ago, we hosted a group of speakers at the Asana offices who shared their most valuable career lessons, including one that may surprise you.

Choose breadth over specialization first

Early in your career, you probably had no idea what your life would be like 5, 10, 20 years from then. Given how quickly technology evolves, your profession may not have even existed. Our panelists emphasized the importance of encouraging team members not to specialize early on — particularly in a field that is rapidly changing — so as not to find themselves trapped by their own specialization and pigeon-holed into a career they’re less excited by.

Think of your career as the letter T

Being T-shaped in our approach to learning throughout our careers can be really valuable. When we’re first starting out in the ‘real world,’ it’s important to focus on acquiring knowledge horizontally — the kind that won’t become outdated as soon as the next programming language becomes the new ‘it’ thing. As we move down the vertical bar of the T and progress in our professions, we can begin to develop more niche skills — those that will help differentiate us in a crowded market.

Focus on acquiring a variety of horizontal skills in the beginning of your career. You’ll not only stay versatile, but also glean a better understanding of the work you naturally gravitate to, which you can specialize in later on.

Learn how to learn

In order to maximize early years on the job, figuring out the best way to learn a broad variety of skills is perhaps the best thing your mentee can do for their career. Everyone’s learning style is different but there are some ways all of us can train ourselves to learn more effectively and efficiently.

  1. Read voraciously. Our panel of experts all agreed that reading is key to learning. The more we read — and the more we read about different subjects — the easier learning will become.
  2. Think about common problems. Encourage your teammates/mentees to not just focus on learning specific skills or concepts — but rather approach learning from the perspective of understanding frameworks and different ways of thinking through common problems. This technique will help them grok a broader range of subjects and better position them to tackle new ones down the road.
  3. Learn by applying. Motivate less experienced teammates to figure out what their fantasy profession/role/project is and zero in on whatever they have to learn to get to that dream project. Tell them to start doing, then go back and systemize.
  4. Optimize for learning really fast. “The best thing I ever learned was how to learn really fast,” Sam Altman told the crowd at Asana. Although Sam conceded that starting early with breadth and acquiring a horizontally-oriented skillset was a good idea, he emphasized that focus is underrated. Learning a little bit of everything early on could prove to be super important long-term, but finding something they’re truly good at and moving full-force in that direction is not necessarily a mistake. If a teammate chooses to go deep in one area and they’re sure (really sure) of their direction, they could be on their way to a long and inspiring career.

Spend your early days on the job trying to really understand what it is you’re passionate about. If you’re unsure, learn as much as you can, as fast as you can. If you find yourself gravitating to a particular area of focus, don’t neglect those feelings — dive in and dive deep, and know that there’s always a possibility you may need to start over.

Focus is underrated. There are not enough people getting deep enough, pushing the boundary of discovery forward in one area.

There is no one right path to success and many of our roads will meander. But these simple lessons can help teammates you’re mentoring find success, regardless of where their career may take them.

What advice would you give your younger self?

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