‘Growth is a jungle gym’ and other work anniversary reflections

28 November 2022

Of all the questions I’ve been asked about my career, the most popular one is, “you’re a writer — why did you choose to work in a product consultancy?” You’d think I would have a philosophical answer, but I have a material one. I applied to Obvious’ Content Specialist job opening because my previous job was a bust, I needed to supplement my income, and I really liked their vibe.

I'm staying, though, for completely different reasons.

Two years probably isn’t a terribly long time to be at a company (my father's record is 15 years). But two years pan out differently in different places. In fact, the two working years before these two working years (wrap your head around that) were characterised by burnout and a lack of inspiration. So what's made the last few years at Obvious meaningful?

Somewhere on that list are the office space and the surprise book boxes we get every year (hey, I'm a material girl). But in complete sincerity, the item that tops the list is the sheer amount I've learnt in just 2 years.

There's plenty related to craft, sure. But there's truckloads more I've learnt to do thanks to having a great mentor, working with creatively-charged people and just being a fly on the wall in casual conversations. I'm thinking this is going to be an account of that.

I began thinking of writing as design

Great communicators are often a team's last line of defence against ambiguity and misinformation. Writing is far more than fighting over where to put the comma in “thanks to my parents, Beyoncé and God”. To write is not just to string words together, but to systematically structure them according to context and function.

Good design lightens the cognitive load; so too does clear writing. Designs and words are a sign of their times.

I optimise for learning and natural curiosity

When I was starting out, the “Specialist” title gave me waves of Imposter Syndrome. I had so many known unknowns that it felt borderline cocky to be flaunting that title on LinkedIn. It didn’t help that, as a person, I tend to hold my vulnerabilities close.

Over time, I was encouraged to frame the “I don’t know this so I don’t belong here” impulse differently. It’s by saying “I don’t know this so I’m going to learn about it”. Instead of optimising for fast, I optimised for comprehensive.

To do this, we identified incremental experiments as a team or between my manager and me. We gave me enough room for experimentation and a license to fail because even in failure we rule out possibilities and streamline our focus. As time went on, I became more comfortable saying, “I don’t know, but I can find out”. And the rewards were immeasurable.

Now I hold (with clumsy, sweaty hands) the Chief of Staff title. This one’s much, much harder to fit into, but I try. Chasing my curiosity and having a safe space to do that prepped me for this new role as a Liminist, the person whose very strength is that they live between departments, domains and experts. To absorb as much as is needed to move the needle while also clearing roadblocks for the specialists to literally do what they do best.

I see growth as a jungle gym, not a ladder

“Climbing the career ladder” implies that being stuck on one rung was as bad as stepping downwards. What’s the point of getting onto the ladder if you don’t move up, right?

But I learnt that career growth need not be vertical, it can also be lateral. Not a ladder, but a jungle gym. Moving up is not the only sign of progress — going back to basics is, too. Going from editing blog content to handling marketing and SEO for a whole product felt like growth. Moving from that to spending everyday writing, thinking, and reading felt like growth, too.

This mindset hinges on the definition of growth being craft-focused rather than title-, chronology- or hierarchy-focused. When wanting to hone core skills and pick up others, I can move in any direction I want, and opportunities open up. Growth in rank and expertise exists even for Individual Contributors—those who want to be hands-on with their craft—without needing to become a Manager. In growth, context matters.

I learnt to not just add, but compound

I learnt to aim for knowledge that builds on itself and becomes more useful over time. Creating a nexus of thoughts is far more valuable than researching and writing in silos. Expiring information gets the job done; compounding knowledge elevates your thinking for posterity. It also paves the way for lifelong learning and making thoughts and memory do the work for me.

Foresight is not a superpower anyone can claim yet; but with the ability to create patterns and draw parallels, you can get pretty darn close!

A note I’d like to leave here: while technology is but the tool and your brain does the work in the end, choosing the right one helped a lot. I swear by Obsidian for making ‘idea children’, as I liked to call them (shoutout to Dhruv for helping me see the value of networked thought tools).

I realised not all 15 minutes are the same

Time is a function of energy. Problems of time—procrastination, tight deadlines, feeling stuck—are often problems of energy. When I'm fresh and well-rested 15 minutes is more than enough to do a major task. Towards the end of the day, if I've paced myself well, 15 minutes is only good for minor tasks. If I've run through my day like a headless chicken, that crash comes sooner in the day than expected.

The giant lesson here was to start measuring productivity by energy rather than literal minutes on the clock. You can bet my time trackers saw the bottom of the bin real quick after that epiphany.

I could do it all — but I shouldn’t

I’m sure anyone working in a craft-driven organisation would attest to this: there’s always a new problem to solve, a new question to answer. It is unbelievably easy to get caught up in the current of possibilities, and that’s amplified when you work in a team that’s as willing to teach as it is to learn.

One of my biggest learnings has been that possibilities are endless, but there can only be one priority at a time. The more tasks you take on, the more diluted your efforts become and the weaker the impact. Working on two or three tasks at any given time, I’ve found, is the ideal balance of focus and variety.

Culture is easy to take for granted but hard to build

It’s very easy to walk into a meeting with hot opinions when you know your team will give you the virtual and psychological space to air them. Every conversation, decision, or email is a reflection of workplace culture and a byproduct of it. But I’ve realised that, as easy as it is to get used to great culture, it’s equally as hard to set it up from scratch.

Implementing company culture will probably not make you the most loved person in the room. It involves a lot of saying “no” and drawing clear lines in the sand, and we tend to demonise these self-preserving tendencies. But this is one of those things that compound in the long term—perhaps even after you’ve left the company—and makes the lives of people you don’t know better.

There’s so much I’m interested in, and so much I don’t know, and those two together make for an exhilarating journey. My first foray into copywriting was an attempt to hone my writing skills in a silo. Venturing into the product world has been a lesson in dissecting, understanding and embracing communication within a complex ecosystem.

You know what they say: when one door closes, another opens — even if it looks so alien you’d rather nervously hover by the doorknob for a while. Or something like that. All words are made up, anyway.

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© Sindhu Shivaprasad 2022

© Sindhu Shivaprasad 2022

© Sindhu Shivaprasad 2022