Foundational Career Skills

Or, as an alternative, wordy title: The Theoretical Pyramid of Professional Development.

Today, I want to chat about career skills, but if you’ll spare me a moment for a quick digression, I’d like to wax on about a completely separate topic: CrossFit. We’ll tie this all together here momentarily.

Courtesy of CrossFit.com

One of the fundamental principles in CrossFit is communicated through a pyramid, specifically the “theoretical pyramid of athlete development.”

Nutrition exists at the base of the pyramid followed by metabolic conditioning (aka cardio), gymnastics, weightlifting, and finally, sport.

This pyramid has a few different implications as we’re looking at athletic development over the long-term, the primary one for today being:

Your success at any given level is predicated on how well you’ve developed prior levels.

For example, your weightlifting capacity will be impacted by poor nutrition. A solid conditioning base will improve your gymnastics capability. And so on.

Let’s bring this all back to the professional arena.

A few recent experiences1 have caused me to think about what professional development pyramid would look like. Meaning, if our goal was long-term success and fulfillment throughout our career, what kinds of skills would form the backbone of that success?

I’ve listened to two podcasts on the topic and chatted with some managers at various companies during a recent conference I attended. Here’s a tentative list I’ve come up with in no particular order.

  • Effective Communication—This is critical regardless of whether you’re working with a team, sharing timelines with your boss, or chatting with a potential customer. Can you articulate your ideas in a clear and concise manner both verbally and textually? One may be more important than the other depending on context.
  • Reliability—Can I count on you to do what you committed to doing to the level that you promised on the timeline we agreed to with minimal follow-up? That sounds like a doozy, but it really is a core skill. If any of the components (delivery, scope, or timeliness) has to slip, do you communicate that as early as possible?
  • Organization—It doesn’t really matter if you use the latest productivity app or a notebook and a pen. Can you effectively plan out your day/week/month to deliver results? If you’re tasked with something during a meeting, do you have some method of recording that so you don’t have to be reminded?
  • Focused AttentionCal Newport has literally written books on the importance of focused attention. I’d direct you to Deep Work for starters. The ability to concentrate all of your talents on the most critical task at hand for long periods is critical for accomplishing anything of value.
  • Humble, Adaptable Mentality—Can you take feedback on your work? Are you open to debating points of view on a certain issue? If we move forward in the direction opposite your viewpoint, can you adapt and come along? Are you up for tackling new things, even if you might not excel in the beginning?

These skills form the foundation on which you can build specific skills like learning JavaScript or data analytics. If you focus on the specific skills first though and ignore the foundation, you’re shortchanging your future self.

Tying this all together then, if we built out our own pyramid of professional development these skills would sit at the bottom. I feel like this is important primarily because it’s easy to interview for and focus on developing the career-specific skills that look good on a resume. These foundational skills are harder to tease out in an interview, which is one main reason I love the trial interview process at Automattic.

Building a Rock Solid Career Reputation

I’m currently working my way through The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The book is fascinating as it draws on dozens of historical examples to pull out key takeaways and suggestions for building power and influence. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular lesson or takeaway and how you can apply it to your own life.

A few chapters in particular have stood out to me, but one in particular (Law 5 – “So Much Depends on Your Reputation—Guard It With Your Life”) is applicable to some of the topics I’ve been writing about recently.

In the beginning, you must work to establish a reputation for one outstanding quality, whether generosity or honesty or cunning. This quality sets you apart and gets other people to talk about you. You then make your reputation known to as many people as possible (subtly, though; take care to build slowly, and with a firm foundation), and watch as it spreads like wildfire.

The two parts are then:

  1. Building a reputation.
  2. Spreading your reputation.

The trick is always “How?”. How exactly do you build a reputation? Perhaps more importantly, once you have that reputation, how do you spread that reputation without feeling like a selfish jerk?

This post will touch on the first piece – building the reputation. I recently wrote a piece on The Muse all about soft skills that will help you excel in your career. I have another one coming up on Todoist about demonstrating your value within an organization.

I wanted to pull together some common threads from the research I did for both that apply to building a reputation and some distinct points in the process that I’ve found helpful. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss some thoughts on spreading that reputation and talking about yourself without feeling sleezy.

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Deep Work in Practice – Applying Cal’s Concepts

One of my goals in 2016 was to work less while, somewhat paradoxically, accomplishing more. I knew I could squeak more out of my day if I just put some better systems in place. As part of that process, I recently finished reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal is a fantastic writer (I’m a huge fan of his blog Study Hacks), and he thinks deeply about the benefits and how-to’s behind working deeply, which he defines as follows:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push you cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Applying the principles that Cal lays out in the book is a perfect first step towards my goal.

I’ve been applying those principles for three weeks now (admittedly a short timeframe), and it’s been working really well. I finish my day by 4:30pm every night. I enjoy an hour of reading time every day. I haven’t touched my computer on the weekends. Success.

Here’s exactly what I’m doing and what those principles look like in practice.
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