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Hiding Behind What You Know

Every time you join a new team, there’s an internal struggle to add value, to find some way to prove your worth. I’ve found this to be the case at every job I’ve worked at so far across multiple different industries.

When I started as a personal trainer at Life Time Fitness, sales figures were sent out on a bi-weekly basis. Starting off, it was tough to see your name at the bottom of the list. There was an immediate drive to prove yourself and get to the top. Being at the bottom typically meant you weren’t performing well at your job. Perhaps you weren’t a great trainer or maybe you just were terrible at sales. Either way, being at the bottom of the list wasn’t the ideal scenario. After starting at Federated Media (now Sovrn), I experienced the same kind of feeling. Entering an industry I had literally no experience in previously, I had an immediate desire to find some part of the business to excel in. Once again, I experienced a similar feeling when I joined Automattic a few short months ago. While the team has been beyond welcoming and the hiring process consisted of a trial phase that prepped me for full-time work as much as possible, I still had the feeling that I needed to prove myself in some way, to prove that I was worth hiring.

In each of the above cases, I found myself reverting back to something familiar. For example, while I didn’t know the product or the industry at all at Federated, I resorted to sending as many emails as possible to potential clients, effectively opening the sales funnel but also sticking with something I already knew (sending email). At Automattic, my first few months were filled with an intense focus on answering tickets, a main element of the trial period. In both scenarios, my desire to prove my worth led me to focus on something that I was already familiar with.

In reality, I think this is perhaps the worst route to go when trying to demonstrate your value. Hiding behind your strengths only further emphasizes your weaknesses. It also has several other negative effects:

It steers you towards being one-dimensional. Unintentionally, you revert back to a key skill set that you already have developed. While you may improve that skill set, it likely doesn’t add that much value to the team. What adds value? Encouraging versatility. Taking on new tasks. Learning new things. Making yourself useful in many arenas. While initially, your contribution to the team may appear to suffer number-wise while learning new areas, in the end, you’ll be a much more valuable asset because of the many skills you’ve developed.

Hiding behind your proficiency in one subject area shortchanges your growth. Joel Gascoigne wrote a great post on the Buffer blog the other day on the topic of working harder on yourself than you do on your job. While the post applies more generally to startups, I think it obviously benefits any employee to continue to develop themselves and learn new skills, regardless of their current position. Business-wise, companies should encourage growth among employees as it only makes them a more valuable asset to the team.

Hiding behind what you know leads to you feeling comfortable. Initially, this is what you’re looking for. It feels great. You know that you can do X, Y, and Z and feel like you’ve contributed. But, over time, feeling comfortable can turn into something completely different – boredom. Constantly challenging yourself to learn new areas and push boundaries keeps that initial excitement alive inside.

Fight the urge to “stick with what you know”. Although it may be a safe haven at first, it shortchanges everyone in the long run. Challenge yourself to constantly stay outside of your comfort zone and look for new ways to add value. Despite your position, you can add value in many different ways; you just need to look beyond the surface.

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