Lessons Learned

I transitioned from intern to full-time employee on August 6, 2012. Tomorrow, August 2, 2013 is my last day at Fitocracy. One of these days I’m going to nail this whole “having the same job for more than one year” thing, and it definitely looks like Stack Exchange, where I start in four days, will be when I do that.

I’ve grown a lot in the last year in a lot of different ways including professionally, mentally, emotionally, physically, and shoulder-width-ically; I’d like to record some lessons learned here to look back at in the future.

1. Communicate.

Talk to your peers. Talk to your users. Talk to yourself. Don’t talk to them just to say you did, communicate so that you can actually understand them.

If you have a problem with anyone (including yourself), talk to them.

Communication is a two-way street, go into every conversation you have with the intent of learning something. The biggest mistake you can make is assuming you are 100% right about something and refusing to talk to anyone about it. Don’t refuse to talk to people with opposing viewpoints. That’s not being sure of yourself, that’s called being insecure. If you’re convinced that you’re right, have others (including yourself) try to convince you otherwise.

Get inside your communication partner’s head. Why are they saying the things that they are saying? Get inside of your own head. Why are you saying the things you’re saying?

Communicate but also think. Don’t be anything but a voice recorder, hearing people’s opinions and making it your own. If you do that, you don’t exist. Hear all conflicting opinions then form your own conclusion.

2. Build.

Never ask your target audience what they want in your product. Instead, give them something somewhat usable and ask  if it enhances their life. People flat out don’t know what they want. If they did, your product wouldn’t exist because someone would have made it sometime ago.

If you ask your users what they want from your product, 99% of the time you’ll get a list of small immediate changes. If you instead communicate with your users and learn about them, you’ll be able to solve an actual need. To actually be able to make something that people will use, you need to understand them as people.

Build something you would use.

Love what you build, but remember that it’s a lot easier to criticize than to build so many people attempt to put you down to make themselves feel better. Tune them out.

3. No one cares if you’re the smartest person in the room.

You have nothing to prove. You don’t need to prove to everyone you meet that you’re smarter than they are. Even if you are, who the hell cares? Do something. If you have to go out of your way, or constantly bring others down to explain to them that you’re better than them, that just means you’re insecure.

Not only should you not want to convince people you’re the smartest person in the room, you shouldn’t be the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with people who excel in places you fail. Learn from them.

4. Personal growth is everything.

Life isn’t a race. Life isn’t a marathon, life’s nothing but a hamster running in its wheel. Don’t live life for an end result, live life for the fucking thrill of it.

Improve in everything you do. Are you truly happy? What would make you happier? If you know, then start doing it right now. Else, learn to communicate with yourself. Just like in the professional world, this requires testing and iterating. If you give something a real try and it turns out not to make you happy, stop doing it. Never stop testing.

Never settle. Always work on improving yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and professionally. Don’t do it so you can do X or Y, that’s not sustainable. Nothing in the world beats intrinsic motivation.

No one ever “grows up”, so don’t delay personal happiness for “when I grow up”, if you’re not happy with everything you’re doing 24/7 you’re doing yourself a disservice.

5. It’s okay to have emotions.

Not only is it okay, it’s awesome. Emotions are powerful and feelings are there to be felt. You can try your best to bottle them up, but what’s the point?

Acknowledge and react to your emotions. They are the most important part of you. Once you begin to accept that, you can think clearly about everything. You’ll be able to notice when different emotions emerge within you and acknowledge them, rather than making brash decisions that you later regret.

6. Sustainability is vital.

What’s your diet? What’s your workout program? What’s your job?

Can you see yourself doing the same thing in 3 weeks, 3 months, or 3 years? Do you want to be? Never make life changes based on short-term benefits. Instead, optimize for long-term happiness. This requires you to know what actually makes you happy, and to tell when you’re unhappy, which is a huge part of communicating with yourself.

7. You’re fucking awesome.

Simple as that. If you don’t think so, you haven’t done a lot of personal growth. If you need external validation to be happy, why are you so insecure? I don’t mean that as an insult; legitimately ask yourself that.

Watch out because most of the times you’ll think the reason is A or B and ignore the bigger issues at hand. Make sure to find the root causes of your unhappiness rather than their newest manifestation. Prioritize fixing the root causes rather than more the easily fixed issues.

8. Relax.

It’s really easy to get caught up in the circle-jerk of “I work more than you!”, but really, who the hell cares? Work must be as long-term sustainable as your diet, workout program, or whatever else you’re doing for personal growth. This includes knowing when to slow down, take a break, take a walk, or sit back and have a beer. IPAs are delicious.

9. Collect data, but then iterate, iterate, iterate.

Collect data. Don’t just collect it and assume it changes anything, collect it and use your data to make positive life changes.

Only God and Jeff Bezos know how much I’ve spent on products because I thought being able to collect data related to X would fix my issues with X. That’s idiotic. You can’t make any changes unless you actually make changes.

For example, don’t track the hours of work you per day just to track them. Track the hours of work you do and pinpoint the typical amount that results in you doing subpar work, next week, stop at that amount rather than continuing. Did it result in better work? Iterate.

At the end of the day no investor gives a crap about your an individual metric, and your level of personal happiness isn’t purely controlled by a plot-point on a graph. What matters is vision and improvement. Use your metrics to iterate and modify your goals, rather than focusing on your metrics alone.

While I loved most of my time at Fitocracy, I wish I had learned these nine lessons sooner. Although chaos theory would disagree, I think I might have stayed at Fitocracy if that was the case. I am unfathomably excited to start working at Stack Exchange, and I’m sure that it’ll be the first company I stay at for a year. I’m also excited to see how many more lessons I learn in that time.

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