The secret of discovery periods, stacking skills, and accelerating your growth curve
Early in my career, I was constantly worried about falling behind. I had this idea of a growth curve in my head, but in comparison to both my peers and my imagined potential, I felt like I was falling behind. There seemed to be a perpetual gap between where I was and where I thought I should be.
I would often tell myself, “I wish I wanted the same things as everyone else.” But what I’ve discovered is that when you provide yourself with a discovery period and allow yourself room to explore early in life, you always come out ahead. You just have to expand your perspective of time.
The trouble is that at the start of your career, you only have a tiny corner of the map for reference. But the older you get and the more experience you gain, the more obvious this becomes.
Those who start their careers without any level of introspection or sense of a discovery period might land a safe job, a decent signing bonus, and jump out to an early lead. But that type of growth follows a linear path which is incremental at best. Exponential growth is what you’re really after.
“Not all who wander are lost”
For me, the first six years out of college were a discovery period. And from the outside looking in, the first twelve months probably seemed like a train wreck.
I went from working on the set of major music videos, to considering medical school, signing up for pre-med undergraduate courses I missed the first time around, dropping out, waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant, and taking a job in communications at a healthcare startup.
From there I worked my way into product management, as I discovered a gap between our sales team and our engineers. When I first assumed a product role, it was without knowing that product management was even a thing or potential career path. It just aligned with my natural interests – blending business, design, and technology. And the more I learned about product, the more I dug in.
A few years later, I furthered that skill set by launching my own startup to connect people with local farmers markets and food sources. Alongside a talented engineer from my first job, we built FarmScout from the ground up. A few years later, it was acquired by another entrepreneur based in Portland.
Out of all the early experiences I had, this was the most important in terms of a discovery period. If you want to accelerate your growth, determine what you’re good at and identify your gaps, try creating something from nothing.
Around this same time, I also found my way back to writing. The formulaic essays from school had turned me away from the craft. But at 25, I decided to spend a random Saturday evening putting some thoughts on paper at The Well, a local Nashville coffee shop. I ended up writing for three hours. Before I knew it, I was there five nights each week, rekindling my love for writing – something I find meaning, clarity, and a deep sense of fulfillment in. Months later, I launched an early iteration of this blog from that exact spot.
Growth is nonlinear
This period of six years was full of other ups and down – traveling internationally, exploring philosophy, building perspective. But around age 28 things finally came together.
By that point, I found my niche in product management, something I feel uniquely suited to do. I rediscovered writing and moved it back into a focal point of my life. I dedicated more of my time to the things and the people I cared about most. I began to stack the skills that made me, me.
While I didn’t know it at the time, looking back, this is when my dedication to a discovery period began to pay off. My trajectory completely shifted.
When setting off on a discovery period, you need to understand that input rarely matches results early on. Growth is nonlinear. You have to stick with something long enough to get through the plateau before you reach a breakthrough moment. It often takes months, if not years, to see the results. That’s why it’s so important to find the things you can sustain indefinitely and stick with those.
While I don’t presume to have it all figured out, I feel like I have a stronger sense of who I am and what’s important to me because of the discovery period I was able to carve out for myself. My hope in explaining the past decade of my life is that I’m able to provide you with a real example that you can pull from and relate to.
History is also full of similar examples. Every influential historical figure in my latest ebook, 7 Strategies to Navigate the Noise, faced similar challenges early in their life during their attempts to figure things out. From Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin to Queen Elizabeth and Caterina Sforza, each person faced a discovery period where they felt like they were falling behind as they searched for something different than the lives neatly prescribed to them. But as they came to understand, what matters most is the trajectory you’re setting yourself up for.
Those who follow a neat and orderly path might be a few steps ahead early on. But if you expand your perspective of time, it’s those who have explored and followed their natural inclinations that come out ahead. This is how you find real meaning and engagement. And both act as force multipliers.
In the early days, you just have to remain patient and allow yourself to sit in the gray area between the two growth curves.
Focus on getting the conditions right, seek opportunities that allow you room to explore, and it’s only a matter of time before you catch your break.
Stacking the right skills
During this discovery period, what you’re really after is determining what matters to you and how to stack the skills that set you apart. These will help move you closer to your guiding principle – what you find meaning in and your fundamental goals.
Stacking the right skills is what allows you to hit this exponential growth. If you attempt to specialize in a single skill, it might work out if you’re a prodigy or operating in a rare field that has a neatly defined set of rules.
But when facing the ambiguity inherent to the majority of life and work, this demands creativity and resourcefulness. If you’re only competing with a single skill at your disposal, it’s difficult to be creative and even more of a challenge to set yourself apart.
But when you stack skills, layering one on top of the other, you begin carving out your own niche. From here you can create your own playing field and accelerate your own trajectory.
I’m not in the top ten percent when it comes to design or technology. But when I stack those alongside business, communication, storytelling, strategy, and a fierce sense of focus, that’s when I’m able to set myself apart. By wielding each of these skills, I put myself in a position to be more creative and resourceful. And this is the path towards authenticity and creating work that matters.
The same lesson holds true for something like machine learning (ML). It’s incredibly difficult to establish yourself at the top of that field in its purest form. But if you stack skills in music composition, programming, analytics, and ML, it’s a rare group of people whose natural interests align and are able to combine those skills. And suddenly instead of competing against 50,000 industry experts, there are only 20 people who even remotely overlap.
Learning which skills to stack is about coming into your own. What makes you unique? What are your natural inclinations? What comes easy to you that other people find difficult or impossible? What can you sustain indefinitely? A discovery period allows you to begin uncovering answers to these questions.
Law of the hammer
The added benefit of stacking skills is that you’re able to begin mastering a multidisciplinary approach. This is how you outthink and outmaneuver people. And it helps guard you from becoming trapped in a one-track mindset where you attempt to apply a single approach to every problem you face.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A multidisciplinary approach is the antithesis of the law of the hammer. It helps you avoid the cognitive bias that is the over-reliance on a single model.
The more mental models you possess, the stronger your cognitive ability, and the greater your capacity to grow. Remember, when you only have a single model to work with, growth is often incremental at best.
If machine learning is the only interest and skill you’ve developed, chances are that every problem you face is going to look like an ML problem. But when you’ve armed yourself with a multidisciplinary approach and you’ve stacked the skills that set you apart, you can see problems and opportunities for what they are. From here, you’re able to determine a more effective course of action.
Be loyal to the best opportunities for growth
Early in your career, the most important thing you can look for is opportunities that allow you room to explore.
If you’re in technology, this could mean working somewhere that provides exposure to different programming languages, frameworks, technologies, and products. Or it might mean seeking out an opportunity on a diverse, cross-functional team that provides you with exposure to a range of disciplines and perspectives.
Whatever you do and wherever you are, remain loyal to the best opportunities for growth.
Don’t allow yourself to get locked into an isolated career early on. It might seem like a head start for the first few years, but you’ll pay dearly later on in your own growth and sense of engagement. Prioritizing short-term gratification over learning and growth is how you end up in a dead-end career with regrets.
Give yourself time to figure yourself out. Allow yourself room to explore. Prioritize the places and people who appreciate this need.
By creating space and pursuing opportunities that reward a discovery period, you can start figuring out how to stack the skills that set you apart. This is how you develop yourself, accelerate your own growth, and avoid the traps that most people find themselves lured into.
Channel what makes you, you. With this mindset and room to explore, you’ll run laps around your younger self and make it impossible for others to keep pace. By committing to the long game, you unlock the power of compound interest and exponential growth. And this is how you accelerate your trajectory and create real meaning.