While looking around the floor at InMotion Software, I can see three co-workers that are published authors, several previous game developers, a few poets and a comic book artist. I know these things about my co-workers because conversations surrounding these topics come up during our daily interactions. This is not idle watercooler conversation either, it’s these elements of our personal lives that influence how we function.
To put it succinctly, InMotion Software is staffed by humans.
Globally, we’re entering into an era where being a polymath (a person with a wide variety of skills, rather than a few narrow specialties) is extremely valuable. Popular books, such as Range by David Epstein, are breaking best-seller records because we’re beginning to understand the value of well rounded, but still highly skilled, people. Elon Musk is everybody’s favorite modern polymath, but don’t forget some of the classics: Aristotle, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Graham Bell.
Not everyone wants to be a famous public-facing polymath. Just look at the broad spectrum of topics our self-professed introvert CXO, Matthew Jewell, tackles in his daily blog. Being a polymath is more of a mindset shift than anything else. It requires confidence around the skills you nurture outside of your job.
I can talk about some of the cross-pollinating I’ve done between my work and home life that makes me a better human both inside and outside of my profession.
Home skills at work
When we found out my wife was pregnant last year, we wanted to build a solid foundation on which to raise our little boy. A friend of ours recommended that we take the Parent Effectiveness Training course created by Thomas Gordon. It turns out that the active listening and conflict resolution skills taught in that course are exceptionally relevant to my job as a Project Manager.
While I haven’t been able to use my skills as a parent yet – my kiddo’s not quite a year old – I use parenting skills at my job daily. Apparently, treating adult co-workers like actual humans that have emotions and compelling opinions, just like I was taught to treat my children, is a brilliant way to gain trust and smooth out interpersonal barriers.
Work skills at home
Culturally, bringing work skills home feels a bit weirder, as if by so doing you’re crossing that invisible line. But when you adopt the polymath mindframe, bringing those work solutions back home isn’t about breaching the ambiguous work/life balance code. It’s about being cognizant of when a home problem can be solved with a work-based solution.
I’d like to share two fun examples of where I’ve implemented solutions to solve very real home problems.
I convinced my wife to use GitHub
My wife is knee-deep in a fourth major revision of her novel. The feedback she got from beta readers made it apparent how glaring some of the plot and pacing problems are. Combined with the fact that she’s been working on this novel for several years, where characters and plot points have dramatically shifted – this book is a complex mess, distributed across a plethora of notebooks and computer documents too large for any one person’s brain.
Enter GitHub. I started out as a web developer, and am intimately familiar with the power of version control and how valuable it is to understand changes in code across time and across a large team.
I convinced my wife to break her novel out of one massive Word document into bite-sized chunks – one scene per document – and to save each as plaintext using Markdown notation so it could easily be tracked in a GitHub repository. I taught her how to use SourceTree as the git syncing client, and explained the value of writing good commit messages.
She now has a master branch which reflects the book as she sent it to her beta readers most recently (an equivalent to a production build of an app), and a working branch where she’s doing all of her current edits.
All of her scattered notes have been consolidated into GitHub issues, each tagged with a useful context. Using the built-in comment feature on each GitHub issue as a paper trail, she now has the ability to go back and look at previous edits and the thought processes that lead up to those changes.
If her computer ever gets lost, stolen or destroyed, the master copy is stored in the world’s most trusted code repository for instant access.
I run a legit Scrum board at home
Another super nerdy example of work solutions being implemented at home is that my wife and I work from a big Scrum board on the wall. And I’m not talking about a little Kanban board for chores. I’m talking a legit Scrum board maintained by a dedicated Scrum Master and Product Owner, complete with one-week sprints, a sized and groomed backlog and Sprint Ceremonies including both planning and retrospectives held for a few hours each Sunday. The whole nine yards.
I’m the Scrum Master and my wife is the Product Owner. And no it’s not overkill.
We’re currently on Sprint 25 – a time span of approximately six months – and these past twenty-five weeks have been the literal most productive weeks of our lives. As first time parents of a ten-month-old boy, me working full time at InMotion while flexing my polymath muscles on a side business in the evenings, and my wife as a full-time business owner and author on the side, we needed to build a system that would enable us to stay abreast of the sheer number of disparate projects we have spinning at any given time.
Prior to implementing Scrum at home, we were constantly getting burnt out, forgetting projects, over planning and underperforming. Since implementing it, however, we’ve never missed a deadline, never over planned and often over-perform on our goals. Our house is tidy, and we even manage to find time to go on dates.
It’s definitely a challenge to stay focused for so long, but running Scrum at home has made it possible to find the right kind of balance for us, and has been one of the best decisions we’ve made as a family.
How to be a T-Shaped person
I was first introduced to the concept of a ‘T-shaped person’ in Valve Software’s internal Handbook for New Employees, which you can view for free here.
On page 46, they talk about how they look for T-shaped people, and the qualities those people embody. I’m sure this is not a new concept for everyone, but it was new to me at the time, and it gives us something tangible to use as a guide.
To be T-shaped is an analogy of what a person’s skills would look like if drawn on a graph. A ‘T’ has two parts – the long vertical bar on the Y-axis and the horizontal bar along the X-axis.
The vertical bar represents one skill that you are extremely good at. Maybe that’s programming, marketing or welding. The Y-axis signifies that the skill goes deep and that you are good at that skill.
The horizontal bar represents a wide variety of skills that you aren’t as good at. Perhaps things like baking, sales or being an auto mechanic. The skills going across the X-axis signify that these skills aren’t very deep. But they’re still skills, even if you’re not an expert.
The magic comes from when you combine the two concepts together. To be T-shaped is to say that you have both a deep expertise in one area, and are also competent in many others. This allows you to be the go-to resource for what you’re an expert in, but also valuable in a cross-functional team.
Fatten your saggy butt
The T-shaped person visual is a fantastic simple representation of a more elaborate model. No one is literally an expert at one thing, while also an ultimate generalist across many others.
Instead of the unrealistic T, imagine an upside-down bell curve where the sagging middle of the bell curve is analogous to the vertical bar of the T. It’s a better representation of the level and number of skills you have to offer to the world.
But this also represents the polymath’s ultimate challenge – to widen the bottom part of the curve without sacrificing any depth. Rather than being a “jack of all trades, master of none,” a polymath strives to be just a “jack of all trades” without the “master of none” part.
Work/Life balance is a strawman for the polymath
I’m a dad, husband, Project Manager, Web Developer, game designer, video editor, course creator, public speaker and much more. I’m not an expert in all of those things, but I’m definitely an expert in a few and competent in the rest. In short, I’m a polymath. I don’t feel stifled here at InMotion, shoehorned into pretending my “past life” isn’t valuable. Quite the opposite. I feel like the many years of hard work that I’ve invested into my varied experience and skills allows me to do better work.