One of my goals in 2023 while taking an “adult gap year” (more on this soon) was to begin building an audience on various platforms to share my experiences. As a part of this I’ve been refocused on sharing content and thoughts on X (formerly known as Twitter). After a long hiatus from the platform it feels difficult to find my space there again, but it’s also been a fun experiment in 2023.
Recently, one of my posts caught some minor attention and I ended up writing a lot more thoughts on it in threads. The resulting conversation (hat tip to @ITStudiosi and @therealisticre3) gave me reason to reconsider my tweet, so I wanted to expand more on what I had written.
Firstly, I stand by the tweet, I absolutely do. But, as @therealisticre3 pointed out in the thread, “social media advice should come with a caveat.” So consider this article my caveat. Also, some of my caveats have caveats, since there are seldom one-size-fits-all answers.
Second, let me double-down and say that your 20’s are not always the best time for focusing just on work/life balance. But the strong, strong caveat is that I also don’t think that means you should be doing huge hours at your day job and burning out.
It’s a sad but true fact that your company, no matter how well intentioned, probably doesn’t care about you enough for that to matter.
Even the best of companies have a natural tendency and necessity to focus inwards on itself over employees. Now, good leadership teams and good company cultures know where these boundaries are, but this isn’t always the case.
Why your 20’s?
My 20’s were a mixed bag. Dotcom bubbles burst, I worked side-hustles on top of side-hustles, but I also lived in a terrific city and had friends and a healthy social life. There were times when my work week got a bit out of hand, but most of my time in the non-standard work week was spent working on my skills.
So why hustle in your 20’s? Well, for many people their 30’s and 40’s tend to be incredibly family focused. Later in life it can be somewhat too late to catch up on missing skills (although this is less and less the case now), so it really just leaves your 20’s to work on this.
If you create a strong set of career-focused habits and increase your personal value in the marketplace, you’ll take these skills and attitudes through the rest of your career. In fact, many of these ideas are best if tackled in small amounts, consistently over time.
This article isn’t trying to convince you to tie yourself to the office. In fact, this article isn’t for your company, it’s for you.
When it’s okay to give up personal time for work
As a technical and product leader in businesses I have seldom asked anyone working within my teams to give up evenings or weekends. There are obvious exceptions for this from time to time, but as a rule I’ve always considered myself someone who respects the boundaries of those around me.
I have, however, given up my own personal time a lot throughout my career. This wasn’t always a good thing for my wellbeing, but there are plenty of times where I simply had to step in and get certain things done for the betterment of my team, myself, and the company (in that order).
Behind the scenes projects
These are the projects you know you should do, but they just never seem to get done. They take all kinds of shapes and sizes, but it’s generally the thing that you know is going to make life better for your team and yourself once it’s done.
It would be ideal to find time for this in our core business hours, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and it can be beneficial to roll your sleeves up. These projects tend to be behind the scenes work, automations that save further time in the long run, or working on internal tools or frameworks.
Try not to make a strong habit of taking these on, but from time to time they’re incredibly worthwhile spending your time on.
Major personal learning benefit
Another time it might be beneficial to work during out of office hours is when there is a major learning benefit for you personally. This might mean performing a task you’ve never done before, learning new tools, or improving your communication skills.
Trading time in lieu for valuable work
With a big emphasis on work that is valuable, I’ve never been shy to trade in some time now for some time elsewhere. I love to travel, I love taking mini-breaks, so accruing a few extra days leave can be great. Balance this for yourself and avoid burn-out, but this can be fun.
It’s the right thing to do
Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do. Simple. I once missed a lot of sleep because a departing engineer revealed on his last day that the project which was due the next week wasn’t even started. Sometimes it has to be done.
When your job might be in danger if you don’t
It’d be intellectually dishonest of me to not mention that sometimes not working out of hours can both directly and indirectly put your job at danger. Directly because it can look bad for you, and indirectly because companies that don’t succeed can’t offer jobs. Be mindful.
Modern-era hustle and how to hustle for yourself
Getting into the good stuff, here is how to actually hustle to be productive. And, instead of draining your energy, refill yourself and gain more. These ideas are by no means exhaustive, instead treat them more as a framework of the *types of* things that you could be doing during non-work time to increase your skills in the market place.
If you are a non-English speaker, the thing most likely to hold you back in your career is your English skills. This is, without a doubt, the #1 area of focus I would put into my career at this stage as a non-English speaker. The ideal goal should be to get to a minimum B1 international standard of communication, but better is better.
Developing a network and audience
Many people from product and technical backgrounds often feel anxious when you use words like “networking” and “audience” but this really doesn’t have to be a difficult thing. I am personally not a networker, I am socially quite anxious, and I enjoy remote work.
Instead of worrying about the anxiety-inducing down sides of this, I would recommend finding networks appropriate to your skill set (LinkedIn, Dribbble, Reddit, X, etc.) where you feel comfortable in sharing your thoughts and finding people you can share ideas with.
An audiences value is in the quality not quantity, so don’t worry about the numbers and instead focus on finding connections you value.
This is hugely underrated as a skillset for many careers in product, design and tech. Learning to put together coherent thoughts into written form, be it for blog posts or documentation, is a game-changer in your professional perception.
My advice would be to use the above mentioned social networks to develop and find ideas to write about, then when ideas begin forming you can expand on them in longer formats. Not dissimilar to the article you’re reading now.
I know that not everyone likes to read, but this is a game-changing skill for almost any career path and I always recommend developing this skill. I could go on, but please use the video below as a bit of a “how to” of reading more.
Working on your breadth of skills
There is simply no better insurance against a changing skills market than having more skills in your arsenal. The formula for being “T-Shaped” is illustrated below.
Being T-shaped looks different for everyone, different for every role, and different at the changing stages in your career. Your primary skill is usually quite obvious, but your secondary skills are generally complimentary abilities that further enable the primary skill.
My career has gone through several stages where my primary expertise has changed. Here is a basic run down of my shapes since starting my career.
- Early career — Writing code + design, project management, writing, presentation.
- Mid-career — Writing code + mentoring, hiring, operations, product management.
- Current — Product management + technical background, writing, product operations, business operations, writing code, business acumen, culture focus.
The bonus of working on these complimentary skills is that they often-times feel like a break from grinding your primary skill.
Like writing, being able to present ideas and data to others is invaluable. This can be anything from internal product demos to design presentations at SXSW, but the point is to start small and go from there.
I’ve always enjoyed informal brown bag presentations at work and if your team isn’t doing these I highly recommend suggesting it. I’ve given presentations on books, ultralight hiking, and more. I really find these low-pressure presentations great practice for more important ones.
Conclusion and the final caveat
At the end of the day, we’re all on different paths. If you’re a rocket scientist you probably don’t need complimentary skills as specialization is critical. If you started a family young you might have different commitments. If you’re working multiple jobs due to a fairly poor 2023 business year, you may not have much time left over.
All of this is to say, I hope that if you read this you find some time to work on skills that are important to you, make you happy, and contribute to your growth and career.