“I’m an autodidact. Do you know what that means? I do because it’s one of the things I self-taught myself.”
My career as a creative began in 2003 as a makeup artist. In 2008, heavily pregnant and needing a job, I went to an interview for a hair and makeup artist at a busy photo studio franchise.
“Do you know how to do hair?”
“Ok when can you start?
In fact, the only hair I’d ever done was my own. I could do it straight and I could do it curly. Once in a while, I could nail a killer ponytail. But I was certain that by my start date, I would be able to do hair. I took to YouTube and taught myself basic styles possible in the timeframe I would have with clients.
And I remembered the Sullivan Nod, a technique I learned from my mother in foodservice. It worked. I suggested the best hairstyle I knew how to do while nodding and clients were like “Yes. That’s what I want.”
After that, I began teaching myself photography. I auditioned to be a content creator for a top-ranking photography website and got the gig. I didn’t know what blogging was and I was a new photographer, but as I learned new things, I wrote tutorials about them. I cringe now some of them are soooo bad. But I believed I could do it and I did. And to this date, I still have the record for the most viral piece on content on that platform.
So began a long career of saying yes to things I didn’t know how to do and learning them as I went.
Learning by doing, not learning by instruction
As a photographer, I avoided learning how things “should” be done. I made my own way. Along the way, it turns out I was setting standards for others and, once in a blue moon, I still get recognized as “that YouTuber who taught me about photography”.
The thing I’ve found is that when I enter a completely new domain that I know nothing about, this lack of knowledge also means I have a lack of noise inside my head.
I don’t have preconceived ideas about what assets for CPG products should look like. Or how you’re “supposed” to write sales copy for a brownie baking mix. Or how you’re “supposed” to talk to government acquisition people.
But what I DO know is people. How to talk to people and how to gauge what they like. I’m a chameleon. I instinctively mirror back to people their own body language, accents, and affectations. I guess that means I should have gone into sales. I’ve learned this can also be done digitally to connect with audiences. So, when told I had to write sales copy for snacks I was like “hell yes I can do that” and I just talked like I was talking to friends about the newest thing they “just haaaave to try”.
When I was interviewing for my role as a brand and marketing director for a full-stack digital services business, I had that all-familiar “but you don’t know anything about this!” inside my head. Which lent itself to a “hell yes I want this job”. If there’s anything I know about my curious mind, it’s that I can be very afraid of something new and then be an expert in a few months (while also aware that I don’t know what I don’t know).
I have ADHD to thank for that. Although distraction is a feature, so is hyperfocus and topic obsession.
Mind you, this is much easier to do with houseplants than with shilling software consultancy for the federal government.
Sometimes, working in an unfamiliar domain will mean entering a completely foreign industry. Like me going from internal comms to CPG to software. And sometimes, it will be an industry you know with an unfamiliar twist.
Whichever situation you find yourself in, it’s as simple as employing reconnaissance tactics to infiltrate an unfamiliar territory. You need to:
- Study the language
- Identify the leaders
- Surveil the terrain
Yes, when I was a baby makeup artist I lied my ass off about being able to do hair. I would not recommend lying in a job interview. It WILL catch up with you.
You can frame your lack of experience in a topic as “domain knowledge that I will need to gain in my first few weeks/months of the job”. I was honest with my current boss that software was new to me, but that people were not. And that “whether a brand is B2C or B2B, people are people. And I know people.”
I had experience and insight about myself to know that it would take me about two or three months to feel comfortable in a foreign topic and I told him that I would need that period of time to learn and fill my knowledge gaps.
I asked this boss about his choice to hire me when he had hundreds of applicants for this role.
“I hire for grit and growth mindset so domain expertise is a bonus but not a requirement for things that aren’t core.”
Hear AND Listen
Positioning myself physically with the teams I support means I take in a lot of knowledge just hearing them collaborate, work, and talk to clients. I invite myself to meetings that I wouldn’t normally be invited to. I listen in on calls that have little to do with my role. Then, I can ask intelligent questions based on the things I’ve heard and start filling the gaps in my understanding. This still works in the remote world. I still invite myself to meetings that have nothing to do with me, go watch our BD people networking at trade shows, and using Slack to reach out for advice and knowledge.
Like moving to a country to learn a language, this full submersion will accelerate your growth.
In my previous role producing creative for a CPG brand, I physically sat in an office with the team responsible for early product development which meant when it came time to sell the stuff, I knew everything that went into choosing the formula, what taste testers said, etc. It helped greatly with my understanding of our product but also to keep my finger on the pulse of what was coming down the pipe so I could be prepared to deliver launch assets quick-fast-in-a-hurry.
By sitting with other teams (physically or remotely), you can get a large picture of the terrain at an accelerated pace. That is, you’ll see bottlenecks, understand department boundaries, and better understand how your domain meets the other domains inside the business. This helps to avoid getting siloed. In my role as a person who supports an entire business, I need to understand everything that exists in order to make sure double work isn’t happening and that efforts to create assets are being as effective as possible.
Once when I supported a global brand, my team was often the only people who could help our clients inside the business because they were very siloed, didn’t share knowledge, and the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Because of this, they would sometimes want me to produce a large budget asset that had already been created for another department. Naturally, I was happy to take their money, but from my non-siloed, eagle’s eye vantage of the terrain, I could suggest other ways to put their budget to work while they repurposed what we already made.
When I enter a new space, I grill my colleagues about all aspects of their jobs. What are the different roles supporting this product/team? What do they do? How would they explain their job to their grandmother? What did they do before they worked here? What existed in this space before our product existed?
I try things on for size and compare them to familiar metaphors to make sure I’m understanding correctly. So when one colleague told me he supports a team taking old aircraft and making them work with new software, I said, “So like…taking the Nokia I had when I was 16 and installing the latest iOS? Except it’s made for screens with HD screend and the Nokia was just for B&W text?”
I like to say, “explain it to me like I’m a 5-year-old” or “explain it like I’m an idiot”. To learn something new, you have to be ok admitting you don’t know. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you’re teachable and eager to learn and that’s a great quality in a team member.
It also builds trust since it’s hard to trust a bullshitter.
Ask your new boss/client what you should be reading. Both books and content from thought leaders and industry-related resources. Reading what they’re reading is an excellent way to increase your knowledge, identify their leaders and get to know what they value, the culture they admire, and the kind of language you can adapt to in order to approach topics in a way that’s familiar to them.
It can be easy to stay pigeonholed into your own niche when it comes to reading. Getting recommendations from your bosses and co-workers is a great way to quickly expand your universe.
I subscribe to Audible and listen to audiobooks while I work, drive, walk the dog or do my makeup.
Overall, stay curious. This is all much easier when you’re a naturally curious person. If you want to know everything about everything and gravitate towards unknowns and not away from them, you’ll do great at diving into the deep-end supporting domains that are very new to you.
Featured image by Lewek Gnos