person at work desk

9 things I wish I knew for my first engineering job

Maybe you’re nervous about your new job, or perhaps you’re excited. Perhaps you don’t really care either way and are just looking forward to a paycheck. Regardless of how you feel, when you start your job, you’ll be spending over a third of your waking hours at work. Here’s how to do your best with that time – and do it in a healthy, wholesome way.

I started my first full-time engineering job several years ago now. I’ve been through a few job changes and a few more manager changes. Here’s engineering job advice that I’ve learned from others and through my own experience.

This is geared towards engineers, but much of it is relevant to everyone starting a new job. As always, feel free to pick and choose the advice that works for you!

Your job is not like college

Your grades, your ability to pull all-nighters to cram for a test, and your extracurriculars don’t matter anymore. Your problem-solving skills do matter.

The problem space is vast compared to the problems you solved in school. You will be solving open-ended problems that may not have right answers. You are also balancing priorities: some things need to be done quickly but with lower quality, and some things need to be done with high quality and can take a long time.

In addition, your work lasts a lot longer; you don’t get to throw it out every other week for the next assignment. This also means you (or others) have to keep working with what you did last month or last year. In addition, you will get to see your work being used, which is usually rather satisfying.

You will no longer get assignments where the TAs took care of all of the setup and the not-interesting work for you. You don’t just get cute and interesting problems anymore. Most stuff doesn’t work straight out of the box. You have to do your own setup (and ask for help with it), too.

It’s a whole new world. Don’t assume that because you did well in school, you’ll do well in your first engineering job. As with anything new, start with an open mind and learn from those around you.

Keep learning

Learning is the best way to advance in your career, switch to another career, or start a side hustle. Luckily, doing things on a job is one of the best ways to learn, because you’re solving real problems, you have support and can learn from others, and you’re around other motivated people. Take advantage of the learning opportunity, and learn everything you can.

Learn both deep and wide. The perfect balance is up to you, but do both. Deep learning often makes you a more valuable and helpful employee, and deeply learning a few things will help you pick up new things in the future. Wide learning helps you broaden your skill stack.

A skill stack (or talent stack) is a set of diverse skills that together enable more possibilities than being very deeply skilled at a single skill (more detail here). This term comes from Scott Adams, the author and Dilbert cartoonist. My own skill stack looks a bit like this:

  • Engineering (general, plus a few specializations)
  • Project management
  • Communication (writing and speaking)
  • Biology (skill in progress)
  • Cooking

Time has yet to tell what opportunities my skill stack is going to make available for me, but some possibilities might be:

  • Starting a science-backed health blog 😁
  • Working for a biotechnology company
  • Starting a summer program for aspiring engineers
  • Building robots that create really excellent-tasting food based on the biology of plants (okay, maybe this one’s a bit far-fetched 🙃)

The point here is, make sure you keep learning while on the job. Learning takes many forms – for example, a frustrating project can be a learning experience – but if you’re constantly bored at work, not only is that a waste of one-third of your waking hours, but it’s also a missed opportunity to be learning and growing.

If you’re not learning at work, talk to others and look for other projects you can get involved in. Start a side project (I highly recommend side projects). If it doesn’t seem fixable, look outside your company.

Ask questions

In school, the lecture or the book typically has all the answers. In a job, while you do need to use your own logic and reasoning to figure some things out, a huge amount of information lives in the minds of senior engineers, in the mind of your boss, with engineers who have left the company, in outdated documentation, etc, etc. In order to learn that information, you have to ask questions.

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get at identifying when you should figure something out yourself versus when you should ask someone. When you’re starting out, err on the too-many-questions side. A good senior engineer will also help point you at resources that enable you to figure out more things for yourself over time.

It is part of the job of senior engineers to mentor and grow junior engineers. (If that’s not true at the company you’re joining, you may want to find another company.) This means that when a senior engineer gives you a convoluted or jargon-filled response, you should not feel obligated to feign understanding. Ask questions until you understand.

Related post: How to be Naturally Confident

Another way to look at it is: as an engineer, you’ve probably been hired for your reasoning and problem solving skills. Your question-asking may actually uncover something wrong, and if it does, that’s a very good thing, because you’ve put those reasoning skills towards improving your project and company.

Understand the big picture

What is your team trying to achieve? What is your part of the organization trying to achieve? What is your company trying to achieve? How does your team contribute to the org and the company?

What products make the company money? Which ones are research projects? How much does the company care about its bread and butter versus the research projects? How do the bread and butter projects work, and how does your team contribute to them?

Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is not only motivating, it’s also incredibly valuable for making good prioritization decisions. When you’re first starting out, your boss or mentor might make most of the decisions for you and tell you exactly what tasks to complete. This is fine for a while, but you’ll eventually need to:

  1. First, divide and prioritize the tasks within a component on your own. This usually just requires the maturity of engineering skill.
  2. Then, prioritize features within a project or across projects. Project managers and your boss should be helpful here, but project managers are not always available. Having a good understanding of the big picture is essential for making good decisions at this stage.

The big picture is also important for understanding how the company is doing, and how important your role is to the function of the company. Having a more important role in a better-performing company tends to result in more opportunities for learning.

Set boundaries

Go home at 5pm on your first day. And on your second. And every day for the rest of your career.

Don’t respond to messages or emails on weekends. Or after 5pm. Or in the middle of the night. When you respond to a message the next morning, don’t apologize for keeping the sender waiting; leave out the apology and just respond to the content of the conversation. It may feel awkward the first time, but it gets better.

If someone is messaging you near the end of your work day, let them know you’re signing off at 5pm, but you’ll respond first thing the next day (or on Monday, if it’s Friday).

Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do all these things every single day of your career, but I highly encourage making these your general rules. I’ve found that when I set a pattern, other people learn it and go with it. If you respect your time, other people do too.

Setting boundaries results in the obvious benefits of having more uninterrupted personal time (or a better “work-life balance”), but it can also result in some non-obvious benefits.

One non-obvious benefit to setting boundaries is that when you set boundaries, you force yourself to improve your prioritization. Imagine two people, Alice and Bob, who have the same 10-item to-do list. We can pretend that each to-do item takes 7 hours to complete:

  • Alice works 7 hours a day. She completes the 3 most important things by Wednesday. As a result of doing those things, she finds 2 more important things to do, and does them on Thursday and Friday.
  • Bob works 14 hours a day. Wanting to do everything, he works hard and completes all 10 items, in no particular order, by Friday.

While sometimes we may need to be more like Bob (but hopefully working more like 9 hours, not 14), Alice’s ruthless prioritization has resulted in her completing more important work than Bob in half the time.

Set boundaries. Like I mentioned above, there is always something else that can be done if someone has time. Protect your own time, because no one else is going to protect it for you.

Ask for feedback

Ask your boss and the senior engineers you work with if they have feedback or suggestions for how you can do a better job. If they give you constructive feedback, thank them for it. If their feedback is not clear to you, ask questions to make sure you understand it.

You don’t have to follow all the feedback, either. Once you understand it, reflect and evaluate whether you’d like to make a change.

Asking for feedback is a great way to discover your blind spots. Sometimes, we think that to do a good job, we need to be the best at skill A, but our boss or a more experienced engineer with a wider view of the world can see that a little bit of skill B would be more impactful.

In fact, basically that exact thing happened to me. I thought I needed to get better at core engineering skills, but a great boss and mentor gave me feedback that I had fine engineering skills, and improving my ability to talk about what I did would be much more valuable.

So, remember to ask for feedback.

Give feedback

If you find yourself frustrated by something that you don’t know how to fix, don’t just keep it to yourself and let your frustration build. That’s bad for you, and it’s bad for the company, especially if other people feel the same way you do!

To be clear, I assuming here that you trust your boss and that he wants the best for you. If you don’t trust your boss and suspect that he might treat you poorly as a result of giving the feedback, you probably want to hold back. I personally have not experienced any adverse effects from giving feedback, but I may just be very lucky. Use your best judgement.

When you feel frustrated by something, it’s a signal to you, and to your boss, that there may be a problem that needs to be fixed. Sometimes your boss might hear the same frustration from multiple people and really see a need for change. But if your boss hears nothing at all, he/she will have no idea there might be something wrong.

When you give feedback, you don’t have to be as specific as “I think X is wrong and we should do Y instead.” For many things, or when I’m developing a relationship with a new boss, I like to give softer feedback, things like:

  • I’m feeling nervous about our team completing X on time
  • It may just be me, but when our team meetings last longer than an hour, I sometimes feel very exhausted.
  • I could just be sensitive, but sometimes I feel like the new coworker talks down to me.

Such “data points” can be very useful for your boss, especially if he observes a pattern of similar data points.

So, if you can, give feedback.

Ask for what you want

In the same way that your boss can’t know there’s something wrong unless you share feedback, your boss also can’t know what you want unless you tell her. Neither can your coworkers or mentors.

When you ask for what you want, you’re much more likely to get what you want. For example, if you want to work on something different, it’s unlikely that someone will guess the exact thing you want to work on and offer it to you. Your coworkers can’t read your mind.

Also, if you think you deserve a raise, you are very unlikely to get one unless you ask. If you don’t ask, others typically assume you’re happy with things the way they are.

In addition, when people know what you want, they know what opportunities to recommend to you. This is especially important for your boss or any mentors – they typically have a wider view into opportunities on new projects and more.

Be able to explain your work

Being able to clearly communicate what you do, what you’re working on, and a few technical details goes a very, very long way. I’d venture to estimate that it’s one of those things that takes 20% of work and goes 80% of the way towards other people thinking you’re a good engineer. (The remaining 80% of the work is actually becoming a good engineer, which is still super important… but you already knew that.)

Engineer communicating a thought

Being able to explain your work is useful for communicating with your boss, your team, your sister teams, people you meet outside of work, and interviewers for your next job opportunity.

A great way to practice explaining your work is to administer interviews for your company, if you can. At the beginning of every interview, you introduce yourself and explain what you do! Interviewees may even ask you questions about it at the end of the interview, giving you the opportunity to practice more.

Conclusion

So, that’s my best advice for starting your first engineering job, or 9 things I wish I knew when I started my first engineering job. Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you on your journey! Also, if you found this helpful, share it with a friend!

Resources:

hot girl walk, city, walking

A How-To: Hot Girl Walk This Summer

If you’ve never heard of TikTok, you’re probably one of two things: either you’re older than a millennial or you may, unfortunately, be living under a rock. If you do have a TikTok, you might have heard of Mia aka @exactlyliketheothergirls and the phrase she’s coined off of Megan Thee Stallion “Hot Girl Walk”.  

Hot girl walk playlist by Mia

What is this hot girl walk?

Hot girl walk, for those who don’t know, is a way for you to realign your thinking this summer. Mia says in her TikTok that in order to successfully hot girl walk, you need to do a few of things. The first thing to do is walk. Find your favorite coffee shop, farmers market, or thrift shop, walk two miles there and two miles back. Second, listen to some upbeat songs that make you feel good (check out her playlist here). Third, exercise your mind. On this walk, you’re only allowed to think of three things: how hot you are, what you’re grateful for, and the visions for your future self. That’s right girl, it’s a walking mediation! 

@exactlyliketheothergirls

Reply to @666mjcksn666 follow to stay on non-toxic tik tok! There are a lot of new friends so this needed a redo #hotgirlwalk #fitness

♬ original sound – Mia

Girls from all over the nation have been trying out Mia’s Hot Girl Walk. She says the purpose of this practice is not to lose weight or exercise your physical. Instead, it’s to exercise your mind and sort through your thoughts. Thus, you will notice not only the transformations coming from the body but from the mind as well.

After all, can you really be the happiest person if your inner thoughts about yourself and wishes for yourself are out of alignment? They say you can’t make someone else happy if you’re not happy yourself.

Some Inspo for Your Walk

How hot am I? What things am I grateful for? What do I envision for myself? 
Very Clean drinking water Doing service work 
Extremely Fluffy animals Being a foster parent to dogs 
Insanely  Coffee Getting my dream job  
Indubitably  Sunshine Staying/ becoming healthy 
Will Smith hot Companionship  Traveling the world 

If this is intimidating to you, let it intimidate you. Then remember, the intimidation doesn’t have to control you if you don’t let it. It’s not always easy telling yourself you look hot or amazing when you don’t personally agree. It’s not always easy to express gratitude if you had a hard upbringing. It’s not always easy to know what to want in your life if you don’t know what the near future holds. However, take a moment to see this exercise as an opportunity to better yourself rather than an obstacle. Take a look at our article How to Succeed at Anything New for more inspiration!

The point is that you take time for yourself to really reflect on a couple crucial things. Studies have shown that expressing more gratitude leads to more happiness. The reason for is the more you are grateful for, the more you realize you have, the more you realize just how good your life is where it’s at, which leads to happiness.

In addition, taking time to reflect and manifest about the person you want to be in the future, just makes your vision that much clearer. Focusing on these goals allows you to find paths to these goals. Lastly, practice some positive affirmations: tell yourself that you look HOT AF! People WISH they could be you. You are so hot you’d melt ice cream. You are so hot even Volcán Mombacho would erupt again. You are so hot the sun WISHES it could emit as much flame as you.  

Coming to Terms

It is also completely fine not to know who you want to be in the future. You can also think of your future self in terms of traits: being open minded, charismatic, punctual, respectful, happy, etc. Let your brain take you on a journey of self-discovery for four miles and enjoy it!  

Do this because you want to learn more about yourself, feel better, and glow from the inside out! 

naturally confident woman smiling at work

How To Be Naturally Confident

Oh, confidence, that elusive thing. That thing you’re supposed to fake, because everyone else in the room seems to have been born with it. Right?

Great news: confidence is a just another skill that you can learn and develop. Unlike the “fake it till you make it” kind of confidence, this kind becomes second nature over time. In this way, you can become naturally confident.

Of course, being confident is not the same as being cocky or obnoxious. A confident person knows that she doesn’t have to brag or constantly prove herself and instead focuses appropriately on the task at hand.

Here is our complete guide to being confident—without faking it. You’ll learn a prerequisite and the basic behaviors that you can practice to develop your confidence, as well as some common pitfalls.

Prerequisite: Know Yourself

Step one towards being confident is knowing what you know, what you’re good at, and what you can do.

If you blindly apply the other confidence strategies without knowing yourself, you risk applying the right confidence strategies at the wrong time. For example, in a meeting where you’re not the expert in the room, you might speak up when you should’ve known to keep silent or speak second. Knowing yourself will enable you to appropriately apply the other confidence strategies.

So, take stock of yourself, forgetting for a moment where you want to be. Evaluate where you are, and don’t forget to take a few steps back as needed. 

For example, I have been working to clear the next hurdle in my career for a little while, and the fact that I haven’t cleared it yet sometimes makes me feel like a failure. But, I forget that I have been doing well in a very competitive job, which means that in the big picture I am not a failure, and I’m doing fairly well in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, there are a few experts on my team who know a lot more than me. 

One thing to watch out for when you’re taking stock of yourself is the Dunning-Kruger effect, in particular two points:

  1. When you only know a little about a subject, you’re likely to grossly overestimate your ability. 
  2. When you learn some more, you might be underestimating your ability.
Image from https://blog.stockspot.com.au/dunning-kruger-effect/

In summary: be honest with yourself about who you are, what you know, and what you can do. It’s the first step towards real confidence.

The Basic Behaviors for Being Confident

Being confident is a skill, and 80% of this skill is mastering the basic behaviors. Like any other skill, it might take some practice to master, but after enough practice, the behaviors become habit. When the behaviors become habit, so does confidence.

Basic behavior 1: Body Language

The three elements to naturally confident body language are:

Good posture. Standing up straight and tall is good for you. One way to improve posture is to associate it with a common queue, for example, every time you sit back down at your desk after getting up, check your posture. 

Stillness and smoothness. Habitually touching face or hair, fidgeting with a pen, and bouncing your feet, are all ticks that distract people from the real content of what you have to say and give the appearance of a lack of confidence. Practice adjusting these habits by sitting with your hands loosely folded in meetings and while speaking. 

A steady gaze. Looking in all different directions is also distracting. I know, because I struggle with a steady gaze, and once my gaze was so distracting that I caused my boss to look out the meeting room window behind him while we were meeting one-on-one. (There was nothing there, of course.) Luckily, this gets better with practice. One way to practice is by looking directly at one person for a whole sentence, then another person for the next sentence, and so on.

Basic behavior 2: Speaking

Speaking can be tough! Some people experience speaking as a gradual escalation of tension: the first sentence is easy, but then the heat rises and their heart starts pounding, and soon all they can think about is getting the speaking over with. Whether that describes your experience speaking or not, hopefully these elements help you increase your comfort with speaking, naturally boosting your confidence in doing so.

The two elements to naturally confident speaking are:

Breathing. If you feel the heat rising in your face or the pounding of your heart, don’t rush. Take a moment to take a deep breath. This helps you reset, and by giving your brain a quick break, it can help you refocus as well.

Practicing. Speaking gets more comfortable over time, but it doesn’t get better without practice. Starting small, by asking simple clarifying questions, or adding an extra detail to something someone else said, is an easy way to start practicing before moving onto bigger things like proposing a new idea in a meeting. And of course, always remember that mistakes are part of practice and how we learn.

In summary, the basic behaviors for being confident are:

Body LanguageSpeaking
Good postureBreathing
Stillness and smoothnessPracticing
A steady gaze

These things take some time and effort to practice and incorporate into your habits, but once they become habits, they will help you be naturally confident no matter the situation.

Bonus Tip #1: Don’t let anyone intimidate you

Watch out for intimidation on your confidence journey. Just because someone has a fancy title or uses words you don’t know does not mean that you cannot learn and participate. Sometimes they don’t mean to be intimidating, and in rare cases they do. Either way, don’t let it deter you. 

If someone with a high title or lots of letters after their name says something you don’t understand, ask them what they mean! If they’re saying it, they should probably understand it well enough to be able to explain it to you.

Don’t be intimidated! Asking smart people to explain things to you is also a great way to learn.

In addition, don’t be intimidated by jargon. While jargon has its uses in the right contexts, if you don’t know a word, most of the time the problem is that you don’t know what the word means, not that you’re somehow incapable of understanding the concept (the important part). Don’t be afraid to ask what foreign terms mean. 

Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll get jargon or complicated answers in response to questions. Don’t feel obligated to fake understanding! Feel free to follow up. You might ask: “I think you’re saying this, is that right?” or “I’m still not clear on this, how is it related to that?” Or, if you prefer, “I still don’t understand, can we talk more after this meeting ends?”

In some cases, the person may not actually have a good answer for you, and is responding with jargon or something more complicated out of habit. (They might be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect themselves!) Training yourself to ask questions when you don’t understand will be especially helpful in these situations. 

Bonus Tip #2: Say “I don’t know”

It is a sign of both confidence and maturity to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know something instead of making up a false response.

Of course, you can save face by saying “that’s a great question, I can have that answer for you in an hour”—you don’t literally need to say the words “I don’t know”—but making something up on the spot instead of telling the simple truth is not confidence, it’s overconfidence or even cockiness.

And if you’re still not convinced, know this: the people that matter have really good bullshit detectors, and you probably don’t want them thinking you make stuff up.

Personally, when I’m at work and I can tell someone is making something up instead of just saying they’re not sure, I lose a lot of trust in what that person tells me and immediately prefer to get information from other people. (I don’t mean to be mean or harsh, it’s just that having accurate information is important to my job, and if they’re making something up and I recognize it, how many times have they made something up and I haven’t recognized it?)

Confidence is knowing when you don’t know something, and being confident enough in yourself that you can admit it. So, say “I don’t know.”

Conclusion and Further Reading

Confidence is a skill, largely composed of basic behaviors that anyone can master. The above tips should help anyone develop the skill of confidence, as well as apply it appropriately. Anyone can be naturally confident!

Mastering the skill of confidence does not replace being actually skilled at something substantial, so the tips on this page will only get you so far. After mastering these basics, if you want even more confidence, you’ve got to work for it, by continuing to learn and improve your skill set.

Best of luck on your journey!

Further reading: Speaking Up Without Freaking Out by Matt Abrams, or any of his talks

boats on calm water

Meditation: Learn to Live in the Moment

If you’ve ever heard of David Foster Wallace, you will probably find familiarity in “this is water”. Wallace gave a commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. When two fish were swimming in the ocean, meandering the corals and floating algaes, one asked the other, “what do you think about the water?”. The other thought, and replied, “what is water?”

Wallace describes this as the blatantly obvious reality that is in front of us. Yet, what is right in front of us is sometimes the hardest thing to see. When we let our default, unconscious mind makes the decisions for us, we forget that we have the autonomy to think for ourselves. We forget to practice choosing what we think about, how we think about it, and why we put energy towards those things. Our realities don’t lie directly in front of us, in our abilities to utilize the expansive neurological messaging that happens every moment we are alive. 

Andy Puddicombe presented in a 2013 TedTalk, about a Harvard study that said our minds are lost in thought 47 percent of the time. Meaning, we spend nearly half our lives confused or with our minds adrift. 47 percent of the time, we are not living in the present moment and focusing on the reality in front of us. This consistent mind wandering is also a direct result of unhappiness. Why?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Think to yourself…

  1. Do I get distracted easily when I try to do work?
  2. Am I often stressed out for a deadline, even if I know I have time to complete it?
  3. Do I feel anxious about being anxious?
  4. Do I overthink past conversations or past doings?
  5. Do I often forget what I was planning on doing?
  6. Do I simply just forget what the next word was going to be out of my mouth?

If you answered yes to most of these, it is a sign that you probably struggle keeping your mind in the present. It is also a sign that you may be unhappy for these reasons: lack of productivity, forgetfulness, rework, etc. 

But we get it, life is hard. One of the most common talked about issues in health is depression and mental illness among young people. Mintel Insights reported that millennials are one of the most stressed generations of our time. Job market competition is ever-increasing, couples are getting married later, women are prioritizing careers over motherhood, and stresses of taking care of parents reside on their shoulders. Gen Y and Gen Z are the most technologically advanced generations. They’re growing up with daily exposure to media influencers, videographers, and other socialites. The Social Dilemma documentary relays the harm social media can do to adolescent minds, with many teenagers facing issues of self-doubt, false identity, and depression. But none of this is new information. So, what is there to do?

Let’s begin with science.

Research has shown the positive correlations between stress reduction and mindfulness exercises. This is no kale eating, smoothie drinking, yoga instructor with an over enthusiastic “hi!” type nonsense. Mindfulness trains the mind to decompress in high-stress situations. It enacts the parasympathetic nervous system for not only solution-based benefits but also conducted for preventative measures. It requires guidance and training just like any other new learned skill or hobby. 

Andy Puddicombe’s TedTalk on mindfulness, balance, and utilizing the present moment.

Many people hold a misconception about what meditation actually is. It’s not trying to envision a blank slate – to see or feel nothing. Our brain is a running machine that receives messages even when we’re not aware. But, meditation helps train the awareness of the present. It helps train your ability to focus. When thoughts or feelings enter the sphere of stillness, they do not corrupt that stillness, but rather exist and then go away. The practice is not in combatting thoughts and feelings that pop up in our heads, because it’s bound to happen no matter what. The practice is in acknowledging them but not putting energy towards them, so that they can move on. Meanwhile, your breathing remains calm and your body and mind remain relaxed.

Here’s what you can do.

In practicing meditation, you can unlearn old habits and relearn how to live more attentively, calmly, and in the present. Ten minutes a day serves not just that day but a lifetime ahead. We can’t keep things from happening in our lives, and we can’t change the past. However, we can use meditation as a tool to help us change the way we experience what happens in our lives. And with that, hopefully we can begin to see our lives in the reality in front of us with a mind that knows that this is water.

successful man on mountain top with arms outstretched

How to Succeed at Anything New

Are you looking to start a side hustle or make a career change? Or perhaps you’d like to pick up meditation or eat less junk food?

Or maybe you’re trying to make a change for the second (or third) time, and you want to see it through this time?

Regardless of what you’re doing, there are a few key things that will help you harness your motivation and turn it into productive action. If you’re trying something new, here’s how to succeed at it.

Start somewhere

The #1 most important thing to do is to start somewhere. It’s easy to get caught up in the details, logistics, and planning, but the best way to start something new is – surprise! – to start doing what you want to do.

You should not try to become an expert before you start. That’s because you’ll learn a lot more through the process of doing, and what you read will make a lot more sense once you start. If you’re the type who likes to research something extensively before doing something new, that’s fine, but don’t let researching get in the way of starting!

Also, you should not try to be perfect. This is super important. As the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of done,” or in our case, “perfect is the enemy of starting something new.” You probably want a stellar result from your new thing eventually, but that will come with time and practice, which is all the more reason to start with what you can do today.

Excellent ways to start somewhere:

  • Picking up meditation? Close your eyes and take three deep breaths, focusing your attention on each breath. Congratulations, you just started somewhere!
  • Finding a new job? Submit one application today. Your resume doesn’t have to be perfect; you’ll be applying to other jobs and improving your resume as you go.

Ride the waves 🌊 of motivation

Your motivation is your most valuable resource.

You are most productive when you are motivated.

When a wave of motivation comes, take advantage! When the wave subsides, keep progressing, but don’t expect the same level of productivity from yourself as when you were riding the wave.

This is also why I think planning is overrated. Motivation waves don’t operate according to a schedule. In my experience, riding the waves is way more productive than sticking to a regimented schedule.

Reduce barriers to entry

Starting something new can be hard, but you can make it easier by reducing “barriers to entry.” What this means is that it should always feel easy to continue working on your project. This will help you maximize the output you get from each wave of motivation.

One of the big “barriers” is the willpower barrier. If you’ve had a long day, your willpower may be exhausted. (Yes, it runs out!) You want to minimize the willpower it takes to work on your project so you can make progress even when your willpower is low.

An excellent way to reduce the willpower barrier is to accept from yourself whatever you have to offer. Did you plan to practice guitar for an hour, but you only practiced for 15 minutes? Congratulate yourself on practicing for 15 minutes; that’s infinitely better than 0 minutes! You could even try to not plan to practice for an hour in the first place.

Another great way to reduce the willpower barrier is to reduce the time it takes to get working on your project. If it takes 10 minutes to set up your workstation, can you get that down to under 1 minute?

Beware sideways progress 🦀

Sideways progress is progress that takes time and energy but does not get you closer to your goal. It is so important to not waste your valuable motivation on moving sideways.

Examples of sideways progress are:

  • Updating your schedule/plan for doing your new thing too often, instead of using that time to do the new thing
  • Feeling like you need to know more, but ending up researching things that are unrelated
  • Spending a lot of time picking a slightly better WordPress theme, meditation pillow, etc.

Allow yourself to “fail”

“Failure” is often a Very Good Thing.

Did you know that when you get an answer wrong, you have more brain activity than when you get it right? Yes, that means you get smarter when you fail.

A lot of people say that perseverance is the key to success, but this ignores the possibility that you may have picked something that is not to your taste. It also ignores the possibility of you wanting to try something different. Are you supposed to keep doing everything you’ve ever tried for the rest of your life? 🤔 Probably not.

Giving up on a project or putting it aside for some time may feel like failure to you, but that doesn’t mean it was a loss! If you happen to hate some aspect of your project, it’s really valuable to know that. Or perhaps you learned a new skill that you can apply to a future project.

Some very successful people have “failed” multiple times in the conventional sense! (I won’t spoil it for you–read Range by David Epstein to figure out who they are.)

Always allow yourself to truthfully evaluate if your project is still for you. We sometimes have to put things aside so we can progress towards the next new thing.

Conclusion

How to succeed at anything new: Start somewhere. Use your most valuable resource well. Beware of things that distract from what you’re really trying to do. If your new thing is not for you, take stock of what you’ve learned and let yourself try something new, again.

Brown Wooden Blocks on White Surface

Sources and further reading