T (shape) Your Way to the Top

It is always exciting to find a term that describes a concept you have spent years advocating and is at the core of what you have aimed to teach others because of its importance in your own life.

I have spent nearly a decade in education and frequently in my years as a teacher have preached on the notion that my students should realize my goal was to prepare them for jobs that do not exist in the world today. Ideally, if I could just foster and nurture their seed of passion, the following years of their education would be one of continued growth. We forget that as adults, and in the professional world, we eventually become our own teachers, guiding from our own podium what we need to learn and how to perform and succeed.

We live in a very fluid, dynamic, rapidly-changing world webbed with technology. The Library of Congress and more is at our fingertips, and in this information age, we are inundated with a cyber juggernaut that can be overwhelming. It is easy to feel ungrounded. Even the best of us feel we do not know what we are doing. I guarantee those writers, speakers, or industry professionals you idolize equally feel inadequate. You feel they have reached that pinnacle of success, yet the truth remains they are equally starstruck by others in their circle who they feel they cannot reach. We robe many of these people as icons of royalty, but we all as humans look inward as our own worst critic. It is that pattern that leads to unnecessary intimidation. We all have a strength. We should all strive to become “T-Shaped” and have the confidence to reach out.

My aha moment occurred while reading a blog post by Brad Frost, whom I met ata web design conference at Penn State a year ago. In my continued research, occasionally in the professional world you will find job postings seeking people with a T-Shaped skillset or, simply, T-Shaped people.

Sparing you of the term’s origins and history, in its most basic definition, the vertical bar of the T represents one’s depth of knowledge in a particular discipline; the horizontal bar along the top illustrates one’s ability to collaborate with others across various disciplines of knowledge. The alternative would be I-Shaped, having depth in a single field of discipline, drilling deeper, but without broadening.

I’ll use the metaphor of a tree.

Like a T, we must set roots, form a trunk, and take what we learn and branch out in our breadth of knowledge. The branching out part is what is truly important.

I hope all children experience that moment where an interest jumps on them and refuses to let go. For me, it was computer programming and writing. Some have said the two are vastly different, but to me, both suggested a love for language: syntax and parameters is to writing code as grammar and structure is to written discourse. This sapling of an interest became an obsession, became my trunk. My obsession with programming and writing came during a pivotal time. Those files and documents I spent long hours on were confined to the magnetic tape of reformatted mailed floppy discs. (Thanks, AOL, by the way.) Then came HTML and dot-coms. I was now a web designer.

Defining and fostering that vertical bar of the T is important in setting a foundation, but equally important is being able to communicate with people who have their own specialization different from ours. That is how we learn. Everyone has their own slice of life. It is always exciting to hear new things and share in the experiences and expertise of others. Unknowingly, over the years I was driven to expand my initial skillset into taking on the sky of other learning opportunities by listening to and learning from people who I saw as the masters of their craft, much like how a tree grows a network of branches all extending from a native, foundational trunk.

Innovation occurs when you combine two seemingly different things. Perhaps George Carlin put it best in saying, “you can take and nail two sticks together like they’ve never been nailed together before and some fool will buy it.” How true. The greatest idea is sometimes just that easy. How often have you seen a product and said you should have invented that? Why didn’t you? (Why didn’t I?)

The hiring world places a lot of focus on skill sets. Job postings rattle of the latest software, skills, experiences, and other jargonistic terms preferred to be in the genetic profile of their applicants. While knowing an industry is important, how undervalued is one’s ability to communicate and learn? Many employers will add excellent written and oral communication is a must, but the clarification stops there at the period. Ironically, it is a copy and paste request void of saying “I want employees who can confidently intermingle among colleagues unlike themselves, gain a greater scope of knowledge, learn quickly on the job, and bring forward new and progressive ideas and methods.” Today’s students need to embrace a love for learning outside of quantified limitation.

I have worked with and alongside many great teachers. As a whole, our educational system has streamlined students in a way that has at times snuffed creativity. Often, I have had to remind myself that the adolescent student in my class who seemed to be in his own world, playing aimlessly with a broken piece of ruler, some tape, and a crumpled piece of paper that once resembled last night’s homework might be onto great things. In my ignorance, the mess on his desk might be a prototype, the germination of a passion, the start of a new idea that has no place in just following directions. With my children, I also need to frequently stop this urge to control and step in. Following directions is simply repeating what has already been done. Our future depends on those willing to adventure the uncharted, tap into the fantastical, and grow in this confidence of learning that allows us to limitlessly experience a world of people just like us, just different.

Thanks for reading! Your feedback, comments, and questions are always appreciated.

About the Author

Jason Winter is the Owner / Web Designer of WinternetWeb Technologies, LLC (www.WinternetWeb.com). Jason has a unique background of technical skills and programming merged with an English degree from Virginia Tech, a Masters of Science degree from N.C. State in Technical Communication, and several years as an educator. He has become growingly more passionate in blogging and speaking at conferences. If you enjoyed this article, kindly share it with your networking community. Comments are always welcome.