How To Become More Unstoppable Every Day

Think you can't become a designer? Or a dancer? Or anything else you might dream up? Karen Cheng shows you can. (Note: Being obsessed and disciplined helps a lot.)

Karen X. Cheng is unstoppable.

Three years ago, she wanted to work for Microsoft Excel, so she put 100 hours into prepping for the interview--a tactic she's tried elsewhere and failed with. Then she realized she didn't want to be a product manager, so she became a designer--after learning the craft in one year. Then she realized she needed to learn how to dance--so she did that in one year, too.

There's a thread that runs through these three feats--and lets trace it after watching the video.

Karen X. Cheng - Dance In A Year

Hustling Up A Job

"Job hunting is like The Bachelor," Cheng wrote. "Only instead of choosing between 25 beautiful women, the recruiter must look at a constant stream of thousands of resumes and cover letters."

So like a would-be reality show star, you have to make yourself stand out, she says, which is hard to do given the gnat-like attention span meted out to each resume.

Cheng advocates the going super deep methodology; i.e., showing the person that you can already do great work for the position. (Which is, more or less, the only thing Google found predicts on-the-job success.) But if it's your dream job, Cheng says, putting 100 hours into a mockup project is better than thinking "what if."

Steeping Yourself In A Discipline

But even after you get what might be your dream job, you may grow weary after a while. After two years as a project manager on Microsoft's Excel team, she found she didn't want to be there anymore--or manage projects, either. After months of figuring out where her meaningful work would lie, she settled on design:

I decided to become a designer, but I had no design skills. I thought about going back to school for design, but the time and money commitment was too big a risk for a career choice I wasn’t totally sure of.

So I taught myself--everyday I would do my day job in record time and rush home to learn design. Super talented people go to RISD for 4 years and learn design properly. I hacked together my piecemeal design education in 6 months--there was no way I was ready to become a designer. But I was so ready to leave Microsoft. So I started the job search and got rejected a few times. Then I got the job at Exec.

Cheng's after-hours side hustle is evidence of one of the principles of building an antifragile career: When you have a secure but unsatisfying day job, you can take an unbridled bent to your next calling by night. And it goes to show that as Tim Ferriss would say, you can master any skill--if you break it down into pieces and practice well.

And learning to dance

And, as Cheng's popping and locking illuminates, skill acquisition isn't just for the office. You can learn to dance in a year--which gives the Fast Company staff some hope. She had a domain with the above time-lapse video, serving as a record of the "awkward body" that started its dance steps a year ago.

Like a good teacher, Cheng shares her technique:

Here's my secret: I practiced everywhere. At bus stops. In line at the grocery store. At work--Using the mouse with my right hand and practicing drills with my left hand. You don't have to train hardcore for years to become a dancer. But you must be willing to practice and you better be hungry.

The daily practice, she says, doesn't come from discipline; it comes from being obsessed. She's devoted, practicing at least five minutes every damn day, and using the app Lift to keep herself accountable. That kind of normalized momentum, we know, is the key to developing skills--regardless of whether you want to be dancing in Coca-Cola commercials like Cheng does now. Or managing projects. Or designing products.

Hat tip: Kottke

[Image: Flickr user Asela Jayarathne]

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14 Comments

  • Joe

    I am glad I read this article. I have been resisting going down this road, but now I feel empowered to. I just started teaching myself mobile app development. I looking forward to applying the "the going super deep methodology".

  • tgsf

    Articles like this just make me all the more depressed that I've yet to find any pursuits about which to become obsessive. I always feel as though I could do great things and be a great person - if I just knew what to do at all in the first place......

  • karenxcheng

    Thank you so much for writing this, Drake. You really captured the essence of what I believe - that this is not a video about dancing but about working at something you are passionate about. You told the story better than I could myself.

  • Lisa Cannon

    Karen thanks for sharing your story (and thanks Drake for writing it and putting it out there). So inspired by your approach. I have used a similar strategy of digging deep and coming up with a specific product / service idea. Did Evernote implement your journal idea? How did you get it to them?

  • Vyas Pokharel

    The story really energizes the one who is in search of his/her passion. I had never thought the way like Cheng has done to overcome her dream. I think I should also try to find out my passion and start working for it. Nice story Drake.

  • David Boucard

    Great story Drake, and congrats Karen, you are definitely inspiring. This is especially valuable when you are at croosroads in your career. No time better to try to master a discipline by yourself, and you rock it! 

  • Teddy Burriss

    Thanks for sharing Karen's story Drake. This is a great idea for job seekers and anyone else wanting to chase a dream and just don't know how to do it. How to get good at what they want to do and how to be discovered as someone with the skills & passion to be, what they want to be.
    Thanks again for sharing this story.

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