Tom Chi is brilliant (he was researching astrophysics at the age of 15), and has worked for many of the world’s most innovative companies–including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. But the chief product officer at Factory, and who was previously the head of experience at Google X, is not your average Silicon Valley visionary.
I helped organize Hive, which brought together 95 millennial leaders and entrepreneurs from 30 countries, for a three-day experience centered around how to align your work with your purpose. One of the most popular sessions at Hive is rapid prototyping with Chi.
Chi and his colleagues came up with the first working prototype for Google Glass using a coat hanger and a sheet protector commonly used by 4th graders for book reports. How long did it take them? One day. Actually, 45 minutes. Chi talks about how corporate cultures often stifle innovation. Decisions are not made by testing assumptions, but rather on ego. Arguments in most meetings, he says, are not won by the person with the most innovative idea, but the person with the greatest seniority and salary.
To prove the value of rapid prototyping in business and innovation, Chi made Hive participants ideate and test their assumptions in 25-minute cycles with materials like construction paper, markers, pipe cleaners, masking tape, and Play-Doh. The point: the more time you have to talk about your idea, the less you get done. Time constraints lead to creativity. Creativity leads to learning. Learning leads to progress. By building your idea quickly and getting immediate user feedback, you realize what’s not working, which gets you closer and closer to refining your product.
Rapid prototyping is not just about building technology. Chi has used rapid prototyping to help executives at General Electric launch new products, allow social entrepreneurs at The Unreasonable Institute to gain investment capital, and empower a community living on less than $2 a day in rural Mexico to improve their business model.
These principles can also be applied to designing your life and building a purpose-driven career. Here are a few important life lessons I learned from Chi, while playing with pipe cleaners and Play-Doh.
I know a lot of life coaches that want you to find your calling or passion or purpose as if it were as easy as swiping right on Tinder. Trust me, it’s not. Nobody has one calling or one purpose. Nobody has it all figured out. There is not only one answer. Your purpose is constantly evolving as you learn new things, travel to new places, make new friends, start families, raise children, build communities, and grow older. What was purposeful for you one year may no longer be purposeful for you a few years later.
Tom Chi has done everything from astrophysical research (at the age of 15), to Fortune 500 consulting, to developing hardware and software products used by millions of people, to helping social enterprises in the developing world. He is less concerned about guessing what his life purpose is, and more focused on being a life-long learner.
Don’t worry about finding the right answer; spend more time asking the right questions. Try new things, test assumptions, see what works for you, and learn what doesn’t. Realizing that a specific job or sector or working environment is not the right fit for you is not failure, it’s essential data that will help you find meaning and fulfillment in the future.
Rapid prototyping is all about learning as much as possible, as quickly as possible. You can apply this principle to career strategy as well. People often spend days, months, even years talking about the changes they want to make. Stop talking, start prototyping. Try making subtle changes to your job or daily routine that allow you to quickly test your fulfillment levels in different environments.
You can try working from home more often, joining a new team in your company, or working on a new project that excites you. If you’re overwhelmed in a full-time position and seeking more space for creative pursuits, move to a part-time role. If running your own business becomes too stressful or lonely, try working for someone else.
If you’re new to a field, look for short-term experiences in the form of apprenticeships, consulting opportunities, internships, or freelance gigs that offer on-the-ground learning and mentorship from people with expertise. Do not waste time. The best thing about short-term experiences is that if they aren’t the right fit, you can easily move on to something else in a few months. Often the best short-term experiences are not advertised on company websites or job boards. You may have to create one for yourself, which presents a fun experiment in rapid prototyping!
Okay, I don’t recommend burning your resume during a job interview. But try it as an experiment in flirting with boundaries. Resumes are extremely limiting. A resume is basically just a one-page list of your previous employers with your phone number on it. What about your future potential? The change you want to see in the world? Your reason for being? Your dreams? Your creativity? Your personality? Your side projects? The people you’ve helped? The communities you spend time with?
You are far more powerful than your resume would have someone believe. Try asking yourself who you are and what you want your resume to look like. Rapid prototype your 25 year-old resume in 25 minutes and see what happens. Does it look the same?
Most career advisors tell you to build a strong personal brand. Many college students already have a personal website or blog, and are active on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Social media can be a powerful tool for networking and promoting your work, but Tom Chi recommends not being too fixated on your identity, because it can limit your potential.
The more obsessed you are with creating a strong personal brand and the more specific that identity becomes, the harder it is to take risks and try new opportunities. The moment you establish yourself as the “the world’s most amazing tech entrepreneur,” might be same moment you realize you no longer care about being the world’s most amazing tech entrepreneur, and are ready to move on to a new challenge.
On the other hand, if you’re too focused on the infinite number of career possibilities available to you, and you never work hard toward developing the skills you need to be an expert, you won’t add much value to the projects you’re working on. Many people who find their work fulfilling have achieved a degree of mastery in their work. Try to seek a healthy balance between possibility and identity, between experimentation and expertise, between risk and stability, between unknown and known, and remember: everyone is different and there is no one way (or right way) to do this.
When Tom Chi was asked his thoughts on personal branding, he answered, “My brand is just doing these things. I don’t think about it too much.” It’s one thing to present yourself to the world in a way that looks good (which we all are trying to do), it’s a very different thing to actually spend your days living authentically. If you’re struggling to define your purpose or make a career transition, ask yourself what you actually want to be doing. If you were living in true alignment with your values, your gifts, and the impact you want to have on others, what would you be doing every day?
Chi notices that a lot of entrepreneurs are doing their work not because they care deeply about it, but because they are seeking external validation. “If 2 billion people are out of poverty and I’ve helped that happen, but I don’t get a magazine cover, I don’t give a shit,” he explains.
Your brand is what you do, not what you talk about doing. So, what would you do if no one was paying attention? What problem would you solve if you could solve any problem in the world? What possibilities would you create if the possibilities were infinite? What would you do if you could rapid prototype your career?
—Adam Smiley Poswolsky is the author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: A Guide for Millennials to Find Meaningful Work. Follow him @whatsupsmiley and get free resources in his newsletter.