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Don’t learn everything at once

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I've also learned that only through focus can you do world-class things, no matter how capable you are.—Bill Gates, Microsoft

In my first job out of college, I was a programmer working “week on/week off” which was really cool. We’d work 12 hours a day for 6 days, Thursday through Wednesday (with Sunday off), and then take a week off. “On” days were long (!) but we found two teams working in shifts reduced mistakes that were more likely with three teams. And of course, “week on/week off” was a great recruiting tool!

On my “off” weeks, my pal Jay taught me to play golf. Of course I’d played a little before but never really had the time to get any good at it. What really worked for me was the way Jay taught me to clubs. Initially I was only allowed to carry a 2, 6, and putter. Darn it! I have a whole bag of clubs! But we started with just a few. Once these were mastered, he allowed me more clubs.

So often, when you’re trying to learn something new, the topic can be overwhelming. Maybe we’d be better off to follow Jay’s advice and pick just a few clubs.

Lately everybody seems to be saying you should learn to program. But unless you have a reason—an application—you’re unlikely to stick with it. Same for a web site, or a blog, or whatever.

A friend hasn’t used Excel in years but thinks she should know it. But no matter how she tries, she just can’t get into it. The problem is, she doesn’t need it. She doesn’t have an application. And I’ve found that can’t really learn something until you have an application for it—a real need.

In my years teaching product management workshops, people often said they wished they’d had the course when they started. But I wonder. Too many clubs just make for a confusing bag. Maybe new product managers need to ease into the job. (Particularly when everyone else in the company is desperately trying to dump their work on the new guy.)

Nowadays what I try to do is introduce people to frameworks just when needed. I have a bucketful of business frameworks—like three horizons, five forces, the S-curve of adoption. The trick isn’t to know the metaphor; the trick is to know when and how to apply it to your business problem.

What clubs should you start with? See my article Your first days… as product manager.

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