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Skills First, Or Purpose First? A Call For ‘Y-Shaped People’

The Y-Shaped person has a ‘why’ or purpose that runs through them, and through everything they work on or take part in.

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Viktor E. Frankl

“Why did I spend so much time thinking about the design of their corporate office space, or how the teams could collaborate and communicate better, or researching how unhealthy these products were; when my brief was specifically to design beverage packaging for them?” This is what I asked myself a few years ago to help me discover some common threads that existed in my thinking, and how I approached projects.

It didn’t matter if I was doing branding for consumer goods, or a customer journey for an airline, or furniture design, or fashion, or tech; there were some common themes I always tried to embed in the projects. The ‘what’ (the project) didn’t matter because I had a much stronger interest in ‘why.’ I wasn’t always aware or this, or consciously making these decisions, I think it was just part of my authentic self.

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”
John F. Kennedy

I first heard the term ‘T-Shaped people’ about five years ago when I joined Google. I liked it, I thought it made sense and was a good thing to consider as we worked on growing the team, but it didn’t connect with me on any deep level.

If you haven’t heard the term before, here is an explanation from wikipedia:

The concept of T-shaped skills, or T-shaped persons is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of persons in the workforce. The vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.

The T-Shaped term and idea was first used in 1991. I’ve continued to hear and read about T-Shaped people, and how they are the desired type of person for todays work environment. I feel like we are missing something huge though. I think there is another way to look at other people, as well as how we look at ourselves.

To stay on the ‘letter’ theme, I’ve been thinking about the idea of Y-Shapedpeople. A quick search shows I’m not the first to think of using ‘Y,’ but my definition probably differs.

The Y-Shaped person has a ‘why’ or purpose that runs through them, and through everything they work on or take part in. Their values, their over-arching beliefs and philosophies are a part of everything they do.

When I looked back at all my projects a few years ago, I realized I’m like this. I always had some consistent themes running through the projects I worked on. I was a designer, but I don’t mean themes that were driven by aesthetics or trends; they were/are themes driven by my interests, values, and ‘big-picture’ goals in life.

I’m now much more aware of what consistently drives my thinking, and I make a conscious effort to apply them; but even before I was conscious of these themes, I couldn’t help but let the deep feelings and concerns become a part of everything I was doing.

The Y-Shaped person struggles when they are doing things that go against their core beliefs and values; or when projects simply don’t feel like they are coming from a meaningful place to begin with. It doesn’t really matter how much they are get paid, or how respected they may be; something just doesn’t feel right.

The Y-Shaped person senses that the only thing we can’t catch up on in life is time, and the Y-Shaped person wants to use that time for things that align with their values.

The interesting thing is that unlike T-Shaped people, everyone is a Y-Shaped person; but many, maybe even most, aren’t paying enough attention to their values, and seeing how valuable it is to bring them to life in everything they do.At times it feels like the world is changing and starting to value this more, but there is still a deep rooted system that seems to keep the ‘Y’ and the ‘why’ out of us. The education system, systemized tests, emphasis on memorizing and grades vs. learning and applying, resumes, job descriptions with 30 bullet points of ‘must haves,’ GPA, SAT, IQ over EQ, and on and on. It’s not surprising how few people bring their ‘Y’ to the foreground. But no one is a victim, we can all take steps to re-discovering our ‘why.’There are many people moving us in the right direction. Simon Sinek’s bookand TED Talk on ‘Start With Why,’ investment funds like Collaborative Fund focusing on mission driven companies, platforms like Skillshare who are facilitating education that starts with individual interest, Google admitting their focus on GPA for reviewing and hiring people had no benefits, the B-Corp business structure which only accepts mission driven companies solving social and environmental problems, and there are many other examples.I hope we get to a point where everyone is a Y-Shaped person first; we may or may not be the right fit for a certain company or job, but that will be very clear quickly because both sides will know ‘why’ they are doing what they are doing; and time, energy, money, resources, and stress can be eliminated by knowing that from the beginning. This will lead to better individuals, better connections, better teams, better companies, better projects, better outcomes, and maybe even a happier and healthier world. At least, that’s my ‘Y’ and ‘why.’

This article originally appeared on Medium
Title Photo Credit: flickr

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