Since leaving school I have been trying to figure out if I want to be a generalist or a specialist. When you are the founder of a startup it’s important to have generalist skills. You need to understand how to sell, how to make a good product, how to tell a good story, how to code a little, pitch a little, tweet a little, write a little. You need to be an Expert Generalist.
I was 23 when I raised my first real venture capital money and became the “CEO” of a startup. I was not qualified to be a CEO and in fact, calling myself a “CEO” is a bit of an exaggeration. To start with I was the CEO of a company of 2 people. Sure, we quickly hired and grew and scaled but I was still the CEO of a very small business. I was plagued with the fear that I wasn’t good enough. My co-founder (who was ten years my senior) and I actually had a very vocal and very aggressive disagreement about my role as the leader of the business. He outright told me that I was too young to be the CEO of a startup, to which I responded and told him he was too old to be building products for 20-year-olds.
Unsurprisingly that partnership ended badly. But I digress.
The experiences I’ve had from the age of 18 all indicate that the world back then was looking for specialists with deep experience in limited fields. If I wasn’t a software engineer then I had to be a CEO. If I wasn’t a product guy then I had to be a sales guy. There was no room for people with a diverse skill set. As I was coming up in my career it was all about deep experience in a single speciality.
I have experienced imposter syndrome throughout my life but prefer the term, imposter phenomenon. Mostly because the idea that we feel like we don’t belong actually pushes me to level up, learn more and diversify my interests.
And this is where I believe it’s important to broaden your interests. Sure, you can spend your entire life becoming the most efficient software engineer in the world and there is a great need for people just like this. But I believe the most interesting and exceptional people are those who smash together unexpected things. That’s what makes interesting people interesting. Interesting people are interested in a wide range of unexpected things that give them a unique perspective through which they see the world, solve problems and exist.
Think about your favourite street in the world. I’m fond of Broadway Street in Manhattan. It cuts through the city in a strange and unexpected way. It’s interesting, long and buzzing with energy.
You can spend your entire life walking down Broadway, with certain shops and shop owners, specific kinds of customers and a certain feeling about the street. The buildings are huge and line the street which cuts diagonally across the city blocks of Manhattan. You can spend your entire life walking down this street and getting to know every inch of it. You love this street. You are obsessed with this street. You talk about this street all the time and people get to know that you are the expert on the topic of this street, its history and its potential future. You are this street and you peg a large part of your identity to this street.
Then one day the friend you are walking with has an errand to run on a street that intersects yours. So you turn left and follow them for the first time down a new street which leads you to central park.
This new street has trees that are old and lean over the walking paths to make a beautiful canopy that the sun shines through in speckles of light. There is magnificent graffiti that the sunlight illuminates as you pass by each mural. The paths have a different energy to them, the nature of central park excites you and entices you. It makes you pause and think about new and different things. You have new fields to look at, new bricks to admire, new stores on the other side of the park to visit, new people to meet, new cars to dodge and dogs to pat. Everything is different now.
You have changed your input and you start thinking about things you didn’t know you wanted to think about. You start seeing your old street in a new light and reliving moments from that street but with a new breath of perspective that the park in front of you willingly provides.
This street has changed something in you. It hasn’t wiped away the experiences you’ve had in your old, trusted street but it has given you something new to admire and to think about.
This is the intersection of new, interesting and unexpected things.
The old street is your X experience. The new street is your Y experience.
The combination of the two intersections is your XY Factor.
It is the smashing together of unexpected things that make people interesting.
What is your XY Factor?
Which unexpected streets are you walking and crisscrossing? Are you only the yoga guy or the gym lady or the gamer boy or the skater girl? Have you spent your life mimicking the interests of other people in case you stand out too much or look too different or bore people?
If you are trying to break out of your norm and shift the way you see the world and people see you then doing the same thing over and over again isn’t going to cut it.
Without understanding why, I have been intellectually hedonistic for most of my life. I follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. I played rugby at school while playing the guitar in my spare time. I went to university to study journalism and ended up starting a band, running a bar and playing in the shitty football team. I studied philosophy and economics (which I failed). I took classes in history and psychology and expanded my input so that I could change my output.
This intellectual meandering stuck with me throughout my life and believe that my continuous hunt for new XY Factors helps me stay interested in the work that I do and how I experience life.
Creating new and unique XY Factors pushes your brain to solve problems in ways that you may not have seen before. New streets bring with them new experiences, new knowledge, new lessons and the compounding effect of these new insights layering on top of your existing XY Factors is exponential.
We are all trying to find our place in the world but we don’t want to make that place too crazy, intense or unusual in case we stand out too much. We shy away from our quirky interests and strange curiosity and lean towards watching hours of sportsball every week in the hope that it will plug some hole in our lives.
We want fame, fortune, wealth and praise but we also want to read what everyone else reads, watch whatever Netflix tells us to watch, listen to the best selling audiobooks and follow the most popular social media people that everyone follows. We want to be something but only if it’s what others want too.
Walking down my favourite mental street is great and familiar and makes me happy but it’s the intellectual nooks and crannies, crevices, back alleys and pathways that keep me engaged, interested and interesting.
My very smart friend Rich Mulholland covers this concept of streets and avenues in an interesting way. Give this a listen: