I’ve noticed an odd trend amongst people. If someone is talking about something they don’t know about or that feels “over their head”, they disengage almost immediately. “mhm”. Nod and smile. Their phone screens suddenly become more interesting than listening to something they don’t know anything about. The past 2 years I’ve worked on developer heavy teams and know that my skill level today is in large part due to simply listening to conversations. Exposure to new ideas and even simply new words is invaluable. I remember the first time I overheard two developers at UNC talking about the previously mysterious setup of a database. Rather than turning the volume up, I took my headphones out and just simply listened. Learning through immersion is the easiest way to learn. Your surroundings naturally seep in into your train of thought and all you have to do is choose to listen. Rather than nodding and smile, lean in to listen. I’m not sure why this isn’t the norm. I theorize that maybe because the first 22 years of a lot of people’s lives are spent taking tests there’s a lack of an incentive without a grade or people are simply burned out.
When I worked briefly at Earnest, I was the 16th employee in the company and, at one point, the only person on the Client Happiness team. Rather than diving into my own work out of sheer panic, I realized the best thing I could do was to listen and to sit in as many meetings as I could because client happiness was much more holistic than other teams. I needed to know what the design was for the application process, what states the legal team was focusing on moving towards, and how the engineering team stored our client’s information so that I could accurately and quickly answer questions that might come up from clients. Like many other startups in San Francisco, Earnest was a big believer in transparency and anyone could attend any other team’s meeting. Each week, I carved out time and worked hard to ensure that I had the time/ability to sit in on the design, engineering, business, legal, and risk meetings. Beyond just making me better at my job, I have taken away an immense amount of knowledge and, what I call, “free experience” by sitting in these meetings and learning from other team’s mistakes & successes.
Now that I’m at Automattic, I have the same access to transparency but on an even larger scale. I can dive into any team’s P2 and “listen” to what they’re doing. I can go back in time and read through how a decision came to be that now affects my day to day life. There’s often talk internally about how to control the gigantic flow of information day to day with many choosing to cut down. I’m definitely in agreement that notification wise one must shut down this huge storm of notifications but I don’t think that means you shouldn’t engage with what other teams are up to. This isn’t something I’ve perfected but I have started testing out subscribing to random other teams blogs for a couple of days just to take a peek into their world and read their foreign words.
All of this is to say, be a listening sponge in a world full of brick walls. Immerse yourself in the noise so you can eventually understand rather than joining the hoards of people turning the volume up to drown out what they will only ever perceive as just noise. Listen with the same curiosity that you would when learning a new language. I can say first hand this has been my secret weapon in terms of learning effectively and quickly. Take a deep breath & listen. There’s a lot of awesome noise around you that you can eventually turn into music if you listen closely enough and long enough.