The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How can you find career support outside of your friends and family?” is written by Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder and COO of Cloudflare.
The rate at which you learn is very important to your career, whether you’re founding a company or starting out in a new job. When you’re learning and adapting quickly, you’re more likely to succeed in your endeavor, even if others are right on your heels.
It’s fine if you don’t know everything about the new project, role, or job on day one. Nobody does. You overestimate everyone’s abilities and underestimate your own. But the people who are the most successful, in any position, are always the ones who learn and adapt quickly. They’re intellectually curious, tenacious, and seek out answers.
It has been key to my career to look to other people for inspiration and guidance; sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t.
Connect with someone two to three years ahead of you and ask questions
One of our investors, Union Square Ventures, hosts yearly founder summits (a lot of venture capital firms do this). It’s at events like these where I’ll seek out fellow portfolio companies a few years ahead of me and ask a lot of questions related to problems we are thinking through.
A couple of years ago, I had breakfast with Julia Hartz, co-founder and CEO of Eventbrite. At the time, Eventbrite had a few hundred employees and was growing at a rapid pace—just a few years beyond where Cloudflare was. Julia shared with me the tools they were using to grow the company and how they thought about geographic office expansions. She answered all of my questions and I left the conversation better prepared to do my job that day.
Talking with people just a few years ahead of where you are can help crystallize problems that have been nagging at you and steer you in the right direction. After all, your peers are the ones who understand what you’re going through, and they’re usually willing to offer fresh and relevant input.
How do you find people like this? At conferences, go up to the speakers and introduce yourself. And then, follow up with them. Less than 20% of the people I talk to reach out to me after, so you’ll definitely want to find a way to stand out, and then be persistent. If you're a student, proactively reach out to people you admire. Having a .edu email address is actually a really powerful tool, since most professionals truly enjoy helping students.
Surround yourself with people smarter than you
Whenever possible, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. It’s uncomfortable, but every time you’re in a conversation where you don’t have a full grasp, you’re stretching yourself. Take these opportunities to listen, absorb, and reflect.
For instance, if you work in sales, have lunch with a group of engineers. If you are an engineer, grab a coffee with someone on the finance team. While it isn’t always easy, you should think of it as an opportunity to grow professionally.
If you can’t connect in person, leverage the Internet
While it’s great to connect with people in person, the easiest way to learn is to go online. I end every day by reading for over an hour. Twitter (twtr), Medium, Quora, and LinkedIn are tremendous resources for knowledge-sharing, and the Internet provides access to information to everyone, regardless of whether or not you know them.
I read blogs about technology trends from Chris Dixon, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, via Medium. I consume articles about how to scale SaaS companies from Jason Lemkin, aka the “SaaStr Guy,” who posts frequently. I read about what other CEOs and COOs have to say in the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know any of these people, but the Internet allows me to learn from them as if I do.
There are so many inspiring people to learn from, and valuable content is just a click away. As Charlie Munger puts it, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the time—none, zero.”