The T Model: A framework for learning, work, personal growth and non-linear career progression

The T Model is a framework I made to describe how to most effectively approach learning, work, and non-linear career progression.

In the T Model you alternate between a broad, horizontal phase and a deep, vertical phase, (though it’s actually an upside-down T because starting with the horizontal phase is a must) . In the broad, horizontal phase the goal is to try as many things as possible, and in small doses to maximize variety. You want to continue experimenting until you find many things you are passionate about and also accumulate many reference frames to better categorize and make sense of new experiences and information.

Once you have a huge pool of things that excite you, look to switch to the vertical phase, where you will hone in on a few specific passions and combine them, to do something tangible. (This tangible thing should be something you can point to quickly and say, “I did this” and the word “project” could be considered loosely accurate).

Going through this cycle is very simple conceptually, but rarely executed. But if you look at most successful people they’ve usually followed a path similar to this. This is because in order to be really successful at something you need to be passionate, you need to be able to focus, and increasingly you need to be interdisciplinary. Success without passion exists, but those people are usually severely unhappy and prone to burn out.

Often completing this cycle even once sets off a positive feedback loop, marking the start of a lifetime of engaged pursuit and contribution. On completion of the first cycle an internal flame is lit, that once ignited is very difficult to put out. John Seely Brown former head of Xerox Parc describes this phenomena as such, “Very often just going deeply into one or two topics that you really care about lets you appreciate the awe of the world … once you learn to honor the mysteries of the world, you’re kind of always willing to probe things … you can actually be joyful about discovering something you didn’t know … and you can expect always to need to keep probing. And so that sets the stage for lifelong inquiry.”

Many people don’t complete the T cycle because they get stuck in one phase or the other. People who get stuck in the horizontal phases are people who are very creative and always have lots of little side projects going on, but they suffer from a lack of “big wins”, that provide the reputation and credibility that lead to greater opportunities and chances for financial sustainability— not to mention that gratification that comes from pulling off something big. People stuck in this mindset are resistant to focusing on a particular project because they can’t bear the possibility of turning down an interesting opportunity. They fear picking only one thing would put them in a box, vaporizing their multi-facted identity they associate so strongly with. The lives they lead are very unique, but by not reaping the rewards from alternating into cycles of focus, they strongly limit their ability to realize their potential.

Many people also jump into a focus phase prematurely, spending all their energy on something they aren’t passionate about. This is more dangerous than being stuck in the creative phase because the extrinsic reward will be there for focusing even if the activity is done without passion. This often fools people into believing they are headed in the right direction for themselves. But people who make this error frequently end up suffering from burn out, hitting midlife crises or working tirelessly to reach the top of their field only to be left wondering why they are so unfulfilled and whether all the sacrifice was really worth it.

There’s also a large sector of the population who isn’t in either the creative or focus phase and are resigned to getting by with whatever pays the bills. While the onus is on the individual to find their passion, trying to do so in our education system is like swimming upstream against a level 5 rapid. And most people just get swept away. (Even at the better public and private schools, you’re still swimming upstream, just against a lighter current).

If you can complete even one T cycle, the rewards will start rolling in. Executing a project you’re passionate about is rare, and separates you from a cacophony of wannabes. Everybody talks about things they want to do, but few people have the self-discipline and initiative to make projects come to life. This scarcity of executors, makes people pay close attention to you if you are one, and opens up a whole new set of opportunities unavailable before. Opportunities will start chasing you down instead of the other way around. When this happens the second T cycle has begun. You now have the chance to explore horizontally again, this time with more freedom and opportunity.

The exploration here is much richer. You’re a more developed person. You have access to more people. You have more financial freedom. You get flown places to speak and are invited to contribute to more interesting projects. You have more influence, and as a result, people listen to what you have say and want to support or join your cause. This more intensive exploratory phase should lead to a new point of focus, where you can again combine your rapidly growing pool of knowledge, experiences and passions to build something new, likely more ambitious than your last.

As you turn the corner towards your second focus project, true interdisciplinary thinking begins to emerge. You can combine your breadth of knowledge on many subjects with the depth of your previous focus, charting new territory from a variety of informed perspectives.

All in all, a cycle probably takes anywhere from 2 to 7 years, so you have the opportunity to pursue both learning and doing many times in your life. And the T cycles start linking up very naturally. When they do that they begin resembling something like a series of s curves— a natural evolutionary growth cycle with some intriguing implications (to be explored later). Strictly interpreting the analogy of the T implies alternating between stages of being 100% horizontal and 100% vertical. But it is probably not realistic nor optimal to be one phase 100% of the time. A good rule of thumb is to allocate 80% of your time to the designated phase and 20% of your time to the other phase, i.e. 80% Creative & 20% Focus or vice versa. This allocation will also give the T smoother curves if graphed, creating a more natural looking S curve.

This model can be used as framework for decision making and allocating priorities in almost any field of interest. I’ve shared this model with numerous friends the last few months and many have appreciated the insight and clarity it has produced.

I hope to explore more facets and implications of this model. A few areas I’ve mapped out: The emotional journey through different phases. Why the T Model Works. How School Follows the Exact Opposite of the T Model, which is why students hate it. My Personal Path Along the T. Complimentary Theories to the T Model from Stefan Sagmeister, Seth Godin, and IDEO’s Tim Brown.

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