I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know And It’s Stressing Me Out

Perhaps you’re learning a new skill, diving deeper into an area of product, or trying to understand more about a specific domain. The most common question I find myself asking when I’m digging deeper into something I don’t know is “where do I even start?” This is both exciting and also, kind of terrifying. I don’t know what questions to ask, I don’t know what blogs to visit, and most importantly I don’t even know who I could connect with to ease my nerves and teach me. In this post I’ll outline my method for learning more about any subject and finding people to talk to to help you at each step of the way.

Start with the end. What’s your why?

What’s your end goal? What’s your “why”? Why do you want to gain this new skill or learn more about product. What do you feel you’re lacking? When I was first learning about product management I was actually comparing it with sales engineering to decide which direction I wanted my career to go in. My end goal was to decide what the next best step for my career would be. 

Since I was torn between two things I knew nothing about, I decided to just start reaching out to people on LinkedIn. I reached out to people who held the titles of sales engineer, solutions engineer or product manager. It was even better if a product manager went on to be a sales engineer or vice versa!

Here’s a LinkedIn message I actually sent:

After I talked with this gentleman, a few other product managers, and some sales engineers I decided I wanted to dive deep into product management. 

Become a student.

Think back to when you were in high school or college. Typically your teacher would give you a topic to research and then you’d come back with a report. You could use primary (first person accounts) or secondary research (books, newspapers, other credible media). It’s the same process now. I recommend reading a book or two (or three) on the subject you’re interested in and then start reaching out to those primary sources of information. This is how I found some of my best mentors. I read 2 books on product management, started reading some blogs, then reached out to people on LinkedIn who held the Director or VP of Product title who had been product managers before; I began to find the mentors I still rely on to this day. My message was very similar to the above message except I’d mention some of the books I read and that after reading them I had a few questions I was hoping to clarify with someone knowledgable in the subject matter.

Rinse and Repeat.

I’ve used this cycle every step of my career. When I went to the massive healthcare company I work for currently, I didn’t have a clue about anything in the healthcare domain beyond choosing my own health benefits on healthcare.gov years ago. That process confused me to no end (one of the main reasons I was excited to get into healthcare is because of just how many problems there are to be solved by a product person)! When I joined this company I started to read books, attend online courses, and read blogs on the subject. When I felt I had a high level understanding of the basics, I started reaching out to, and meeting regularly with subject matter experts in the specific areas I was passionate to learn more about. These people have become my domain mentors in healthcare. 

It’s OK to have multiple mentors

A question I get asked fairly frequently is, “Is it ok to have more than one mentor?” Of course! Not only is it ok, it’s encouraged to have multiple mentors. Typically one of your mentors will be very knowledgable in a specific subject, but not all subjects. For other subjects you might need to venture out. Your mentor might be able to connect you with other potential mentors in the subjects you’re curious about.