Senior year of high school, I received the Scholar-Athlete
award. This essentially signifies that I played a varsity sport while maintaining impressive grades. Considering the academic rigor and athletic weakness of my high school at the time, the second requirement was a far more legitimate accomplishment. Regardless, the award provided self-validation for the ways in which I spent my time (studying and practicing soccer). Walking up to the podium to receive my award, I was beaming.In addition to these end-of-season award ceremonies, my coach always selected a “Player of the Game.” This person may not necessarily have scored goals, but instead she may have made strategic runs and passes, epitomized the drills we practiced, slid for good saves, or even led from the bench. Each individual felt her self-worth on the team; her time on the field was well-spent.
To focus on studying, I didn’t play soccer for the entirety of college. A minor side note is that I wouldn’t have been good enough for any sort of league, anyway.
Entering the real world, I slowly worked my way back onto the soccer field. After weeks of pickup games, I joined a recreational league in San Francisco last August. It quickly became clear that in this league, scoring goals, no matter how, was the only thing that mattered. Advanced moves like header-goals off corner kicks or fancy footwork were forgettable if they didn’t result in a goal. There was no coach selecting a “Player of the Game.” Instead, each person’s value was easily measured by goals, assists, and mess-ups.
I joined the league in order to get my mind off work every so often. The first several months passed by quickly, each game serving the initial purpose. Every Sunday, I suited up, ran around for sixty minutes, then went back to my life and work.
Since August, as a midfield and forward, I have yet to score a single goal. My team has won a league championship, but I haven’t scored a single goal.
During a game two weeks ago, this fact and its accompanying self-doubt, which have slowly been flying through the air over the last several months, finally came down to slap me in the face like a soccer ball. I missed easy passes, I shied away from headers and chest traps, and my shots were well, not on goal. I heard disappointed remarks like “Ro, you should be there,” from the sidelines. A teammate playing defense even asked me to switch so he could play midfield instead. “We just need to be faster up there,” he said matter-of-factly. Beating others to the ball was the only skill I thought I had, and now, that was in question too.”They probably would be better off playing one woman down,” I scolded myself as I moved back to defense. “Have you never played soccer before?”
I continued lecturing myself on the way home.
Why are you doing this? What is the point of spending so much time traveling to and from these games when you don’t add any value? You might as well put more time into doing better at work. Or on your writing. You like like a prize idiot running up and down the wings.
Once home, I threw my cleats into the deepest recesses of my closet and opened my laptop. I had work to do.
Around the time that I joined the soccer league, I hit a career rut. After three years as a product manager at both a large company and a startup, I didn’t feel like my role had any value. Over the years, I grappled with the urge to create something myself. Product managers didn’t really get to do that. Stemming from that external validation that comes from a good grade on a paper you’ve written, I wanted to build or design something that I could touch and feel and say, “Wow, I did this.” Something that someone else could touch and feel and say, “Wow, fantastic job.” Instead, I frequently found myself going head to head with my designer when she didn’t want me forcing my mockups on her or he didn’t want me making interaction decisions without him. I found myself being told “we” couldn’t build something a certain way, but unable to see for myself.
One evening, after an especially full day of writing JIRA tickets and scheduling meetings, I broke down.
Why are you doing this? You don’t even do anything. Why don’t you instead go learn to code or to design? Why are you even in tech? You are not innovating anything. You are not creating anything of value.
Months later, the grief has waned and it has dawned on me how much I have grown into my product management role — and how much it has grown on me. As I share my products directly with customers through demos and testing, I spend time deeply understanding their needs and thinking about how I can innovate to meet those needs. I take what I learn back to my engineering and design teams so we can come up with improvements. I facilitate conversations to prompt product decisions. It all culminates when I am forced to think about all the feature requests and product changes that come from other teams and leaders. It is up to me to make the decision that benefits my users and is in favor of my engineers’ and designers’ time and effort. Every time, it is up to me to defend my team. A happy team and happy customers — this is the purpose of my role.
Two weeks ago, as I got back to work after my horrific soccer performance, I was struck by the fact that soccer wasn’t really a way to get my mind off work. In some ways, the two are actually tightly intertwined.
Being a product manager is a lot like being a member of the soccer team. Balls are constantly coming flying at you, and you’ll unquestionably miss some. But with some practice, you’ll pick yourself up and get the next one. And somehow or another, you won’t miss the ones that count. Notably, you won’t always be the one making the game winning shot, but by simply being on the field — making a run, blocking an opponent, or trapping a pass — you help your team get closer to a goal.At the core of my twin breakdowns was the absence of that hollow but self-aggrandizing validation I once received through awards and grades. No longer spending hours practicing soccer and hearing my coach commend my improvement or studying like crazy for high honors, I lacked physical proof that my time and contributions were valuable to myself and my team. What I overlooked, however, is the most important fact about our adult, working world:
When one person on your team shoots and scores, the entire team wins. And she couldn’t have made it to the net if it weren’t for every single other person on the field.