How skateboarding influences the way I work

An unconventional approach for an unconventional job as a product designer at Nubank.

Let me introduce myself. I’m Mateus Peixoto, a product designer at Nubank — the leading fintech company in Latin America.

After two full years working here, I can honestly say that there’s very little one can do to be prepared to work in a startup. The pace is different; the organizational structure is different; the way that people interact is different. At a startup, you’ll find out that many of the things you’ve previously learned in a more traditional company are not necessarily valid. And that’s a good thing.

The truth is, I could never work in a conventional company after tasting what a startup environment feels like.

Honestly speaking, my previous work experience did not set me up for this challenge — however, being a skateboarder and living the skateboarding culture has helped a lot since I joined Nubank.

Skateboarding influenced the way I face new challenges — I’d like to share four things it taught me and have helped my professional life. But, before that, let me give you some context.

Skateboarding?

For those who have never tried riding one, a skateboard might be nothing more than a toy. But for those who managed to perform at least one trick… Oh! It is so much more. Doing one trick will get you hooked — or, to put it better, it will make you realize skateboarding was already part of you — you just didn’t know it yet.

That was my case.

Skateboarding defined my adolescence. The majority of the friends I had at the time were skateboarders. We’d even dress and speak the same way. But skateboarding didn’t just influence the way I looked: it also affected the way I learned how to see the world.

Actually, the skateboarding culture had such an impact on me that, to this day, it influences my professional life — and this is what I want to share with you in this post.

Dealing with fear

To be a skateboarder, you got to be a little insane. Or at least detached. Rationally speaking, skateboarding is a recipe for disaster: a human being trying to maintain balance on a wooden board over four wheels, going down a handrail with a very high chance of landing crouch-first on it.

Why do people expose themselves to such danger? Adrenalin, the challenge, overcoming limits, the satisfaction of landing a trick, being able to say “I can”.

These are just some of the answers.

To achieve all that, you have to put your fears aside and go for it. I’m not saying one should overcome fear — fear is essential. The thing is learning how to take calculated risks.

No skateboarder will jump a 7-step staircase without having jumped a 5-step one, and 3-step one, and a curb. You have to build your skills to build your confidence. But fear is always there.

At work, every new project feels like a 7-step staircase for me. There’s always fear; there’s always anxiety. At the beginning of every new project, I’ll be like: ‘I have no idea how I’m going to get this done, but let’s do it.’ It is the mix of fear, anxiety and adrenaline that makes landing a trick so special — just like tackling a new project.

As in skateboarding, working in small and medium projects help to build the skills I need to face the big ones.

You have to build your skills to build your confidence. But fear is always there.

Experimentation

Skateboarding is all about experimentation and improvisation. The skateboard was born because surfers wanted to practice when the weather was bad — so they’d take roller skate parts, get a good piece of oak, shape it like a surfboard and screw everything together.

A skateboarder’s mind is always adapting. ‘I’ll hop on that sidewalk, then go to that ramp and land this trick, and then, if I can get a little speed, I could slide down that rail. Hmm. But there’s a crack on the ground. Let’s throw some plywood over it. Yeah, it might work. Let’s do it.’

Skateboarding makes your mind run in a sequence of “what ifs” — and that’s not restricted to the tricks. The board, the hardware, clothes and skateparks — all essential items to the skateboarding culture — were the result of pure experimentation.

The freedom you get from trying new possibilities is one of the reasons why skateboarding is so much fun.
In fact, that’s why skateboarding is still relevant: because it’s always reinventing itself.

This spirit has a lot to do with working in a digital startup. A startup is an experiment in its essence. There’s a hypothesis, and the company’s job is to prove it.

The factors in the experiment may be different from what was expected, though. Users may behave differently from what was predicted, or the economy could go bad, so the team must be flexible and creative enough to respond to this always-changing environment.

So companies have to be a safe place for experimentation where employees have permission to take risks — and, by consequence, make mistakes. It’s almost impossible to innovate if the company doesn’t take risks.

© Cezar Berger (also the layout of the cover of this article)

Fellowship

My skateboarding friends and I had a one for all, all for one kind of thing. If one of us didn’t have enough money to buy skate parts, somebody would offer a spare one. If anyone was having a hard time learning a new trick, all you needed to do was ask. Somebody would help you with all the little details.

And most importantly: we wanted everyone to be together. This group-work attitude is something I keep to this day. Need help? Just ask.

My colleagues are “my gang,” and it’s important that we evolve together. Besides helping other people and learning from them, this approach makes our communication much more effective — as it helps people trust one another.

Be yourself

I remember this kid that came to the skatepark one day with a brand-new board, dressed all cool. He was a beginner but wanted to act like a pro. He started following us wherever we went, and he pushed too hard to look exactly how he was thought he should look to fit in.

He wanted so much to be part of us, and that was exactly the problem. We didn’t care how much “skateboarder” you looked nor how many tricks you knew. One of the best skateboarders of our crew was nothing like a stereotypical skateboarder.

When the kid finally gave up on looking like someone else, that’s when everyone accepted him. That was the moment we could see what he was about.

Before coming to Nubank, I was looking for a new job for almost one year. I started asking for advice, and a good friend came up and said: ‘Maybe you’re too generalist for those guys. Maybe you’ll have to focus on one aspect to catch their attention.’ It made total sense. It got me thinking for a whole week. But then I said:

‘You know what? I like to be a generalist. I’ll be myself. There are companies out there that like generalists. And, when the right time comes, things are going to work for me.’

And that was exactly what happened. Nubank has this belief that one should be able, or at least want to have a holistic view of things. So, applying for a job here was a match.

What about you?

Why did I share those stories? Well, because they worked for me, and if you also work in a startup, they might help you too, even if you’ve never skateboarded in your life. Also if you work in a big corporation, how do you see such lessons applied to your working life?

(Thanks to Lucas Terra, Lucas Neumann, Erick Mazer Yamashita, Paula Rothman and Juliana Morozowski.) 

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