How do people prepare to make themselves a success? I know I fall prey to the occasional impulse to look up salary levels associated with a coding language I could learn or a team role I could fill. It's a nice little boost to tell yourself "Okay, so all I have to do is learn language 'X' and I'll double my income this year!" If you're breaking into a completely new industry and have no other point of reference, then maybe this approach will do you some good. Assuming you're already familiar with your field of work though, this technique can be a little like playing Russian Roulette with your time and energy on a potential without much guarantee. What's a better alternative? Try being yourself.
What Do I Bring to the Table?
Odds are, you have something you like doing. Given enough time and energy, you probably do this thing quite well. It can be as particular as responsive application of jQuery or as nebulous as coordinating and translating tasks between internal team members to ensure a quality project. If nothing jumps out at you, find some quiet time and think back on your last couple of weeks, last month, last year. Look for patterns in tasks you've undertaken and projects that have made an impression on you. Keep track of what left you feeling cold or unfulfilled versus what was a joy to do and had you hoping to do more of soon. It sounds like a rather basic under-taking, but it's something most of us don't do nearly often enough.
With at least a little insight in hand, what can we now do to make the most of our knowledge? Start looking for ways to apply it actively in your existing role. This will vary widely based on your position, team size, seniority, and who knows how many other factors. A few universals still apply to just about everybody though:
Learn more about what you love.
Since we're looking for ways to apply your new-found favorite skills, it's safe to assume none of us are industry-recognized professionals in those topics. Lucky for us, we can learn from these pros then! I've recently shifted into a role with far more user experience definition clout than I'm used to in a traditional team setting. While I'll be the first to say I enjoy the field and have a fair knack for it, I'm also keenly aware of how little referenceable material I have to justify decisions that will now affect my whole team. To that end I've been on a mission to plow through a lot of the work of UX specialists like Alan Cooper and integrate their experience with my needs and goals.
Look for unique applications of your skills.
We know what we like, and we know a few ways to back up our approaches. Now we really want to actually make use of all of this! First, take another look back at those "Aha!" moments before, and figure out what led up to them. What part of a project or interaction allowed (or even required) you to play the role that you enjoyed? Are you regularly involved in this process, or was this just a case of good luck? If it's not something you do regularly, try to get involved more often. Also look for other parts of your regular work that could benefit from similar processes.
Make your efforts a core part of your team's process.
Once you've identified existing or potential applications of your interest, DO IT. Talk to your boss or team leader about implementing your ideas or roles, even on a non-official or trial basis. Be up front with your teammates about your goals and ask for feedback on your contributions, both good and bad. Most of all, make sure the good stuff sticks. Do not let all this planning be a once-off fling that gets forgotten or passed over with the next project. Make sure that you add value and get that value recognized as widely as possible.
Positioning yourself and your skills well ensures that you both become an incredibly important part of your team's success and you get to regularly practice and get better at what you love. There's very little more professionally satisfying (or lucrative) than being an irreplaceable and perpetually improving part of a team. Where you go from here is up to you. Keep getting better at what you love, not what 'might' make you some better money. Make a name for yourself and give back to others who want to do the same. The more people in the industry who do what they love to the best of their abilities, the more we all grow!