How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse…

The world of instructional design often reminds me of a zombie wasteland- unfamiliar territory lending itself to both trial, error, and frequent failure. A world filled with hoards of easily distracted yet still hungry learners clamoring to devour engaging food for thought. Zombie themed entertainment just might be my favorite genre. I love a good apocalyptic conversation. From what I can gather, survival depends heavily upon the ability to surround yourself with the right people, choose a formidable place to set up camp, and arm yourself with enough skill diversity and depth to weather the storm. From what I have seen, the characters who fared the best were those who had both a well-honed specialty and a broad range of functional abilities. I think this holds true for the instructional design world as well. But, which skills?

In a world where waiting to know enough before beginning equates to too little too late, how do we go about surviving without completely burning out? One possible solution is to develop a T-shaped skill set.

I first read about T-shaped skills in a blog post by instructional designer Christy Tucker. People with a T-shaped skill set have a broad understanding of many skills and a deep understanding of a few (or one!). I was drawn to the concept because it articulates an idea that I have personally struggled to describe. With the rigors of life often requiring me to run in all directions at once, I have survived by doing this very thing–relying on a few deep skills paired with many broad ones. Not only does this practice keep me thoroughly entertained, it has left me with a distinctive perspective, and unique ability to collaborate. So, how does one go about becoming a T-shaped person? While I am far from an expert at skill development, I will offer a few of my own observations.

First, Get Comfortable in the T Zone

To grow broad skills, we must allow them to be enough. While an apocalyptic survivor doesn’t have time to become a master sewer, they do need to know enough to make their clothing serve its purpose. As my Dad says, “It might not look amazing, but it works.” In my days as a PE teacher, I quickly learned that novice students need their own set of instructions. Not every student is ready to perform a jump-serve in tennis. For some, raising the racquet to nudge the tennis ball into the correct spot opposite the net is a win. True Story!

Second, Shorten the Learning Curve

One great way to shorten the learning curve is to use the right resources. Our friends in the zombie wasteland will fare much better if they spend the time to locate proper weapons and map strategies for avoiding zombie herds. The same holds true for instructional design. Whether it’s technology, education, or strategy, the choice to invest in sound resources can save time (and sometimes money) and improve production quality.

Third, Mind Your Physical and Mental Energy Reserve

Although 2020 has admittedly been a crazy year, I have never actually lived through a zombie apocalypse. That said, life is hard. I have learned to ask myself, “Does this get the job done?” and “How much of myself am I willing to invest here?”. We each have a finite amount of time and energy to get through an ever growing list of demands. Taking the time to evaluate and prioritize can really help when we walk the line between ID rockstar and ID burnout.

Somewhere between realizing that I didn’t have to be someone else’s version of great and finding out that learning new things is a thrill all its own, I found the joy in embracing life as a T-shaped person. In a way, it has been a breath of fresh air.

If you are interested in taking a deep dive into becoming a T-shaped person, there are some excellent resources available including this blog post by Ransom Patterson and this one by Christy Tucker.

Do you have strategies or experiences in developing T-shaped skills? I would love to hear about them…

Thanks for Reading


7 Responses

  1. Wow! This is such a great blog post! The first thing that I love about this post is how you relate the skills of an instructional designer to surviving a zombie apocalypse. While I hadn’t previously thought in those terms (and I really like the zombie genre as well), it is absolutely true. I am only now beginning to realize that to be successful in instructional design, I must make a more concerted effort to connect with the right people, places, and skills to aid in my professional development. I also need to be more selective in terms of how I use my resources, time, and energy.

    I think that the concept of the T-shaped skill set will definitely help guide me along that path, and is a great tool. I have a tendency to try to take on too much and become overwhelmed as a result. Due to my background in a few different professions, the one thing that I can say with confidence is that it has led to me obtaining a broad set of skills. Unfortunately, that also means that I never really mastered any subject in depth.

    After being in this degree program, I have learned that the proper weapons and map strategies for my professional development must include more technical training and some (unpaid) work experience. Ransom Patterson’s blog suggests working on a variety of projects and using them to evaluate your progress. While I have done this using projects from our instructional design course work, I am interested in seeing what I can produce in the “real world”.

    • Hi Kristin,
      Thank you for your kind words. I am so glad that you enjoyed my post. It was definitely a lot of fun to write. Finding the right strategies really is half the battle for me so discovering this T-shaped skills approach has been a big source of relief.

      I too feel like one area I lack is professional development. My experience is industry adjacent- but not necessarily things that will get me past the HR screening. The jump from -I have a degree- to -I have experience and a degree- can be difficult to tackle. I love your suggestion to do some volunteer work in a variety of areas to both evaluate my skills and grow my real world experiences.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts,


  2. During the process of interviewing for my first instructional design job, I asked the existing IDs on the team, “What’s the hardest part of the job?” One of their answers has stuck with me all these years later. He said it’s hard to know when to “let go” of a course, to quit fiddling with it. There is always something else that can be done to improve every course; you can never make a course perfect.

    Your third point above about the mental and physical energy reserve is related to that idea of letting go of perfection. I’ve created over 60 courses in my career, and none of them are perfect. I could go back right now and make improvements in every single one. But at some point they have to be “good enough” to be used. Sometimes I do get the opportunity to go back and improve courses, but often I’ve learned I just have to be OK letting go.

    • This is excellent advice. I love it. Letting go really is a beautiful thing- as the road to perfection really is neverending. I have found that letting go also creates space for creativity and authenticity that might otherwise go undiscovered.

      Thanks for the insights and encouragement-much appreciated!

  3. Jenny, this is truly helpful and insightful, and I’m not just saying that as a person who has World War Z on her nightstand. In the process of trying to define my T Zone, I’ve been seeing in ads and hearing all around me that basically, IDs don’t know what they’re supposed to know. And many of us come to it with prior experience that shapes our T Zones in individual ways. We are a fascinating group of (? educators? developers? IT specialists?) and I think our day has come (whatever we are). I’m sad that it was a pandemic that brought it to a head, but I think the trend in education was going online anyway. I’m proud to be part of this!

    So where are you going to shelter when the Zombies come? I favor Colonial Williamsburg, because when the power goes out, they have people who still know how to do things by hand. Assuming they are not eaten.

    • Thank you for the sweet and thoughtful comment and hope you find the T-Skills model as helpful as I have. I too am crossing my fingers that the day of the instructional designer has come. I wish you lived closer to me so that we could watch World War Z together and talk about Colonial Williamsburg.
      Thanks again,


  4. Hi Jennie – awesome blog post! Can totally relate to the zombie apocolypse analogy. I had not heard of the T-shape but it makes perfect sense . We are similar in having broad background and experiences and trying to be perfect at all is not very realistic. I think living with a t-shape rather than the idea of mastery makes us more balanced and well rounded. How many people are perfect at anything? Why not stive to be comfortable and really good and find a few things that really spark an interest to dig down into the deeper miles. Tanks for this – its really something to think about and remeber as we all move along our journeys.

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