Note: The following is a guest post by Tableau Zen Master Ryan Sleeper. This is the second installment in our series, On Becoming a Zen Master. In the first part, Matt Chambers shared lessons learned.
This month, I received the news that I had finally reached a career-long goal of being named a Tableau Zen Master, Tableau’s highest honor. As I felt the outpouring of support from the community, I put a lot of thought into the most appropriate response. I quickly realized that simply responding to tweets or LinkedIn messages would not do it justice, so I’m documenting some thoughts here to share with the community.
I’ve learned so much about myself and what it takes to find success with something during my seven-year journey, and I thought I should share some of those lessons in case somebody else can find value in them, get inspired, and/or overcome a dip in their own path.
1. Keep pushing
I was really bad at Tableau when I started using it. I mean really bad.
I have an MBA and Master of Sport Business Management. My school education did not include a single day of code and I was not “raised” with a background in data. I went through the same struggles as a lot of new users, especially when trying to quickly transition existing Excel reports to Tableau.
At times it can be painful. There’s definitely been more than one occasion when I wanted to channel my inner-10-year-old video-gamer and throw my mouse across the room or just turn my computer off in disgust because I couldn’t figure something out.
But I promise you that if you keep pushing, you will get it. I’ve realized that every time you find a solution to a problem, you get a new building block that can be used to solve a more complex problem later on. These blocks just continue to build with your use of Tableau, and it never really stops. The possibilities are limitless, which keeps things challenging, fun, and rewarding.
I encourage you to appreciate every time you find a new building block—no matter how big or small. Know that those blocks will continue adding up to something amazing in the future.
2. Follow your passion
I feel like this is an appropriate time to share my very first Tableau Public visualization.
By my own self-standard today, it always makes me smile to look at this viz. Needless to say, I’ve learned a couple of tricks since I published this. If you would like a comparison, this year I remade a visualization with the same data, seen below. So I partly smile knowing how far I’ve come.
I also smile because despite its limitations, I could not have been more excited when I posted this first viz to Tableau Public. I remember waking up my wife from a nap because I couldn’t believe I had figured out a way to post an interactive data visualization to my blog! This was a real game-changer for my Online Sports Marketing blog that was getting 10 to 100 visits per month at the time. I remember emailing John Clayton of ESPN thinking he would instantly go live with the coverage of my amazing findings.
I was passionate.
One of the biggest factors in my success with Tableau is that I found a topic I was passionate about, in my case sports, and built visualizations that I personally found interesting. Tableau Public was a sandbox that I genuinely enjoyed playing in, which made the extra hours of practice fly by. Following a passion of your own makes the practice and problem-solving engaging, and provides the value of helping you develop solutions that can be reapplied in your day job.
I’ve found that trying to solve a problem to find an answer about my favorite baseball team is a lot more fun (no offense to anyone) than trying to find an answer for an executive accounting report, for example. Practicing Tableau with a topic you are passionate about will keep you energized and help you push through the challenges. Then you can take what you learned and breeze through that executive accounting report.
3. Nobody gets there alone
The single coolest thing about Tableau is its community of selfless, humble, and generous users.
Think where your skills would be without the countless bloggers sharing their knowledge without expecting anything in return, the thousands and thousands of answers in the Community Forums, Tableau User Group networking, and the feedback and support that is offered from the Tableau community through social media. I personally would not have a fraction of my Tableau knowledge without the Tableau community as a whole.
I’m always reluctant to mention any individuals I am grateful for because there truly are so many that have contributed to my own success. I never want anyone to hear me mention a specific name and think I’ve forgotten how they also shaped my career with Tableau. So please remember that as I especially thank:
Ben is my number one Tableau mentor and has become a friend. I first followed Ben’s great blog and saw him speak at the Tableau Conference in 2012. He then moved to Tableau Public where he encouraged me to push my skills and, as I know he does with many others, helped me build confidence by featuring my Tableau Public work in Viz of the Day, among other recognitions. As my career has grown, he has gone on to guide me through the book writing and publishing process for my Tableau 201 project.
I first met Kelly in person when we were competing against each other at the Iron Viz Championship in 2013. It was then that I realized how special the leaders within the Tableau community are. Even though we were competing against each other on a very big and tense stage, she was so humble and kind. She made the stressful week a lot easier for me, and through her example, I found how I would aspire to treat the Tableau community.
Kelly also showed me that I was allowed to think differently about Tableau. Her amazing designs gave me confidence to let my artsy and psychological sides into my Tableau work. This was a critical turning point in the evolution of my Tableau work. This, along with the introduction of freeform dashboard design in Tableau 8, helped me find my niche.
4. Find your niche
I’ve been told by some Tableau users that they love my data visualizations, and they often know that I created them even without seeing the author. One person told me he even knew a visualization was mine when he saw only the title in a Viz of the Day subject line!
Call it branding, identity, or style—I’m not sure the best word. It can be hard to define, but I think when people recognize that I authored something, it’s because I found my niche.
Tableau is such a flexible tool with so many possibilities that no one is best at everything. It’s impossible to be the best at everything, so don’t get distracted chasing that. Some are best at the technical aspects of the software. Some are artists. Some are hackers. Some are mathematicians. Some are data engineers. Some are teachers.
You get the idea…
And then for all of those different strengths—and countless others—there are thousands of possible combinations of the strengths.
Work on finding your niche, then work relentlessly to own it. I’m not asking you to limit your own creativity; you already have your own combination of strengths. Staying focused and maximizing that combination: 1. makes your work easier and more efficient because you are being yourself, 2. provides a unique and needed perspective to the rest of the Tableau community, and 3. promises to eventually make your work remarkable in some way.
5. Don’t let the goal define you
Excuse my cheesiness for a(nother) moment, but for as long as I can remember, one my favorite quotes has been, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
Yes, I’ve hoped to be recognized as a Tableau Zen Master for a long time, but just aspiring to reach the goal has led to so many positive opportunities. Iron Viz, Tableau Public Viz of the Year, a keynote presentation, friendships, guest lectures at my alma mater (Go, UCF Knights!), a book deal, and the list goes on.
It’s not the end goal that defines you. It’s what you accomplish as a result of that goal and how you treat others on your journey to reach that goal that defines you.
If you keep pushing, good things will happen. It’s that simple.
If you’re aspiring to be a Tableau Zen Master, push long enough and hard enough and it will happen. I’m proof that anybody can start from absolute scratch and get there. Even if you don’t end up realizing the goal for some reason, if you genuinely put your heart into it, you will have contributed to the community and are promised something worthwhile out of the experience.
As always, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading.