Why and how to be good at what you do

We all want more in life, we all want to do well and yet, most of not want to work for it or do not know how to get there. May be we do make effort but do not realize if it is enough or not. I believe excellence is a function of reaching a level of skilfulness that makes you valuable. All other things like money, reputation, respect is a byproduct of being skilful. If there is one thing you should ruthlessly pursue, it is to be skilful at what you do.

Why skilfulness matters

There are too many people doing the same thing. Take any profession such as sports, software development, electrician, interior design, or driving a cab. Skill matters. If you are not good, you won’t rise in sports. Same goes for software development or driving a cab. The list goes on.

In order to rise in whatever that you do, the first goal should be to be the best in the business. Take example of the Packers Sweep, a play (i.e., a predetermined plan of action in team sports) , popularized by Vince Lombardi at the Green Bay Packers NFL team. The Packers perfected the play so much that the opposition knew that they will use this play but they could not stop it because Packers had practiced it so hard that they were simply excellent at it. The Packers won 5 out of 9 NFL championships using this play.

In short, if you are skilful, it’s hard for the world to stop you. You can be a superpower in what you do and world will present you with opportunities (money, respect, and yada yada). You can (read must) also read a treatise by Naval Ravikant, a person I deeply admire, where he talks about skill and how it creates opportunities.

All things like money, reputation, respect is a byproduct of being skilful. If there is one thing you should ruthlessly pursue, it is to be skilful in what you do.

atishayk

Choose what to be skilful at

I do several things. I eat, I sleep, I sometimes clean my house, water plants, I walk and I do many things at work. I can’t be skilful at everything. Recognize that being skilful takes time and therefore you should carefully chose what to be skilled at. You of-course may derive great joy in being the most skilful at watering plants but you get my point. I am not saying be only skilful at things that make you rich but it may be worthwhile to initially focus on skill that makes you valuable in market and then focus on others. Not everything is about money for sure and I certainly don’t want to overemphasize it.

Who to check with about where your skills are

Once you have determined what your goal is, you need to do few things. Here is a good link from HBR on charting your career path in case you are looking for guidance.

  • Make list of things you want to be skilled at to achieve your goals – You can find this out by comparing yourself to people that are considered good at doing/executing things that you want to do. You may search for them on LinkedIn or otherwise, you may ask others. You can also look at job descriptions of your dream job and see what skills are listed.
  • Find out your current standing and determine clear gaps – You should ask someone you trust and someone who is knowledgeable to determine what are the gaps that you need to fill. It could be your friend, your manager, your colleague at work, your spouse, or anyone else.
    • You must make sure that the incentives of the person you ask are aligned with you and has a capability to give you feedback. Otherwise you may get wrong feedback. Let’s say your colleague or manager has no incentive (ex – you may leave after getting the feedback if your current company can’t help you address the gaps) to see your skillset improve, he or she may not give you the feedback you are looking for.
    • If the person himself or herself doesn’t have the skills that you want to gain yourself, the feedback received can again be not so useful or may be too general to act upon (ex – one may say practice hard which is a good point but difficult to act on). Better the skills of the feedback giver are, better will be the quality of the feedback.
    • Sometimes, people just don’t know how to give feedback. If that’s the case, look elsewhere.
    • Examples of bad feedback – a) I remember asking one of my ex managers on how to be good at designing user experience , he said practice, practice and practice (useful but hardly actionable). b) Sports colleague telling you that you need to play better (too broad. It can mean too many things).
    • Examples of good feedback – a) When you run, your knee doesn’t go to proper height and it impacts your performance (shows clear understanding on part of the giver and very actionable for the receiver). b) You are not able type fast because you keep moving your hand and do not use all your fingers (again, clear and actionable feedback).
    • As you can see, people who work with you (like fellow sportsmen, fellow colleagues) are best positioned to give you feedback. Why – because they have had the opportunity to observe you and therefore are in a position to give you concrete feedback. If you are a very senior level guy with no peers, it can be difficult and you need to rely on other sources.

What to do after you have identified the gaps

  • Work on gaps one by one and evaluate – determine tests for yourself to see if you have learned what you are trying to learn.
  • Keep adjusting as you learn – Until you are able to generate the kind of output you aspire for, repeat the feedback loop and keep working. You may need to talk to multiple people as well as different people will find different gaps. Choose people that are in different positions as that allows them to see different things [ex, your manager will give you different feedback vs your colleague vs your junior vs your friend].

Summary

  • Skill matters the most, everything else is a byproduct.
  • Identify the skill you want to be good at.
  • Get feedback (from others or by self evaluation) to know the gaps. Make sure the incentives are aligned else you risk getting bad feedback.
  • Fix the gaps and reap the rewards.

I hope the above will help you in your journey. Best of luck.

Side readings related to the topic

  • Not sure of what you like or dislike and hence don’t know what to do in future. Deepak Malhotra, HBS professor, offers a solution – Quit and Quit Often until you find your calling. Listen to him here. This is specially useful early in the career when it is easier to experiment.
  • I was recently listening to a webinar where Manik Gupta, ex-CPO of Uber, was the speaker. He spoke about one thing he learnt from his mentor. How to know if you will like to do a job or not? Make your calendar for a week or two and fill it with tasks that you will be doing on day to day basis. Would you enjoy it? If not, the job is not for you. If you are not sure, follow the above suggestion and you will know.

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