October 16, 2013

You Can Be Good At More Than One Thing

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Coldspire
Coldspire

Bruce Dickinson is a:

-lead singer in a band that sold 85 million records
-acclaimed solo artist
-professional airline pilot
-bestselling novelist
-Olympic-level fencer
-radio DJ
-and who knows what else.

He is not a record producer and he does not wear “gold plated diapers” but he is good at a lot of things.

I hate this idea that we can only be good at one thing. Or that people who try their hand at many projects are somehow exceptional “Renaissance Men.”

It’s perfectly reasonable and attainable to be really good at a lot of things.

In my short life, I have done my fair share of work. Been a Hollywood executive. Been a researcher. Been a writer. Been a marketer. Been a strategist. At one point I was doing all these things simultaneously, going from one office to the other.

I’m not “world’s greatest” at any of these professions by any stretch, but I don’t think its braggadocio to admit that I have been recognized for my skills in these fields. It’s weird because this tends to surprise people. I’m always asked in interviews, “How did you do it all?”

The secret I’ve found–and I’m only one of many to figure this out–is there is a sweet spot that makes this stuff all pretty easy.

Being really good at one thing is incredibly hard. Being really good at two things seems impossible. But being good at several things can actually make things easier.

I think there are a few reasons for this.

One is the power of analogical thinking. It turns out that being involved in other fields and industries gives us certain ways of solving and thinking about problems. Those perspectives are valuable in other fields because it gives us an approach that others would not have considered. I can’t tell you how many times I asked someone smarter than me to explain something in one domain and then a few days later found myself using that same explanation to solve an entirely different problem.

It almost feels criminal sometimes–like you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul–the way you can pull knowledge you just absorbed in one area and immediately apply it to another. The people in the second domain think you’re creative or innovative when really you’re just good at borrowing. There’s no shame in that. It pays to have disparate interests or fields–the more different they are, the more likely the connections you make will create something new.

The second benefit comes from energy and focus. Take someone like Steve Jobs or Jack Dorsey, for example. We think we know the story: They were crappy CEOs, then they got fired. Later, humbled by failure, they came back and succeeded. But we ignore another variable that changed. They started other companies and didn’t stop working on them when they returned to Apple and Twitter (for Jobs it was Pixar, for Dorsey it was Square).

I wonder how much of their success has to do with the extra work serving as a better distribution of their energy and focus. Some entrepreneurs are actually too creative or opinionated for their own good. If this energy is not properly distributed, they become meddlesome or difficult. In some cases, they subconsciously cause problems just to keep themselves occupied. So with Dorsey and Jobs types, having two or more companies actually helps. They need more work than the average person just to keep those negative impulses at bay.

Some of you may be in this boat and not realize it. I started to realize I was when I would take a day off, either from work or working out. I’d feel anxious, irritable, or worse, like I was doing something wrong. I just have too much energy–not in the ADHD sense, but as in an excess fuel capacity–and if I don’t exhaust it through some positive end, I’m in trouble.

Lastly is the importance of on-and-off thinking (or as Robert Greene calls it “alternative currents.”) Creative breakthroughs happen, he says, at a “particular high point of tension” when we “let go for a moment.” For some of us, this is going to the gym. For others, it’s putting one project down for another. It’s taking a break and going to our other office. It’s picking up the guitar or a language book–whatever those other things we happen to be good at are. Then, as Robert writes, “with the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now been greatly enhanced by all our hard work.”

I imagine Bruce Dickinson has lyrical breakthroughs in the cockpit. I bet the Dorsey improves Twitter in the middle of meetings for Square. It is clear that Jobs learned the importance of story and inspiration during his days at Pixar. On my much lower plane, I’ve written some of my best stuff on the treadmill or on the road or in the pool. I steal insight from one crisis and act like I’ve known it my whole life when I meet with clients.

This is how it works. Being good at a lot of things makes you better at all things. It’s not only not impossible to be a “Renaissance Man,” paradoxically, it is being one that makes it possible to be one.

I know this goes against what we’re taught. That we have to focus exclusively on one thing. That we don’t have time for “distractions” or that we already have enough on our plates. But in reality, we not only do have time–we need those distractions.

Sometimes we need to drop out or kill off certain parts of ourselves so that others may grow. We need to read widely, not just deeply. Being occupied–stretching ourselves to full capacity–makes us more creative, it builds connections, it makes us better.

It might not feel that way. It never does at first. But the reality is that you have it within yourself to be good at more than one thing. I promise. And exercising that ability may just make you great. TC mark

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