One of the hardest things to figure out is how to improve. How do you get better and what should you focus on.
The best improvement strategy is to focus not just on your strengths … but on just 1 or 2 strengths. Focus, focus, focus on making your strongest traits even stronger. Especially once you are over 30 and you have more of a clear assessment of your skills and abilities.
How do you know what your strongest traits are? A good exercise is to ask the twenty people closest to you (friends, colleagues, spouse, parents, siblings, etc.) a simple question: “what are the 3 things that you think I am excellent at.” While you will get a lot random answers that will be just noise, you may find some super consistent answers (especially if you are focusing more on work colleagues). Gather that data and investigate those strengths.
The strategy most smart people use is to get good at lots of things at the same time. They spread their improvement time like one might spread peanut butter on toasted Wonder bread. This strategy does help you improve and you will notice the improvements really fast (because you are often focused on things you are bad at where just a little work will go a long way). And that feedback loop of getting a bit better and seeing the progress is addicting (especially to smart people) so they spread the peanut butter even more and get better in more diverse areas. This is improvement and it is growth and it is positive … but …
you could grow much greater by focusing on just 1-2 strengths and getting even stronger.
The most successful people in the world (think Bill Clinton and Steve Jobs) have glaring weaknesses … and it is unclear if they ever seriously worked on those weaknesses. Would they be better if those weaknesses went away? Of course. But then they might not have focused as much effort on their strengths.
If you are a terrible public speaker but great at communicating by writing, then focus on getting even better at writing. Strive to become the clearest writer in the world. Take really hard concepts and clearly state them. Don’t succumb to pressure from your coworkers, friends, etc. to get a speaking coach and spend hours becoming a better public speaker. Focus instead on what you are already naturally talented at go from good to great.
That said, there ARE certain weaknesses that are so debilitating that you need to focus on them if you have them. For instance, someone addicted to daily heroin use should probably spend all their time defeating that addicting (rather than focusing on their strengths). But most people’s weaknesses are not nearly as pronounced as being a heroin addict … and most people should instead focus on their strengths.
Summation: focus on getting better at your strengths and mostly ignore your weaknesses.
What if what you are great at isn’t super-concrete? For example, I asked this question to colleagues and former bosses; the answer I have universally received is critical thinking and ability to get things done independently (thoroughness / attention to detail).
These are useful skills though I struggle with betting my career on these two skills. Relative to “tax law” or “sales” – where the answer on how to continually improve seems more apparent (e.g. for tax law study the law, take on more intricate cases / agreements, and for sales continue to learn about human psychology / influence, meet people and sales) – how does one get better in less concrete skill sets?
(1) critical thinking
(2) ability to get things done independently
are definitely in short supply in this world. so those are great skills to double down on. going from good great in either of those things is super hard. but if you get to great (especially in critical thinking) you will be unstoppable.
Those skills are in massively short supply and are extraordinarily valuable as they cut down on the overhead to manage you by a factor of five. The unfortunately reality is too few employees are able to think critically about what they’re doing (vs go through the motions) or do things right (on a team, mistakes either compound or delay and often lead to days of off-track non-productivity before they are caught).
My advice would be: you have the traits of a super-star independent performer, whether that is to go off and research and analyze some issue, manage a project that works best with one strong person on it, etc. And your strengths would be wasted in areas that are about massive coordination, full of weak co-dependent players, etc. Find a company of strong performers with fairly autonomous work and a supervisor who has a very full plate, and you will shine quickly.
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