Be the only

There’s a quote about The Grateful Dead attributed to legendary rock promoter Bill Graham – “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.”

In retrospect, I realize that we grow up with a lot of emphasis on becoming the best at what we do. There’s not enough emphasis on becoming the “only.”

And, typically, the route to that is to become very good at (and, hopefully, enjoy practicing) three or four skills that combine and complement each other.

Skills, traits, and values in hiring

We were in conversation with Lea Hickman, a former VP of Product at Adobe and Invision, yesterday and asked her about her reflections on hiring over the past three decades. She said the biggest change was moving from hiring for past experience/hard skill fit to hiring entirely for folks who enjoyed collaborating, exhibited an appetite for continuous learning, and demonstrated grit.

This was fascinating for 2 reasons. I found it interesting that her hiring criteria evolved from a focus on “intercept” to a focus on “slope.”

And, second, it reminded me of Ray Dalio’s insistence that most conventional hiring managers have their priorities backward because they insist on testing skills instead of understanding how the candidate’s abilities and values fit with the role.

Advanced skills and fear

I saw an alternate route down on a “blue” (intermediate) slope the other day that had a sign that said “Advanced skiers only.” That typically means a few moguls/bumps and I thought I’d give it a try.

As soon as I got to the bumps, I fell. I got up and then promptly fell again. As I muttered to myself about my inability to tackle this slope, I looked down to see if there was an easy route I could follow.

As I looked further out, I realized I’d actually navigated a similar slope. The difference? That slope didn’t have an “Advanced skiers only” sign.

So, I reminded myself that I actually had this under control and went down without any further falls.

Sometimes, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Behaviors in permanent shortage

In practically every organization around the world, there is a permanent shortage of 3 behaviors – great attitude, constructive dialog, and consistent follow up. We are yet to find a CEO or talent leader who claims to have enough of these.

As we think about how we can level up in the next year, it is worth pondering how we might incorporate these behaviors into our day-to-day. Specifically, the questions we might ask would be –

What would it take for me to show up with a world class attitude every day? It might be some combination of enough sleep, healthy body, good relationships, etc.

What would it take for me to master constructive dialog? It might be mastering “Nonviolent Communication.”

What would it take for me to follow up consistently? It might mean designing a better productivity system or the presence of a daily commitment that gives us confidence in our ability to follow up.

The path to standing out may never be clearer.

Breaking up with the first draft

I spent some time over the summer re-learning how to write better documents at work. As I look back at the lessons I learnt by observing what I actually changed in how I approached writing, the biggest one was willingly breaking up with the first draft.

Barbara Minto in “The Pyramid Principle” made a strong impression when she said the biggest writing problem most people have is learning to separate the thinking from the writing. She poked fun at how the first draft takes on an “incredible beauty” in the author’s eyes that we don’t like to disturb.

I found her observation to be spot on. We write the first draft for ourselves – to clarify our own thinking. And, if we embrace the process of rewriting, we write subsequent drafts for our intended audience.

There’s a meta learning in this too – we have a tendency to get comfortable after an initial learning period in any new skill. It takes a lot of effort to fight inertia and break out of version 1.0 into the next. And, then again to the next. To get better, we need to embrace “what got you here won’t get you there,” push for feedback and learning, and embrace reinvention.

It is how getting better works – in life as in writing.

Hard skills and real skills

In a conversation with a friend who is in the midst of building out a team, I asked about the the top skills he was looking for. Two observations –

1. The top three skills that he spoke about at length were – attitude, mindset, and self awareness (especially about blind spots).

2. We spoke about a few skills which were contenders. But, not one was a “hard” skill – analytics, problem solving, etc.

I was reminded of a post by Seth Godin to stop calling skills “soft” just because they weren’t easily defined. This conversation reminded me that it is these “real skills” that matter – they make great organizations and noteworthy careers possible. Or, as Seth put it  –

Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it.

That’s fine, it’s the baseline.

Now, add to that: Perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. A deep listener, with patience.

What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?

I am really bad at that

When we say “I am really bad at that,” what we are really saying is that it isn’t worth our effort to get better at it.

It is perfectly acceptable to decide it isn’t worth investing in a certain skill or habit. It may not be the best use of our limited time.

But, it isn’t right to pretend we aren’t capable of getting better. That’s just a way to let ourselves off the hook. And, while it might seem perfectly harmless to let ourselves off the hook on something trivial, it spirals quickly into skills and habits that aren’t so.

We can get better at anything we want to get better at. And, the first step to doing so is by fixing language that allows us to let ourselves off the hook.