Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Achieve Unique Success by Emphasizing Unique Skills

I’ve read innumerable seas of professional biographies — not books, but blurbs you often see on the “About” section of a company’s website. Most of them are boring, presenting similar information in a Mad Libs-style cookie-cutter format. How many times have you seen a phrase like “brings over 15 years of experience to the team” in a bio, followed by a list of prestigious educational degrees? These do matter, but you know what’s missing?

Hobbies and passions off the job.

Antiquated thinking would have us not mix work and play, but in an era where Casual Fridays have turned into Casual Everydays, the truth is someone’s personal interests have a lot to do with their success, particularly if they’re in an idea-centric field. Which means just about every job that has problems which require creative thinking to move forward.

If it was revealed that a brainy physicist likes to figure skate, what would that tell you? At first glance, it seems like academia-meets-the-ice isn’t a good idea. But think about the similarities between the two fields: beauty in symmetry, bodies in motion, and perhaps not-so-obvious, a profound public presence.

I’m referring to Michio Kaku, who is undoubtedly one of the most renowned physicists in the world. He’s a heavyweight hitter of grace, continuing Carl Sagan’s lineage of science popularizers. Clearly, he’s very successful at what he does, and a large part of his success comes from his diverse skillset, including a knack for Siamese-twinning real-world science with speculative fiction. This has made him into a media star, with each spotlight appearance feeding another.

It’s no coincidence some of the most profound and popular scientists are also musicians: Albert Einstein played the violin, and Brian Cox rocks out on synths. Music performance itself requires a sense of timing, pitch, and if you’re doing it in front of others, charisma and the uncanny ability to engage the audience.

Many charismatic personalities are either avid music listeners or players themselves — but you won’t find their sonic proficiencies on their bio. These might as well be called unsung skills.

Think about yourself…

What skills do you have that aren’t officially job responsibilities, but get applied nonetheless?

For example, when I was a wee tot, I scribbled stories. As a teenager, I learned about typography. Now at my job as a Resident Enlightenment Manager, I do a lot of communication. While copywriting isn’t formally amongst my responsibilities, when highlighting new product features, my background in writing comes into play every single time.

Here’s another wonderful example: Steve Jobs. Numerous bios of Jobs (none of which are official, but that’s another story) cite his schooling in calligraphy as a driving factor for why the early Mac computers were so far ahead in terms of graphics. It takes a rare mind to appreciate both technical underpinnings and aesthetic excellence, and Jobs is now an icon because of insights like that.

Time and time again, you’ll find remarkable humans who have achieved tremendous results because they wove a deceptively unrelated web of talents together. By making magic that could’ve only come from them, it paid off big.

Do this fun exercise:

  1. On the left-hand side of a piece of paper, write a list of your favorite career moments across your entire life. They can be specific achievements (you solved an especially thorny problem), glowing moments (your boss praised you at a company party), etc. Even if you telecommute, find something you’re proud of.
  2. Beside it on the right, write a list of your hobbies and leisure activities off the job. Don’t spend too much time on this: 5 minutes is good.
  3. Draw a vertical line between the two. Like a wall that separates them.
  4. Now, the fun part: draw circles around something in the left column that happened because of something on the right. Join them with a line that breaks through the center “wall”. For example, you were designing a website for a client. Later that day while playing Ultimate Frisbee, the mesmerizing patterns of the disc inspired you to experiment with a new color scheme which turned out to be a hit! So, you’d circle both “webdesign project that won me prizes” and “frisbee”, and connect them with a line.

The connections are now much clearer. By recognizing how various parts of you falsely appear miles apart but are actually adjacent in their applicability, you stand a much higher chance of succeeding at what’s important.

Just as physicists theorize about folding space-time, you can fold the distances between skills for a better, unified you.

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