When you become extraordinary at something you do well instead of average at something you do poorly, you're more likely to succeed with any career, creative pursuit, or entrepreneurial endeavor. Why don't we do this?
Social Conditioning Teaches us to Focus on our Weaknesses
From the time we start school, we focus on becoming average at what we do poorly.
- If we're failing math but getting an A in English, we study our asses off to get a C in Math.
- Managers put underperforming employees on performance improvement plans which do more to help companies avoid wrongful termination lawsuits than improve employee performance.
As a result, people become average at many things instead of extraordinary at one.
Consequences of Optimizing for Average
Say we rate someone's performance level for two skills on a scale from 0 to 100 percent,
- Skill 1: Their performance level is 80%
- Skill 2: Their performance level is 30%
Assume someone's performance improves by 10%.
- Skill 1: Their new and improved performance level is 90%
- Skill 2: Their new and improved performance level is 40%
A 10% improvement on skill 2 makes someone average. But the same level of progress on skill 1 unlocks their potential to be extraordinary.
Helping someone improve skill 1, a teacher, manager, or company can help someone go from good to outstanding performance. By focusing on skill 2, that same person goes from poor to average performance.
It's been over a decade since Tyler Cowen wrote his book Average is Over. When any individual or organization optimizes for average performance, they overlook that a genius in one context is an idiot in another.
The 4 Zones of Performance
To optimize for extraordinary performance, you have to know whether you're mediocre, competent, excellent, or have the potential to be exceptional at something.
"We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But the fact is, most of us are pretty average at most things we do. Even if you’re exceptional at one thing — say math, jump rope, or making money off the black gun market — chances are you’re pretty average or below average at most other things. That’s just the nature of life. To become truly great at something, you have to dedicate time and energy to it. And because we all have limited time and energy, few of us ever become truly exceptional at more than one thing, if anything at all, "says Mark Manson.
Zone of Mediocrity
All things you suck at are in your zone of mediocrity. Trying to improve in areas where you're mediocre is a fool's errand. Unless you're self-aware enough to know that you'll never be good at something, you'll waste a lot of time on pursuits that are a road to nowhere.
Because I was in college during the first dot-com boom, I signed up for a computer science class, thinking it was my ticket to fame and fortune. But I was so bad at computer science that I had to drop the class. Computer science was in my zone of mediocrity.
A growth mindset is more of a liability than an asset in your zone of mediocrity. You can improve, but you'll not likely become extraordinary at anything in your zone of mediocrity.
If you're mediocre at something, getting better at it isn't going to do much for you.
Zone of Competence
The things you're average at are in your zone of competence.
- Only a complete idiot would choose a competent brain surgeon over an excellent one.
- Any employer will hire an excellent candidate over a competent one.
Competence isn't a qualification; it's a basic requirement.
Becoming competent in an area where you're mediocre will make you average but not exceptional. But, for many of your skills, being competent is good enough.
- A brilliant copywriter doesn't need to become excellent at analyzing data in a spreadsheet.
- Someone who is a computer science genius doesn't need to become an eloquent writer.
Once you identify the skills in your zone of competence, you can focus on those in your zone of excellence.
Zone of Excellence
All the things you do well are in your zone of excellence. Getting better at something is far more valuable than getting better at something you don't. When you focus on your natural strengths, you're more likely to discover your superpowers.
During our interview on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, Eric Barker said, "There's so much research on signature strengths. People who do things they are uniquely good at are dramatically happier. It's a great way to be more successful."
In other words, when you focus on your zone of excellence, you'll be more successful and happier.
Getting better at something in your zone of mediocrity is like pushing a boulder uphill, but getting better at something in your zone of excellence is like pushing it downhill. You're more likely to end up in your zone of genius if you do the latter.
Zone of Genius
Your zone of genius is where you're capable of exceptional performance. You can do things nobody else can put you in the way you do it. The gifts, talents, and skills that make you unmistakable are in your zone of genius.
When you're working in your zone of genius, you experience flow regularly. Work feels like play, time flies and stands still simultaneously.
Doing things that are not in your zone of genius is a waste of time. In a world that punishes mediocrity, ignores average, and rewards exceptional people, it makes no sense to do work that's not in your zone of genius.
If you keep following lousy advice from influencers instead of developing skills aligned with your natural strengths, you'll become average at many things instead of extraordinary at one.
Prescriptive advice is a framework, not a formula. Anytime someone says "everyone should," assume what follows is bullshit or at least consider the possibility that it might be for you.