Do One or Two Things Really Well

championThe Idea: If you want to make a difference in this world, you need to know yourself, to perfect what you do well until you’re brilliant at it, to focus your energies, and to show others courageously that nobody does it better.

I don’t recall who first gave me the advice to “do one or two things really well”, but it’s probably the best advice I’ve ever received, up there with “things happen the way they do for a reason, so understand what that reason is if you hope to change it”. Problem is, I’ve never really followed this advice. “You’re like a cluster fly”, a girlfriend told me many years ago, “you know, those high-energy flies that come indoors in the spring and the fall that crash into walls, ceilings, lights, windows, like crazed dive bombers, and then spin around noisily on their backs when they hurt themselves. That’s you — no grounding, no focus, just running full tilt at everything until you knock yourself out.” She was right. This journal, my second career search, even my embracing of Getting Things Done all smack of interest and preoccupation with too many things.

How to do one or two things really well:

  1. Believe in yourself. You can do anything if you believe. You can’t do anything if you don’t.
  2. Find one or two very specific things that are either very useful or very interesting, that you do (or can learn to do) really well, better than anyone else, and which you like doing.
  3. Hone your skill in and deepen your knowledge about those one or two things.
  4. Stop doing other things that distract your focus from achieving brilliance in those one or two things.
  5. Show others, bravely, how well you can do these things — It’s not a distinctive competency unless others recognize it as such.
  6. Trust your instincts to tell you what to do, what not to do, when to persevere and when to give up and try something else.

I’ve given this advice to others and those that have followed it have done really well. In the workplace (and on our blogs) there’s a tendency to say ‘yes’ to too many things, and get so overwhelmed that you end up constantly juggling (and dropping) tasks you’ve taken on. Not only does this lead to mediocre performance it also leads to burnout, and unhappiness. But it’s very hard to say ‘no’, maybe the hardest lesson of all to learn.

A couple of years ago I was listed as one of the exemplary Idea Practitioners in a book called What’s the Big Idea? by distinguished management gurus Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak. The irony is that the authors had the same problem I do — their book about the value of great ideas didn’t have a great idea of its own. Not like The Tipping Point or The Wisdom of Crowds, or the idea of the Internet as a World of Ends. The ability to come up with great ideas, to do that really well, is rare, and I greatly admire writers who have that ability, because they’re going to be really successful and valuable as writers.

My book Natural Enterprise is, I am told, a good book, maybe even a needed book, but it lacks that great idea that would make it publishable, a best-seller. I’ve been pushing it on the basis that, unlike other books on business formation, it shows the reader how to start a business (a) inexpensively, (b) without stress or exhausting work hours, (c) without incurring debt or being beholden to outside shareholders, and (d) working with people you love, rather than people you need. Not enough, say the publishers. Don’t give up, it’s good, but try again. And I’m arrogant and impatient enough not to publish it until and unless it will be a best-seller. I want it to do really well, to convince myself that writing is, for me, one of those one or two things I do really well, and should be doing all the time. But I have this nagging doubt that maybe it isn’t. I know I’m a good writer, but my sentences are too long, the organization of my articles is undisciplined, and I really need a good editor — “Get to the point and get rid of the other stuff”, I was once told by an exasperated reader. So because I’m not sure writing is meant to be one of the one or two things I do really well, I’m still juggling all this other stuff, keeping those other options open. Sheer cowardice, especially at my age (53).

One of my best ideas is Personal Productivity Improvement: The idea that instead of pushing training and tools and information at workers on the front line and expecting those things to make them more effective, we need to observe them in the context of their own unique work responsibilities and unique work style, and coach them one-on-one how to use these resources better, how to improve their work-habits, and how to manage their own performance and careers. But I’ve been unable to convince executives to invest in the program (investing in employees is definitely out of fashion these days). And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to spend the rest of my life honing my skill at PPI Coaching. I’m not sure being known after I’m gone as the father of this revolutionary approach to productivity and professional development would be enough for me. Remember I’m the guy that wants to save the world. So I’m still waffling, still juggling.

So I’m afraid I can only advise you to do what I say, not what I do. Have the courage to assess what you’re really good at (or if you’re still young, work at something until you’re really good at it. I mean brilliant. If there’s more than two things you’re not focused enough. Then work harder and practice longer until you’re even better at those one or two things, world class, in a class by yourself. That will mean not doing a lot of things that are fun, or interesting, or which you’re merely competent at. That will mean not juggling, just going all out knowing that if you fail at these one or two things you’re going to have to start over. Very scary, but absolutely necessary. If the greatest inventors in history had decided instead to become second-rate concert pianists, we might today be living in the dark, and telling our tales orally. Hardest of all, it will mean exposing your newly honed competencies to public scrutiny, which will often be cruel, and sometimes be unfair or even dead wrong, and having the judgement, the instinct, the self-knowledge and self-confidence to know when you’re just not good enough versus when you just need to show yourself better or wait for the world to catch up to you. It may even mean abandoning your writing and reading of online journals, which, if you’re like me, takes just too much time out of the day (though a better pastime than television).

Please. Don’t be like me. Do one or two things really well. The future of the world depends on it.

Perhaps I was meant to be a teacher. No, maybe I should…

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12 Responses to Do One or Two Things Really Well

  1. Inspiring people is one of your talents, Dave, and you seem to be underestimating yourself in that area. Don’t bee too harsh on yourself, because I’m sure that many of your readers will go on to be better people than they would have otherwise been without your writings, and a positive influence like that can affect a lot of people a few generations down the road.

  2. As for your book, have you considered a dual release: Creative Commons licensed with a free PDF version and another available from bookstores (like the excellent Free-Culture by Lawrence Lessig or books by Corry Doctorow)? Both authors seem to be saying that they have sold a lot more books than they otherwise would have (especially because of all the good publicity generated by the copyleft license) and that there at A LOT more people who have read their books than even a pretty big commercial success could bring.

  3. lugon says:

    Could you share the TOC of your book? Maybe a would-be editor might step up and help you “get to the point”. Or maybe you can (and should) write as you normally do, and have someone else (or yourself) collect the gems and highlight them … just as you’ve started doing with your posts.Just as a provocation, try and have a look at Edward de Bono’s “Simplicity” book (maybe in Amazon) – it has normal sized text on odd-numbered pages and much bigger text on even-numbered pages.Or write a blogbook.

  4. Greg VIncent says:

    There is also LULU.COM as a means of self publishing. Founded by Bob Young of Red Hat fame, LULU seems to have its sights on becoming the eBay of self publishing.

  5. Aleah says:

    Dave, your advice is sage wisdom, indeed, for practical and inspirational reasons. We are moving into a society driven primarily by highly skilled, ‘divers’ with diminishing options for dabblers and unskilled labor. Focus and hone. So true.As for your writing, it is apparent that you are an engaging writer. Few of us would have the time to read such lengthy posts if you weren’t providing thoughtful, enlightening words. As a fellow writer, I believe there is always a need for an editor. Amazing writers are made that much more amazing through the collaborative efforts of a well respected editor. Keep doing what you are meant to do – writing is your passion.

  6. Bernhard says:

    Dave, I get a lot of inspiration from your blog, which is rare because I read really much (too much, I have to get over it!). I’m building a start-up and natural enterprise let me think several things over. What I don’t understand: why don’t you just apply what you have said to yourself? You said writing is what you want to do, but you’re unsure, because you couldn’t find a publisher or your writing isn’t perfect yet. Well, stop everything that prevents you from doing it and hone your skill! Personally, I think writing is all about having something to say and you obviously have a lot to say. The rest is learnable. Good luck!

  7. Kimmijo says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I’ve been lost in the woods for a long time and have spent the last year triangulating out. Finding this was like finding a piece of a map.

  8. Emily says:

    I think you are a teacher and a sharer. I think you do those really well.

  9. Ben Milner says:

    Hi Dave,Firstly I would just like to say that I completely see where you are coming from with this post. Each day there seem to be ever more things that are truly crucial and then there is the on going backlog of things trailing behind that still need doing. I think the ideas this post combined with GTD could provide all the answers.The key factors to me are:- Getting good at saying No- Deciding what you really want to do- Deciding what you really need to doFinally I have to say I don’t necessarily agree with the ‘no more than two’ point. You could easily become super good at 5 of 6 things if you really put your mind to it. In my case (in a rough order) – Degree, Running Food Coop, Growing Vegetables, Bikes + Maintaining, Spanish and Guitar. (+ general downshifting my life and becoming more sustainable). Perhaps I have shot my self in the foot there, and proved your point, because I am doing pretty dismally in both guitar and Spanish and often juggle about everything else

  10. Greg Burton says:

    Dave, I’ve posted a long response to this on my blog at the link I’ve given. I Understand where you’re coming from on it, but I’d like you to consider a different viewpoint – perhaps it’s not such good advice for everyone – and perhaps it’s not really the best advice for you….

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you everyone for the kind words, advice and reassurance. I was offering this as a ‘life lesson’ and not really looking for reassurance or consolation, but I appreciate it anyway. I’m not about to stop writing the blog, but I’m looking closely at the intersection between what I do well, what there’s a market for (a paying one, for now) and what I love doing. I’m not sure writing, or for that matter any of the things I have been pursuing, is in that intersection, so I’m taking a step back and revisiting what I love doing, first of all, and what I would like to be remembered for having accomplished before I die. Some of those things I have never done, and wouldn’t even know how to start, but maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, decide what I want to do most of all, and just set everything else aside and go for it. My book proposal for Natural Enterprise is really quite good, and includes the same table of contents as you can find by clicking on the Natural Enterprise link on my Signature Essays list, and I have enough respect for publishers, agents and editors that when they say it’s just not different enough from other books on entrepreneurship out there, I believe they’re right. The issue for me is whether to invest more time redoing the Proposal to make it more appealing, or just clean up what I’ve already written and put a banner up for it on the blog and on my business site — it’s effectively self-published. Or to set it aside and do something completely different with the time either of those would have taken. Greg, regarding your response post, I’ve read the book you refer to and am familiar with the approaches of focusing on talents and turning them into things you’re really good at. But what if they’re not what you want to do? When I was in school I was a terrible writer and the least creative person I knew. I worked hard to turn both weaknesses into strengths, and have had a much happier life than I would have if I’d focused on my ‘natural’ strength (mathematical skill). So I still think doing one or two things really well is good advice for most people, and that those one or two things don’t necessarily match your talents but must absolutely match your passion.

  12. Greg says:

    Talents can be applied to many fields, and many skills. The difference between skills and talents is that you can learn competence in skills. Let’s say you love figuring out how things work – that’s a talent. Your emotions are roused by public health issues – that’s a field. So what skills do you need to acquire (by learning, delegating, collaborating, outsourcing) in order to apply your talent to your passion? I guess what I’m saying is that I believe that “two things you do really well” can be as broad as spinning ideas across a wide range of fields, and communicating the breadth of your ideas. Bucky Fuller wrote about two kinds of generalists – synthesists and encyclopedists. It may be paradoxical, but being a kind of generalist can be your specialty. Dave, my impression is that it IS your specialty, regardless of the various things you work on illuminating.

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