Static is the Worst Place to Be

I’ve been diving into quite a pile of personal growth books over the past few weeks. The goal was to help answer the question “How can I excel professionally?”

I’m planning on compiling a master list of everything I’ve read thus far, but one commonality I’ve noticed is the emphasis on remaining fluid. I discussed my thoughts on this briefly in describing how I think about my career, but I feel it’s so darn important that I want to expound on those thoughts even further becuase of three specific reasons.

Jobs rarely come with an instruction manually.

As Seth Godin states in Linchpin:

There are no longer any jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do.

Instead, jobs come with a goal and a loose set of responsibilities. It’s literally your job to figure out how to create value. If your only avenue for creating value is crossing off tasks that can easily be automated, you’re easily replaced. Godin continues:

If your organization wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for? I think it’s unlikely that they’d seek out someone willing to work more hours, or someone with more industry experience, or someone who could score better on standardized tests.

Learning quickly is the ultimate skill.

I believe this deep down in my core. The ability to quickly learn something new is more important than perhaps any other professional skill.

Why?

Jobs are continuously changing. As a practical example, at Automattic, we recently rewrote WordPress.com entirely in React, a JavaScript library. Many of our developers had no experience with React and became world-class in a matter of months. Without the capacity to pick up things quickly, you’re a sitting duck.

The ability to learn quickly also allows you to develop two other required skills by default:

  1. The ability to focus on a difficult task for long periods of time. Cal Newport calls this “deep work.” Winifred Gallagher refers to it as top-down attention in Rapt. Names don’t matter. We’re talking about the ability to identify a problem and stare at it until you have a solution.
  2. The ability to notice patterns and break down large problems. Daniel Pink refers to this skill as “symphony,” but it goes hand in hand with the ability to learn and decide how to act:

Just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average: pattern recognition, the ‘big picture’ thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from a welter of information around them and to think strategically far into the future.

Boundary crossers are the new experts.

Expertise has been reinvented. Sure, you can still excel with a very deep knowledge in one particular area, but overall, the most valuable individuals are the ones that can play in multiple pools.

Pink refers to these people as boundary crossers:

What’s the most prevalent, and perhaps most important, prefix of our times?Multi. Our jobs require multitasking. Our communities are multicultural. Our entertainment is multimedia. While detailed knowledge of a single area once guaranteed success, today the top rewards go to those who can operate with equal aplomb in starkly different realms. I call these people “boundary crossers.”

Where to from here?

Combined, the three elements listed above illustrate why static is the worst spot to be. Fluidity ultimately is a key to success. So, the question remains—how exactly does one remain fluid?

I don’t have a perfect answer, but I illustrate what it looks like to me. Here are some guidelines I’ve laid out for myself to be “fluid” moving forward.

Learn continuously. Figure out what skills will be most beneficial and then develop a plan for picking them up.

Dabbling. Putting the theory of small bets into practice. Make a bet. Play it out. Evaluate the outcome. Repeat.

Play outside your role. Get involved in other discussions. Eliminate “That’s not my job” from your vocabulary.

Help other people. Become a smart giver. Always offer to help others without expecting anything in return.

Bring energy. Stay positive and look for solutions when faced with a problem.

This list is still developing, but those are important themes I’m trying to put into practice to remain fluid. I’ll have more to say on this topic (and some tangible action steps) when I compile the master list.

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