November 8, 2013

Become the best at what you do

Ever since my first startup failed, I have been thinking hard about what it really takes to make it. After countless conversations and countless readings, I realized that success in any career is largely determined by whether you are one of the best at what you do. And by success, I don't just mean getting a large and stable paycheque. By success, I mean creating your own dent in the universe by doing work that matters.

Why? Think of yourself as a product. If you only have mediocre skills to offer, you become a commodity, and the only way for you to differentiate yourself is by having a better output/wages ratio. This means that you either produce more work than the people who are payed the same amount as you (usually by working longer hours) or accepting a lower wage than someone who does the same amount of work. Even if you do not wish to differentiate yourself but only be on par, then your choices are often dictated by the market's output/wages ratio as well.

At the same time, you have limited choice if you wish to switch careers. If you have a crappy boss or are stuck in an office for which you are not a good cultural fit, you are at the mercy of the market if you wish to switch. Unless you provide exceptional value and are the office rockstar, getting out of a rut can be a painful process.

The solution? Be so good that they can't ignore you. If you truly wish to have a happy and fulfilling life that enables you to balance your work, family and personal commitments, you have to make sure that you provide value that no one else can. You can do this by having exceptional skills, an exceptional network, or an exceptional personality. The focus of this post is the first of those 3 - developing exceptional skills.

1. Figure out the field that you are best suited for.

The very first thing that you need to do is figure out what you should become an expert at. While "follow your passion" is inspiring, feel-good advice, it is often not the most practical one. Following your passion is important, but what is more important is the ability to find the sweet-spot between your passion, your talent, and the market.

You have to be brutally honest with yourself when figuring out what you are most suited for. But once you do this correcly, you will have much greater clarity about how you wish you move forward with your career, and can start taking the first steps to becoming an expert.

2. Figure out the skills you need in order to be the best.

Once you have decided what the field you should focus on is, figure out the skills that you need in order to add exceptional value. For instance, if you think you are most suited for Analytics, you might wish to consider the value chain for analytics and determine the skills needed at each point in the value chain.

This will help you figure out where exactly you should position yourself in the value chain, and what are the skills that you need in order to do so.

3. Make a roadmap to gain those skills, and stick to it.

Once you have figured out which part(s) of the value chain you wish to position yourself, make a plan to gain the skills that you need. Examine both the skills you need to gain and the resources that will help you gain them. Once you make this plan, make sure that you stick to it (no matter how little time you think you might have).

4. Do real life projects to hone your skills.

Once you have a strong grasp of the skills you need, hone them with real-life projects. Look at interesting problems that you can solve using your newly acquired skills, and tell people/companies that face those problems that you would help solve them for free. Month-long projects can help you become significantly better at applying the skills you have learnt. Moreover, if you do a good job while at it, you would be able to make a name for yourself in your chosen field, thereby strengthening your personal brand.

5. Introspect, read, and talk to experts.

This is not a linear process - it is an iterative one. Constantly challenge your assumptions about what is important and where you are going by introspecting regularly, reading widely, and talking to the experts in your field. This would give you a great idea of what you are doing right, and what you can change. In particular, talking to experts has helped me a lot. The resources/insights that experts can provide will help you avoid dead-ends and navigate tough challenges.

6. Be disciplined.

The more important factor in this pursuit, and indeed, in the pursuit of any form of success, is discipline. A friend recently told me that "you won't be remembered for what you start, you will be remembered for what you accomplish". Inspiration and genius can allow you to write an article, or hack together an amazing app. But only discipline and persistence will help you become a respected writer or a successful entrepreneur. So whenever you start to make excuses for yourself and impose false limits, remember that you are beginning to believe your own bullshit.