“Each person is capable of doing one thing well. If one attempts several, one will fail to achieve distinction in any.” –Plato
Well, maybe this won’t be a new career strategy for all, but it will be new for many. The career strategy we recommend you adopt is to focus your time and energy on building what you are naturally good at into a world-class skill (or skills) and figure out workarounds for the rest. This is the opposite approach to spending your time and energy on what you are not good at and what does not come naturally for you, while neglecting your best skills, in an attempt to be a “more complete” player.
Let’s consider the approach of NBA star Stephen Curry. Curry is already the leading three-point shooter in the history of the NBA, and recently made 105 three-pointers in a row in practice. The NBA has a 22-foot 3-point line in the corners and a 23-foot, 9-inch line elsewhere. In case you’ve never tried shooting one, we can confirm the NBA 3-point line is way, way out there. So what does Curry spend most of his time working on? His passing? His defense? His dribble drives to the basket? No. He works on his three-point shot and has taken his practice approach to a whole new level.
A bit of a confession here. At my beloved alma mater, the University of Georgia, the NCAA once investigated the basketball program due to, among other alleged infractions, the lack of rigorous academic content in the “Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball” course taught by one of the assistant coaches. One of the exam questions was, “How many points is a three-point shot worth?” Pretty, pretty tough! To be fair, we’re more of a football school anyway.
Curry is driven by the question, “How does the best shooter ever get better?” It’s not good enough that his three-point shot goes in, or even that it “swishes.” He is now pursuing “swishes within swishes.” A basketball rim is 18 inches in diameter. Using technology developed with the help of a NASA scientist, more than 20 million basketball shots were tracked. A shot that strays nearly five inches off-center can still be a swish. This margin of error was too much for Curry, since 79% of shots that hit the dead center of the rim go in, and 74% of shots within three inches of center go in, but at four or five inches from center the percentage of shots that go in drops dramatically. Through technology, Curry shrunk the basket and gave himself a margin of 3 inches from center. A sensor measures where his practice shots cross the plane of the hoop, and how much the shot deviates from the dead center of the rim. He now has established a precision shooting workout using this technology that provides instant feedback after every shot.
“I don’t get paid to shoot basketballs, so what does this have to do with me and my career?” you (fairly) question. A lot, respectfully submitted. Don’t miss the concept. Take what you are already good (or great) at and get better still. Truly differentiate yourself. Ask yourself, “What are my best skills — the ones upon which I’ll build my career?” Determine what you’re naturally good at now and what, if nurtured, you might become great at. Almost always this potentially great skill is something you enjoy doing and that comes easier for you than for others. Often it’s an ability that others — family members, teachers, coaches, supervisors, peers — have affirmed. Perhaps it is public speaking, or teaching, or leading teams, or being good with numbers and grasping difficult financial concepts. Maybe it’s selling. When people tell you how good you are at something, listen to them. If their observations align with your perception of your strengths, look for new and imaginative ways to apply them in your work.
We all have weaknesses that we must shore up as best we can to perform our job. But it’s almost impossible to turn weaknesses into strengths. If you’re not good with numbers, you may, with work, become competent, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be strong enough to compete with those who are naturally good at numbers, much less differentiate yourself from them. Instead, you must focus on your strengths, and spend your time and energy building your strengths into your differentiators. Rather than strive to become “well-rounded,” work to become truly great at something, or even better: be world-class at it.
As I rose up the corporate ranks, I hired an MBA professor at my own expense to tutor me in finance. I improved my finance skills enough to get by, but my boss was a former nuclear submarine officer who could do math in his head about as well as I could on a calculator. So I worked to become exceptional in using skills that came naturally for me and not as much for him. This strategy worked.
As you progress and develop your best skills into world-class ones, try to move within your organization to a team and a role that is a natural fit, one where the skills required are your best skills, and where you get to do more of what you do best. If this isn’t possible, or until it is, try to apply more of what you do best to your current job.
Source: Ben Cohen, Stephen Curry’s Quest for The Perfect Shot, in The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2021. As Cohen observed, “The people who need it the least tend to be the ones who want it the most.”