The best way to get control of your career and stability in your life is to be great at what you do. Superstars are not out of work right now. Really. Even in finance. If you have an amazing track record in your field of work, you'll have a job. And if you need to change jobs, or adjust what you're doing, you'll be able to do it if you're great at what you do.
Here are five steps to follow:
1. Aim to be great at something that matters in the world.
The process of being great is long and hard. It requires you to try a lot of stuff to figure out the intersection of your gifts and what the world will pay for.
It's hard to be great at something you have to stop doing. But that's the reality you face if you are going to be a star performer. It's about self-discipline. When I was in graduate school, my writing professor was reviewing my writing, and he announced to the class, “She writes the best sex scenes I have ever read. Week after week she surprises me with her wry, funny, salacious approach.”
I had to look up the word salacious to make sure it was good.
Then I had to stop writing about sex. Because it was clear to me that being great at writing literary sex is too narrow. The greatness is so small it doesn't matter. Greatness needs context that has value.
2. Expect that being great will entail many levels of disappointment.
So I got a job in a marketing department in a Fortune 100 company where we spent lots of time talking about whether HTML accommodates a proper em dash.
I felt sad, for sure, that I had given up the process of novelizing my sex life. But at that point, I had also given up some other stuff that I was really good at but could not achieve greatness: Beach volleyball, for example. I was good enough to have games against the US Olympic team. But I was never going to be good enough to save myself from getting my butt kicked.
Since then, I have tried a lot of stuff that I'm good at, but not great. I wrote a book. It got great reviews, but you know what? I'm not going to write a New York Times bestseller. I don't have the patience for the long format or the long-term investment in promoting a book. (Warning to the uninitiated: It takes, literally, a year of preparation to promote a book properly.)
3. Try starting and stopping; we feel desperate to do what we’re great at.
I think what makes me great is something at the intersection of blogging and entrepreneurship. Both are time-consuming and most people fail at both, and because of that, I have tried to stop doing both. I can't stop.
But I still have to figure out: At this intersection of blogging and entrepreneurship, where am I special? Where am I a star? I am always searching and trying new things.
4. When you know what’s special about you, refuse work outside of that.
Some things fail. Like the polls on my sidebar. I wish it were working. Because I think that part of what makes me great is that I love hearing what other people think about the topics I'm thinking about. But the poll strikes me as disingenuous. The choices are limiting so I don't really find out what people are thinking. And then I feel like a fake running a poll. And I am certain that whatever I am great at will include authenticity of some kind. So the poll is a distraction from me figuring out how to be great. I need to get rid of that poll.
Another thing I've done is public speaking. I would say that I'm in the top 10% of all speakers. This is not scientific. It's my instinct. I get a lot of feedback. Including my fee. And my fee is high and my feedback tells me that I'm special. This doesn't mean that I am perfect, but it means that the greatness I already have in the field of public speaking, and the synergy it has with other things I'm great at, like, blogging (ideas) and entrepreneurship (sales) means that I should keep working on it. I need to speak slower. I need to stop using the F word. But working on that is a good investment for me. (Look. Here’s a speech I gave at Cornell University.)
5. Quit quickly if you won’t be great. You don't have time for mediocrity.
I thought that because I'm great at speaking and great at ideas, I'd be great at radio. So I agreed to do a radio show with Webmaster Radio. But here's something I didn't realize about radio: It's actually about social skills. You need to be a great conversationalist, and you need to be able to read what someone will do next in conversation.
You know why I write so much about social skills on this blog? Because mine are so sub-par and I have to work so hard at learning how to make myself less awkward socially. So radio is never going to be my strength.
And here's another reason I know: because people are, at their core, honest, caring, and supportive. And people will tell you, effusively, if you have exceptional talent at something. Because it's fun to see great talent, and fun to be a part of watching it bloom. And people do not say that with me and radio. They say they like the show, but I know what it is like when people think I have huge talent. So I am not doing my radio show anymore. Because maybe I'm good, but I won't be great. And I don't have time in my life to not be great.