Five steps to make yourself great

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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.

108 replies
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  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Penelope, were you drunk when you wrote this?

    #1: “The process of being great is long and hard.”
    #5: “Quit quickly if you won’t be great.”

    The five steps paraphrased (minus the all the BS spin and inconsistencies):

    1. Do stuff that has easily measurable economic value.
    2. Compromise, and come to terms with your mediocrity.
    3. Huh?
    4. Yeah, just the way Tiger Woods quit ballet dancing once he figured out he could actually hit a golf ball with some precision.

    I’m a regular reader, and I love you (and sometimes, what you have to say). But this has to be one of your most retarded posts, hence the troll-like vitriol.

    P.S.: Recommended reading: On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin.

  2. Tamar
    Tamar says:

    Hi Penelope. It’s been a while since I’ve been here. Nice to “see” you.

    I’m glad you’re honest about the radio show. It simply didn’t work when I listened. You rambled, showed nervousness and insecurity when the phone didn’t ring with callers, and so on.

    I like your idea of quitting what doesn’t work. Cutting losses, and all that. Perhaps not too different from tossing clothes, things, relationships that are not working (and maybe never did).

    Take good care!

  3. dk
    dk says:

    I listened to your public speaking event. I think it was very interesting. I read the comments above from some people stating you had a lot of um’s. I have a degree in speech and another one in public relations. Your strength isn’t in your delivery so the um’s weren’t really a big point, your strength is in your information. People will listen to someone who delivers well but they won’t tell their friends or coworker, but with relevant and poignant information that nobody else seems to know, this is what catches on.

  4. ashlea
    ashlea says:

    if all you need to be in the top 10% is great potential.

    Consider me the best at everything.

  5. Ari Herzog
    Ari Herzog says:

    Paraphrasing the old saying, if you wait for the ship to send a dinghy to pick you up, you won’t be great. If you row out to the boat and ask to come aboard, you will be great.

    I sometimes forget to row, but I never forget the will to want to row.

  6. Dara
    Dara says:

    I just have to ask this of the peanut gallery…what if you’re not capable of being “great” at anything or anything that garners monetary value? It often strikes me that in America we’ve just taken for granted that we will be great at something…but not everybody can be great, can they?

    I don’t mean to come off as overly pessimistic, but, for instance, I’m a professional writer and I think I’m good, maybe very good, but not great. I reserve great for Pulitzer winners and Stephen King (in neither level do I find myself and perhaps never will). I’d love to write a novel some day and I think some day I will accomplish it, but I’m not under illusions that I am great or that it will be a best-seller. Plus, writing is so subjective that it’s difficult to attain “greatness.” I’ve reached fairly universal feedback that I’m good, but I’ve only had a few professors (one who off-handedly announced me as the next Hemingway–a comment you cherish, but doesn’t confirm greatness) and one boss who said I was great. The up side is that no one has labeled me bad or even average, therefore good has monetary value and I love the job so I don’t believe that I’m “wasting my time” being good (but perhaps, not great).

    Maybe Penelope is saying keep searching b/c you might find it, but I’d contend that you might not. You might have to find satisfaction with good or above average at things. If you’re good at several things, that may make you pretty great overall in the right career.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      Dara, thank you for such a great comment ;). My thoughts exactly! I’m 31 and engineer by training (I have a graduate degree from a top school in the US, but I’ve never had a real engineering job). I’m very mediocre and recently quit my job at a large Fortune 500 because I had no idea how to be “great” at a nonsense paper-pushing low/middle-management type of job at a Fortune 500. Also, those are the only kind of jobs for which I seem qualified. I’ve become acutely aware of my mediocrity during this time off. I’ve thought about what I am/could be good at, and there’s absolutely nothing that comes to mind. I’m not good enough at anything to strike out on my own or work for a small, innovative organization. I don’t have the skills to make a living in the modern world other than relying on large, inefficient corporate superstructures (safe havens mediocrities). The only skill one requires in such an environment is mental resilience to navigate random inefficiencies and politics (a skill that I lack being a naive, near-aspergic engineer) that are trademark of large corporations. The only other option I see for me and other non-greats is menial labor (being a janitor, etc.). I think it’s good work, and creates more flow than sitting in a cube, but it just doesn’t pay enough to survive in the modern world.

      I completely agree with you – not everyone can be great, especially at things that garner monetary value (being great at watching TV doesn’t count, for example). Being great is retrospective – only people who are great or really good at what they do (like Penelope) can wax eloquent about being great.

  7. Dan
    Dan says:

    Blogs are like @ssholes, everyone has one.

    I think it’s not the sidebar poll that failed. I think had the subject matter or questions been more intetresting they would have succeeded. Proof of this is that almost all online news sources have sidebar polls. Most of these are for profit businesses so we can ascertain that they are successful as evidenced by their continued existence with limited resources (space) for readers.

  8. matt
    matt says:

    wow. this blog struck a chord in a lot of people. it’s almost fight club-ish in it’s revelation of our mediocrity. and our festering anxiety toward it.

    to be great? i think of blake mikosky of TOMS shoes. buy a shoe give a shoe. That’s great.

    great is not material possessions. boca raton is choking with beached whales fat off their material greatness.

    to be a star? ask owen wilson if he is great. he wouldn’t think so. he’d ask you for a knife to slice his wrists.

    i feel like a hero when i take my 6 year old daughter ona date or see the light bulb go off on yet another young American who hasn’t had any guide in life, make a healthy decision based on our efforts.

    it’s not enough to say each individual defines their greatness b.c the majority’s decision defines it. perhaps peace in your heart and mind is greatness. if you can get there. u’ve arrived. until then it’s a blood bath.


  9. Agnese
    Agnese says:

    Hello Penelope!

    I’ve been a reader for some time now (my guess would be two years), but this is my first time stepping out of the shadows. So hello!

    I’m a bit behind on both the blog posts and the radio shows (have heard the first two), but I’m sorry to hear you won’t be doing them anymore! I was entertained, although the delays and odd pauses were somewhat irritating – I hoped you’d fix that, or maybe just stop taking callers and go for 30 minute-monologues instead… I think I would’ve liked that. But, if this means more time for blog posts – all the better!

    Your blog inspires me to keep my mind open to other options that just sticking out at work, and to think about how I can contribute while learning and developing and being happy. Just recently (on Monday!) I decided to stop being miserable and take control of my job. I feel I’m making a change, even if I’m not sure how much will actually be changed. But you can’t go anywhere without that first step!


  10. Jonathan @ saynototheoffice
    Jonathan @ saynototheoffice says:

    Here’s another way of looking at it. At school I got the top grade possible in every subject but never really excelled at any. The PhD I’ve just handed in covers 3 MASSIVE academic disciplines – I’ve got a jobbers knowledge in all of them but I’m not a real expert in any. I run my own business and do everything from HTML, PHP and CSS to financial analysis – but couldn’t get a job in any of these fields as I’m not an expert. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was a jack-of-all-trades and would never be great at anything but then I realised that precisely that was my niche – I am great at being good at everything. I constantly add new skills to my portfolio in just a few days that others need a university degree to (semi) master. Most areas or challenges in life require deep expertise in a narrow field, but a small minority benefit more from someone who has a very large range of skills to an 8/10 level. That’s me!

  11. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    I really dig your blog!

    I wanted to comment on you not doing your radio show.

    My mother started her radio show about 10 years ago and by her own account when she first started, she was pretty terrible. Her voice was high pitched, she spoke too quickly and the gait of her voice was uneven. She cringes when she hears her earliest shows.

    Now she’s learned quite a bit and it sounds a lot better. It definitely took time to understand the medium and she is now a “professional”.

    I’ve heard podcasts where people aren’t super fantastic but their content was. You have terrific content so I hope you reconsider.

  12. Dave
    Dave says:

    It is all about finding out what you really like and love to do, the key to be great in something is to enjoy what you are doing, if you enjoy your job you will be less affected by stress and will be more creative

  13. Renee Watson
    Renee Watson says:

    Penelope- I love your book and your blog!

    I just took the emotion IQ test and scored fairly low, but it was very informative.
    I’ll definitely keep reading and I would love to hear more of your take on the mixed generations working together…. if one more person sends a text and takes a phone call while I am talking with them, I am not sure what I will do!

  14. Welder
    Welder says:

    I think it’s not the sidebar poll that failed. I think had the subject matter or questions been more intetresting they would have succeeded.

  15. Roger
    Roger says:

    If at first you do succeed try hard to conceal your amazement. Just to show an opposite view.
    While in the unemployment mode I’m bouncing all around trying Perl,Unix,Shell scripts, HTML, Visual Basic, Java Scripting and others. Still looking for that idea driven position. My forte is generation of ideas from observing problems and then looking for solutions. I thought getting patents would open doors for employment so far it doesn’t seem to be helping any.
    Still pounding on doors until one opens or the wall falls down!

  16. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I love almost all of your posts but this is my favorite, so far. It’s an honest self-assessment of what you’re good at and that which you’re great at. Isn’t that cool that you’re trying to unveil, discover and eventually unleash that which is innately given to you and improve it. I love it when you said that you have no time for mediocrity. No time for being second best. Did I mention that I visited the Pioneer Woman and Dooce because you said you both love them. I think they’ve captured a lot of people’s attention but I guess most of your readers, you’ve ACTUALLY captured their hearts, and continues to do so. I love the comments because from them I see conversations and not just simple, “Hey I’m happy for you! I love it blah blah”. It’s not just your post that matters, its the interaction that it triggers. You are great in your own niche, hope you’d remember that. Or I wouldn’t keep sticking around reading.


  17. Myrna
    Myrna says:

    Enjoyed the article. Question: Are you saying that you decided to ignore the fact that you were great at writing about sex because there was no money in it? Or it was not a “big enough” greatness? That seems to contradict what you are saying. Creating a niche is good right? Sex is the biggest industry around. You could have become the next Dr. Ruth.

  18. Mkelly107
    Mkelly107 says:

    I like the spirit Ms Trunk expresses here: sheer hutzpa to plot to be great–you have to have a lot of talent and success already to even take that attitude.   But, I think she goes a bit off the rails after her great start: “Aim to be great at something that matters in the world.” Yes. It is obviously hard, and requires that we try a lot of different ways to use our gifts. But I would not automatically think that “what the world will pay
    for” is any better than “what the world will not pay for.” Greatness is often a big surprise to the world that has routinely rejected the people who pioneered something great, and didn’t get around to wanting to pay for it until much later. Classic examples in art: Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, and the Impressionists who were all rejected at first. This happens in all fields where the current world view is just not ready to embrace what proves to be a great new idea when it is first articulated.

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