I just got an email from a close friend in tech updating me about his new job leading a 65 person software team working on supply chains — a topic my friend had never encountered. My friend casually dropped this bit into the conversation:
The overall problem space is tremendously fun — have read my way through two books about supply chain management already, and just got three more from Amazon.
His team knows that he’s smart and kind. They see him show up to the office and deliver great work. They see the emails he writes them. They see how he facilitates a meeting.
At least some people on his team want to be him — they want to get a promotion, have more authority and make more money.
But they don’t see that he’s been quietly reading books on supply chain management because he wanted to know everything there is to know about doing his job well.
This is the secret work that many exceptional people do. It’s secret because they don’t perceive this work as exceptional. For them it’s pragmatic.
A close childhood friend graduated with our high school’s top GPA. That required taking a ton of honors and AP courses.
It’s an even bigger deal given how competitive the high school was. We went to San Francisco’s academically oriented magnet high school, Lowell. This school is usually ranked as about the 50th best high school in the country. Which is just to say that getting the top GPA was a huge accomplishment.
Growing up, I thought my friend achieved those grades through a combination of brains and hard work. But my notion of what hard work meant was pretty vague. I just though — she does her homework and sometimes I don’t.
Fast forward many years, and she was complaining to me about some tension with her husband.
Her husband is smart, fit and successful. He owns two Bay Area homes. He’s 6'3" and ripped. They have backpacked all over the world together. But compared to her, he’s notably chill. On their wedding day he was in basketball shorts smoking cigars and sipping Bourbon until about 15 minutes before the ceremony.
On this occasion her husband was stressing my friend out. He was planning to take some classes in preparation for a Masters degree. But my friend didn’t think he was taking those classes seriously.
The classes were due to start in a month. This is the part that alarmed my friend:
“He hasn’t even READ the textbooks yet!!!”
When you think about it, reading your textbooks before classes start is a pragmatic move. You’re going to have to read them at some point, so why not before the semester? That way you have more time to get your homework done and ask questions about the parts you don’t understand.
So that was my friend’s secret to having a top GPA… she had the completely mundane habit of reading her text books over the summer.
What’s funny, and I absolutely laughed out loud when she told me her complaint, is that she’s the only person in the world who does this and it still never occurred to her that it was special.
For her, being ahead of her work, rather than behind on her work, was a natural and pragmatic activity.
There’s a mindset from Once a Runner that I think sums up the How To part of my post. Once a Runner is about the fictional quest of an elite miler, Quinton Cassidy, to win an Olympic medal.
At one point Cassidy muses on the difference between serious runners and joggers.
Those who partake of the difficult pleasures of the highly competitive runner only when comfortable, when in a state of high energy, when rested, elated, or untroubled by previous exertions, such dilettante-competitors miss the point.
Joggers have a mindset where they have to question every bit of work they do. Is the weather nice enough? Do their legs feel good enough?
And the secret, in Cassidy’s experience, is that he only made that decision one time. He decided to be a runner and so he was.
Rather than waking up wondering if he should put in work today, he wakes up assuming that he will.
That’s really the secret for my two friends above, the tech leader and the top GPA getter. The secret work they do doesn’t feel like a struggle or even extraordinary. Instead, it feels obvious.
Most of us are looking for tricks because we’re re-evaluating our top ambition too often. We’re the jogger looking out at the weather.
This is a tactical way of looking at the world.
The Cassidy approach is that he made the decision about his ambition at the identity level. He’s a runner, therefore he will run. Similarly for my high school friend and my tech friend.
So the secret is just to change your identity. Simple, right?