Husband & foster father, leadership & startup adviser, pursuing PhD in org psych. Get my 2 free eBooks (on productivity & blogging) @ https://benjaminhardy.com/
Feb 1310 min read
15 Things Insanely-Productive People Do Differently
Productivity is not doing lots of stuff fast.
You can do lots of stuff and get nowhere closer to your ideal. Most people are living their lives this way. They are burning themselves out running in a million different directions. Our society has become obsessed with constant doing. There’s little time left for being and living.
Productivity is purposefully and consistently moving in a desired direction.
Insanely productive people have learned the two most important things every person needs to know in this life:
Who they are
What their purpose (path) in life is
And that’s where we begin:
1. They Know Who They Are And Who They Want To Be
Productivity is a sexy topic lately because most people are radically confused about who they are.
As a result, they want a quick scheme to the world’s definition of success. They’ve yet to define success for themselves. They want it all laid out for them. They want a to-do list. They believe that doing lots of stuff will get them what they want.
Maybe it will impress other people? Maybe it will get them ahead of the competition? But who really is the competition?
That’s the problem.
Most people are still competing with other people.
They are trying to fit in. They’re trying to be perceived as awesome. In truth, they’re profoundly insecure. They’re caught in an endless identity crisis — going from one thing to the next. Whatever is popular at the time — the illusive quest for acceptance — the lack of depth and commitment.
And that’s the difference.
Non-productive people seek security externally.
They seek security in a paycheck, or in friends, or in perceived success. Rather than experiencing security, in reality, they are the slaves to these things. They will do anything to have these things. They are not free.
However, insanely productive people know that security can only really be experienced internally. They know who they are. So they don’t worry about all these traps that sabotage and slow the masses. They fully accept and understand themselves — and that’s good enough for them. No external standard of success will ever compare to their own self-awareness and acceptance.
Beyond knowing who they are, they know who they are going to become. They’re not going to be tossed off course by the next big thing. Until you know who are you, you will never be insanely productive. It doesn’t matter how much you “accomplish” in your life if it’s not the life you really wanted to live — the life you were meant to live.
Insanely productive people have moved well beyond that. Their evolution has opened within them the space to do what only they can do. Every person on this planet is a unique individual with a unique opportunity to serve and give in their own personal way. You can’t do that work until you know who you are.
2. They Know Where They Want To Go
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” “I don’t much care where –” “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Like point one, most people want to be told where to go. They want to be told who to be. They don’t really care where it is — so long as it seems awesome to everyone else. This sidetracks people all the time. Rather than doing what they genuinely love, they take the job that offers the most money, prestige, or accolades. They spend decades of their lives on the wrong path.
At some point or another, they have their identity crisis and realize they have no idea what they really want in life. They have no idea where they are going. However, insanely productive people are purposeful about where they intend to end up. Every day of their lives is spent building toward their highest ideal. The things on their to-do lists actually make cohesive sense.
The truth is, insanely productive people aren’t moving any faster than the rest. More often, they are moving slower. The difference is, unlike the norm, insanely productive people are moving in one direction. Five steps in one directions seems like a lot to the person who has moved one step in five directions.
3. They Don’t Care What Other People Are Doing
Most people spend the majority of their time watching and observing other people. The goal is to emulate and copy, or to compare and compete. This highlights an utter lack of achieved identity — an emotional and spiritual immaturity.
On the other hand, insanely productive people spend very little if any of their time worrying about what other people, “their competition,” are doing. They see this as a distraction from their work. They put their heads down and execute. Gary Vaynerchuck, perhaps one of the most productive people on earth, says he doesn’t have time to read other people’s stuff. He’s too busy creating his own content.
4. They Don’t Care What Other People Think
“What people think of you is none of your business.” — Amy Hatvany
The majority of the population lives in absolute fear about what other people think of them. They try to be perfect. They try to be liked. They are unwilling to be vulnerable. To be real and truthful.
Insanely productive people put themselves completely out there. They are doing their work for themselves and for the people it was intended for. Anyone outside their target audience doesn’t exist to them. Haters and critics are flowers, not darts.
5. But They Care Intensely About Those They Serve
Despite caring very little about what other people think, insanely productive people care fiercely about other people. They have a love for humanity that is nothing short of divine. Every person has infinite potential in their worldview. When they look at another person, they see a person — not an object. They feel. Like really feel. It’s not a staged act.
Insanely productive people are incredibly empathetic. They relate with people on their level. They’re relevant and connect. They influence with their love. Those they serve can feel it and they’re changed.
6. Their Work Is Their Art — It’s Highly Personal
Insanely productive people don’t have jobs. They are artists — even if accountants, bankers, or lawyers. The work they do is everything they are. They give completely to their work. It’s emotional labor. When they finish, there’s nothing left. If it isn’t meaningful, they don’t do it. To do so doesn’t make sense to them.
If they can’t feel it deep when they are working, they are not working. They’re not living. They’re not in the zone. And they seek that zone. That’s when art and magic happens. Everything in their life is set up to create that space. This is why they were born.
7. They Don’t Need Permission
Most people wait. They believe they can start after they have enough time, money, connections, and credentials. They wait until they feel “secure.” Not insanely productive people.
Insanely productive people started last year. They started five years ago before they even knew what they were doing. They started before they had any money. They started before they had all the answers. They started when no one else believed in them. The only permission they needed was the voice inside them prompting them to move forward. And they moved.
8. They Learn Through Doing
Theory can only take a person so far. Putting yourself out there and falling flat on your face, over, and over, and over is how insanely productive people learn. Rather than having meetings and discussions, they go out and practice.
While most people are reading, thinking, and dreaming, insanely productive people are out doing. The goal is to learn while creating output. Non-productive people on the other hand have a lopsided ratio of input and output — with very little of the latter.
9. They Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously
Insanely productive people have an ease about life. Everything is going to be okay. They allow themselves to laugh and to feel and to love. They don’t overthink themselves. They don’t define themselves by their achievements.
They laugh at themselves when they make blunders. They’re okay with the fact that they’re not perfect. They embrace their humanity. They genuinely like themselves as a human being. They don’t crucify themselves at every mistake. They give themselves the benefit of the doubt.
10. They Can Enjoy Where They Presently Are On The Path
“When someone says: “So what’s next?” As in, “how are you going to top that?” You don’t have to have an answer. The answer can be: “This.” Your life doesn’t have to be about impressing other people or a successive series of achievements.”- Ryan Holiday
Insanely productive people find joy in the journey. They aren’t always waiting for that next chapter in life. They are happy with where they are. They are alive. Non-productive people wait for contentment until after they graduate from college, or get that promotion, or retire. All the while, their life passed them by and they never really experienced the moment.
11. They Ask For Help
“Rainmakers generate revenue by making asks. They ask for donations. They ask for contracts. They ask for deals. They ask for opportunities. They ask to meet with leaders or speak to them over the phone. They ask for publicity. They come up with ideas and ask for a few minutes of your time to pitch it. They ask for help. Don’t let rainmaking deter you from your dream. It’s one of the barriers to entry, and you can overcome it. Once you taste the sweet victory of a positive response, you’ll not only become comfortable with it, you might even enjoy it. But making asks is the only way to bring your dream to life.” — Ben Arment
Insanely productive people know they don’t have all the answers. They aren’t afraid to ask for directions when lost. They aren’t too proud to say when they’re having a hard time.
Amanda Palmer is a famous musician. Her career is based on making asks. She left her record label so she could give her music away for free. She had enough trust in her fans and followers to ask them for help in exchange for the value she provided them. She launched a Kickstarter and made well over a million dollars. She couchsurfs all over the world. Her fans bring her food.
All she does is ask. She asks because she has courage. She asks because she has trust. She asks because she wants to be vulnerable with her tribe. They give generously because they have been the generous recipients of her gifts.
12. They Drop What’s Not Working
“Extraordinary benefits also accrue to the tiny majority with the guts to quit early and refocus their efforts on something new.” — Seth Godin
Insanely productive people understand the concept of sunk cost. When something isn’t working, they drop it and move on. They don’t continue putting resources into a burning ship.
13. They Think Laterally Rather Than Vertically
“Lateral thinking doesn’t replace hard work; it eliminates unnecessary cycles.” — Shane Snow
Most of the United States Presidents spent less time in politics than the average congressman. Moreover, the best, and most popular Presidents, generally spent the least amount of time in politics. Rather than spending decades climbing the tedious ladder with glass ceilings, they simply jumped laterally from a different, non-political ladder.
Ronald Reagan was an actor. Dwight Eisenhower laterally shifted from the military. Woodrow Wilson bounced over from academia. These men spent considerably little time in politics and became fabulous Presidents. They reached the top by skipping the unnecessary “dues-paying” steps. Insanely productive people think the same way. Rather than climbing up ladders the traditional ways, they think of alternative routes. They skip unnecessary steps by pivoting and shifting
14. They Let Go Of The Need For A Specific Result
Jeremy Piven, the famous actor, was recently interviewed by Success Magazine. During the interview, he mentioned that, as an actor, the only way to work is to go out and audition for specific roles. The challenge most actors/actresses face is that they get in their own way. It doesn’t matter how much homework they’ve done. If they’re too tied to a specific result, they can’t be present in the moment. They can’t truly perform their art. They come off as desperate. They get in their own way. Their performance isn’t what it could have been.
Jeremy said that when he quit worrying about a specific result, he was able to be present during his auditions. He was able to be completely who he wanted to be. He wasn’t trying to be what he thought others wanted him to be. He performed his art. If he didn’t get the gig, either they didn’t get it or it just wasn’t the right fit. So he moves on to the next. In this way, he’s able to get the jobs he’s supposed to have. He’s not just trying to get anything he can get.
Insanely productive people are the same way. They are raw and real. They are present and perform on their highest level because they aren’t dependent on a particular outcome. They have an innate trust that everything will work out for them if they’re authentic. They trust in the universe — their higher power — to take them where they need to go.
15. They Constantly Prune Their Lives
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — Greg McKeown
Last but certainly not least — insanely productive people continuously “clean their closet.” They live minimally. When life starts getting too busy, they step back and remove what is unneeded. Rather than adding more to their life, they say, “no” to almost everything. If they’ve made non-essential commitments in their future, they cancel those superfluous appointments. Their lives are simple and to the point.
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Next Story — When Distractions Become Your Routine
Currently Reading - When Distractions Become Your Routine
Olympic Gold Medalist | Performance Strategist & Coach | Professional Speaker & Presenter | Author | Network Television Commentator
22 hrs ago3 min read
When Distractions Become Your Routine
How good would it feel to finally plant that flag? Achieve the goal? Reach the finish line?
The very thought of arriving at that destination raises your heart rate by a few beats.
The path to get there feels like a short, direct line to… do-able.
The app that you want to build. The client that you want to land. The marathon that you want to run. The instrument that you want to play. The side business that you want to launch. The move that you want to make to live in another country.
When distractions become your routine
I get it — you have responsibilities and promises for which you signed up. In life’s scheme, a good job or important relationships are not necessarily bad things. Put aside those big elephant priorities for a moment.
You can’t have a conversation about the obstacles that stop you cold without acknowledging the mice in the room — from TV to social media to email. These routine pests beg you to chase them down; then they wear you down and pull you down.
Down here where:
Your boundaries for other people’s “urgent” disappear — interruptions become habits.
You become lost to the compounding power of the unimportant — distractions become the routine.
Without a commitment to small and meaningful steps every day, a vast expanse is created that separates “the where you are” from “the where you want to be.”
Every time I’ve wanted to create an important change in my life, and failed to make progress, it wasn’t for a lack of a grander vision or motivation. It was for a lack of small steps practiced every day that keep in-check the distractions and interruptions that create wastelands of uninspiring, exhaustive mental space.
BUT, when you choose your small steps, you instantly build an exit from the external wasteland that returns you to your short, direct and passionate path.
What small steps?
Creativity — Ideas, art, music, movement. Reflection — Reading, writing, stillness. Mindfulness — Meditation, silence. Gratitude — Write it, say it, feel it. Service — Because your tank needs to be filled. Let go — To create the space to expand.
Why Small Steps?
How you do the small things is how you do everything. It’s easier to practice in small steps than large leaps.
When do you choose these steps?
First thing. Before email. Before TV. Before the noise. Those passions which are important are what you do first.
At least once every 24 hours.
Will these small steps work?
They work for me. Not just when things are going well… but when they’re not.
Why these steps?
Because, *your small steps* are the fuel that helps you bypass the mice-ridden wastelands that can become scattered throughout your day. Your small steps are the fuel that injects the energy necessary to continue on your passionate path.
Don’t let the distractions become routine, because they will soon become your life. Instead, make Small Steps your routine, and your passions will come to life.
As America’s first ever Olympic Gold Medalist in Whitewater Canoe Slalom, Joe promotes strategies and shares stories for living and performing at your best, doing the work that matters and engaging with purpose. His platforms include performance coaching and consulting, professional speaking, broadcasting and his weekly newsletter, “Sunday Morning Joe.”
Next Story — This 9-Year Old’s Amazing Business Plan Will Inspire You!
Currently Reading - This 9-Year Old’s Amazing Business Plan Will Inspire You!
A young entrepreneur whose business plan hit Reddit recently did just that, and you have to admire her ability to cut right to the chase:
Nine-year old Rylee’s mother found the business plan in her daughter’s backpack, as the story goes, and it quickly became an Internet sensation. The savvy kidpreneur starts her business plan out with something we would all do well to remember: to get a head start, look to people with experience to help you out!
In Rylee’s case, this is Mom and Dad.
She knows it’s going to take some convincing, too, and has accounted for the fact she’ll need to work on getting them to say yes.
Rylee is going to look for pricing information and create marketing materials to “spread the word!”
Of course, #6 is critically important: actually carrying out on the task of walking the dogs.
The intrepid young businesswoman’s plan was such a hit that it received millions of views and comments on Reddit.
If only we could all be as succinct and direct with our ideas.
Starting a business is already terrifying and complicated enough. Do we need to make it more so with long, boring business plans? I think not. If you’re struggling with your business plan, use these tips to get you back on track:
Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel — use a business plan template to get you started. You can always customize it to suit your purposes.
Do your research, but remember that you don’t have to include it all. You can always keep in-depth information about your market and competitors on hand without trying to cram everything you know into this one document.
Be sure to explain clearly and as briefly as possible why your idea will work. Don’t get so bogged down in explaining it or how it works that you forget to highlight the main point: why it’s different and awesome.
Take a critical pass over the entire plan and ask yourself, what can I remove without negatively affecting the quality of this plan?
Zuckerberg started in his dorm room and Steve Jobs out of his garage.
The most recent case I ran across started in the remote parts of Asia and passed through the tidy Amish farmland of Eastern Pennsylvania on its way to monopoly status. In an interview with James Altucher, Kevin Kelly, the author and “Senior Maverick” of Wired Magazine recounted his career trajectory and the trajectories of others he’s worked with that suggest a route to monopoly.
Stage one of a career means getting competent at something. You get that first job whether it’s a newspaper route, bagging groceries, or your first job out of college — and you just want to be competent at it.
Slowly that feeling dissipates. You’re not worried about being fired, you want to get good at what you do.
And so you get good at it. That’s stage two.
Once you’re competent and good at something, then — in stage three — you want to get paid well for it. This is a very normal career trajectory and has been for most of the twentieth century. It’s after stage three that most people stop.
But Kevin points out that there is, in fact, a final stage, and it’s the one monopolies, those high-margin, highly defensible behemoths are founded on.
The Work Only You Can Do
Maybe you shudder a little bit at the ‘new agey-ness’ of that statement. I shudder a bit at it. It’s diabolically close to “follow your passion.”
“Stop thinking you’re a special snowflake” is frequently good advice. No matter how committed you are to a diet, if you put a chocolate cake in your fridge, you’re likely to eat it sooner or later just like anyone else would. If you don’t commit to a ritual, you’re not likely to produce great work.
I’ve always been repelled from the “follow your passion” crowd. Mindlessly pursuing your pure, unadulterated passion in the moment does not a business strategy make.
Yet, you are a bit special snowflake-y. You’re still a snowflake, you’ll still melt when it gets above freezing, but under the right conditions you have unique characteristics.
Finding “the work only you can do” is the foundation of something which I’m inherently far more attracted to than a delusional conception of “passion” oversimplifying the complexities and nuances of entrepreneurship — and, frankly, reality:
The characteristics of high-margin, highly defensible monopolies in the post-internet era.
Yes, that sounds much more fruitful (and profitable).
The essential idea behind Blue Ocean Strategy is that of value innovation: offering new products that create “blue oceans” of uncontested market space by pursuing a better cost structure (giving you access to a bigger market) and differentiation at the same time.
Let’s take the example used in the book of ‘Yellow Tail Wine’.
Before Yellow Tail, the wine market was divided into two distinct segments: budget wines and premium wines. The wine market on the whole was shrinking, and existing competitors were fighting to hold on to market share. And yet, in the span of a decade, Yellow Tail emerged as one of the top five most powerful wine brands in the world.
How? It value innovated to create a blue ocean. Instead of only appealing to traditional wine drinkers, it brought in more casual cocktail and beer drinkers. Yellow Tail was the first wine I ever drank. I was 19, had no conception of taste, and it was sweet, fruity and cheap. As wine connoisseurs sat around criticizing Yellow Tail for lowering quality and working against the proper appreciation of fine grapes, Yellow Tail not-so-quietly ate their competition’s lunch (and their market share and profits).
Reading Blue Ocean Strategy, I realized that the same phenomenon — creating high margin and highly defensible market spaces — happens in small businesses and in entrepreneurial careers.
What Blue Ocean Strategy suggests for larger organizations through the use of 5×7 matrices and data graphing is just as applicable to smaller organizations and individuals through simpler means.
Kevin Kelly is himself an example. Kevin is the former editor, now “Senior Maverick,” of Wired magazine. Kevin spent a lot of time wandering around rural Asia, through rice paddies and primitive villages, a seemingly strange place to start a career defined by technology. There was so little of it there compared to the West — a hand tool or a bowl were, and still are, cutting edge technology for people in some parts of the world.
Yet, it was that perspective Kevin brought with him as a writer for The Whole Earth Catalog, a predecessor to Wired Magazine. He was brought into Wired because he was one of the first people tinkering around on this new technology called “the internet.”
Beyond his position at Wired, Kevin has written a series of books, including the remarkableWhat Technology Wants, which expounds on the nature of technology and it’s similarities to biology.
Kevin has created a blue ocean career for himself. His work is work only he can do, there was not a person on Earth that could have written What Technology Wants other than Kevin.
In doing so, he’s created a high-margin, highly defensible position in the market. Publishers come to him, not the other way around.
There is no other Kevin Kelly. He’s a monopoly.
Two Primary Characteristics of High Margin, Highly Defensible Monopolies
1. Built Around Unique Abilities (Or a Combination Thereof)
Our innate biology is poorly suited to understanding outcomes in modernity. Intuitively, we assume outcomes follow a normal, gaussian distribution, simply because most biological systems do.
Take height, for example. The average height for a male in the U.S. Is around 6’0 tall. Some are a bit taller or shorter. And then a few are much taller or much shorter.
That’s not the case with distribution in anynon-biological systems (as technology advances, most systems are non-biological).
A minutely small number of people own a large portion of the wealth, and land, and domain names, and televisions — this fact first observed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto is now commonly known as the 80/20 rule.
While many people have begun to grasp that the concept applies externally to land or wealth, the same power law principle applies internally to your individual skill set. If you were to think about your skills as being displayed in a power law graph, you have a small number of skills which produce a disproportionate number of results for you.
I am terrible at a lot of things. I’m extremely forgetful — I left my car in drive and got out of it in a parking lot last week. I have a horrible rote memory and will forget everything from a conversation I had less than twenty four hours ago.
While this has always been true, the internet has magnified the inequality of the distribution of outcomes. Whoever is the best in the world at something will enjoy dramatically outsized rewards to someone that is second or third best. The #1 search result in Google gets 33% of the search traffic. There can be ten million other results, but the first result will get 33% of all the clicks.
What’s more challenging, is that your particular skill set is something you’ve probably never heard of before. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has created a monopoly by building on his strengths. He’s tremendously productive (to the tune of $75 million), but the route to that productivity wasn’t paved by traditional notions of boundedness around skills. Scott Adams didn’t go to cartoon school. He worked for 15 years in a crappy company, so he understood corporate culture; he liked cartooning as a kid; and he had a flair for entrepreneurship as evidenced by a track record of failed businesses.
The problem that Kevin Kelly and Scott Adams exemplify is: we have industrial notions of boundedness around skill sets. When you ask most people what they do, they fall into a fairly small number of buckets, most of which are classes at a University: I’m a marketer, I’m a designer, I’m a software engineer.
That’s typically how people describe their strengths. Yet, those are all commodity skill sets. Lots of people are marketers, designers, and software engineers.
It take a lot more time, but yields much higher rewards, to reach the point Scott Adams did — “I’m really good at drawing cartoons which satire corporate America” is not commoditazible. It’s monopolistic.
While the internet has changed a lot of things about how business operates, it hasn’t changed how monopolies operate: they command high margins and are highly defensible. For as much as anyone may complain about Paypal fees or Google collecting data, we all still use them.¹
In an industrial economy, increased productivity is achieved by working on complicated projects. That is, projects where you can go from A to Z. It may require 26 steps, but the path is clear. You go to college, you go to graduate school, you get an entry level job, you get a mid-level manager job, you get a c-suite job. The path is pretty well laid out.
Boundedness in the entrepreneurial economy is complex instead of complicated. It can be rationalized and subjected to the narrative fallacy in retrospect — looking back on Kevin Kelly’s or Scott Adams career you can see how they ended up where they did, but standing in a rice paddy in Cambodia, few would have predicted Kevin a futurist thinker on technology. It’s not clear how to get from Step A to Number 5. They are in different domains. You must cross traditional boundaries.
Productivity, and profits, in an entrepreneurial economy are achieved by working on complex projects where progress isn’t made in a straight line, but in a seemingly rambling, meandering path, combining different concepts, skill sets and experiences from different domains.
2. Exists in a Growing Marketplace
If you take a mediocre entrepreneur with a mediocre product and you put him in a rapidly expanding market, she’s going to do ok. If you take an exceptional entrepreneur, with an exceptional product in a really terrible market, she’s probably screwed.
As 80/20 guru Perry Marshall recently related to me: lots of dumb investors made money in the boom market leading up to 2008. Lots of smart investors lost lots of money in the crash.
Market always wins.
If you had to pick a single factor that would predict the success of a new business, it would be operating in a growing market. Yet, when you look out at growing markets, incumbents often seem unassailable.
What’s the largest Customer Relationship Management platform? Salesforce.
Who’s the second largest? I have absolutely no idea — which is precisely the point.
The concept of wealth creation — that in a post-industrial world, wealth is not fixed, but unlimited — is broadly understood in Entrepreneurial circles. There are hundreds of millions more people alive today than there were two hundred years ago and, on average, they are much better off than they were two hundred years ago — we can make more wealth, and have.
The less-recognized fact is that we can actually make more markets, and we can do so more easily now than ever. While the Industrial Revolution unleashed wealth creation, the internet has unleashed market creation in the form of the Long Tail.
One of the first industries affected by the Long Tail was music. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, a company that distributes CDs for independent musicians, told me the story of a woman who sold tens of thousands of albums of songs just for sailors. She lived on a boat and wrote all her songs for people with similar lifestyles. Albums for sailors is now a real market — not a huge one, but a real one. That simply wasn’t possible before the internet.
Everything in the way we are raised and conditioned indicates to us that this is not true. Everyone takes the same math test. Everyone chooses from the same set of classes in college. Everyone chooses from the same set of jobs on Monster.com. This is not the way the world today actually works. There are, in fact, an infinite number of choices available.
There wasn’t a job ad for “‘Senior Maverick-and-futurist’ at ‘not-yet-existing magazine’ covering ‘not-yet-existing technology’” thirty years ago, at the beginning of Kevin Kelly’s career. Nor was there a job ad for “cartoonist cleverly satirizing corporate America.” Kevin Kelly and Scott Adams to some extent discovered, and to some extent created, those markets.
Just as we aren’t good at redefining boundaries of our skill sets in non-traditional ways, we aren’t good at realizing that market boundaries can be redefined just as easily. By eliminating geography, the internet has both created more markets and also made it significantly easier to redefine those markets’ boundaries.
There are more and more markets than ever because of the Long Tail. And because we invented wealth creation, many of those markets are growing or fragmenting off into smaller markets that are growing.
AirBnB, now a $20 billion dollar company, was founded off the back of Craigslist’s classifieds section. There will, I suspect, be hundreds of companies founded off of Craigslist before it’s all said and done.
Because the internet has democratized distribution and production, our interests are more niche now. Beardbrand, a company that only offers “beard care products for the urban beardsman” likely doesn’t exist in a pre-internet world. In a world limited by geography and the high overhead of owning a physical retail store, that’s a much less viable market than it is in the post-internet era.
Even businesses’ actual geographic locations benefit. CrossFit took an existing market (fitness) and carved out a new blue ocean. And you can redefine even within the CrossFit market. There’s a CrossFit gym I just found that does Crossfit and MMA. They’ve redefined that market for people that like both of those things. They can be the best CrossFit/MMA gym in Austin (a growing market).
The punchline here is this:
There are more markets than at anytime in human history.
On the whole, they’re growing.
The question then becomes: How can you find your unique strengths, to do the work only you can do, to serve a growing market?
This is the nexus where people get rich in the Entrepreneurial Economy.
4 Strategies To Find The Work Only You Can Do
I’ve dropped more than a few hundreds of dollars on tests and quizzes and spent more than a few hundred hours working out the best way to answer that question that promise to give the answer to that question. To the extent I’ve been successful, I’ve found four strategies more helpful than the rest:
1. Find The Resistance. Run Towards It.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.
-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.
Nothing in my life has been a better indicator for what should i do with my life than finding where The Resistance is blocking my path and running towards it.
Any act which foregoes short term pleasure in favor of long term gain will, without fail, elicit The Resistance.
That feeling before you make a cold call? The Resistance.
The person telling you that you can’t launch a new venture or lose another 10 pounds? The Resistance.
That expensive qualification you think need before you can do the the work only you can do? Hellooo Resistance.
Run towards it.
As part of my weekly review, the first question I ask is: Did I Move towards the Resistance? Am I avoiding confronting insecurities or ugh fields? What don’t I want to think about or talk about?
2. Do an Anti-Productivity Productivity Day
The anti-productivity productivity day is a concept that I created based on an article from Marc Andreessen. Marc advocates not sticking to a schedule for a whole year. Pick whatever you feel like working on when you wake up, and go work on it.
While that’s difficult to do for a whole year, it’s quite easy to do for one day. I like to schedule at least one Saturday a month as my anti-productivity, productivity day.
A friend that runs a high-end web design agency did this experiment a few times — he always ended up setting up and attending meetings for the entire day with clients or potential partners.
Unsurprisingly, he is a killer in person salesman and speaker, and has seen more growth in his business from speaking and meetings than anything else.
As any truly prolific individual will tell you, productivity is an act of subtraction not addition. The process of eliminating or outsourcing my least productive tasks has created more space for me to move further up my own power law graph into exponentially higher levels of productivity.
At the end of my daily ritual, I ask myself: What’s the Least Productive thing I did today?
While it can be hard to see what you are supremely at, it’s much easier to see what you are bad at and get that out of your life.
4. Discover Your Unique Ability
You possess a kind of inner force that seeks to guide you toward your Life’s Task — what you are meant to accomplish in the time that you have to live.
In childhood this force was clear to you. It directed you toward activities and subjects that fit your natural inclinations, that sparked a curiosity that was deep and primal. In the intervening years, the force tends to fade in and out as you listen more to parents and peers, to the daily anxieties that wear away at you. This can be the source of your unhappiness — your lack of connection to who you are and what makes you unique.
The first move toward mastery is always inward — learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force. Knowing it with clarity, you will find your way to the proper career path and everything else will fall into place. It is never too late to start this process.
The final technique I’ve used is one I modified after I read The Unique Ability Book to send out an email to my friends. I picked people from all different areas of my life — college, high school, first jobs, second job, different countries and sent them all the same template email asking what they thought my strengths were.
This was far and away the most useful of all the activities — I was shocked by how similar all the responses were. People that knew me from totally disparate areas of my life, including different countries sent back remarkably similar responses. Nine of the ten involved the exact same phrase and it’s shaped a lot of how I’ve approached my business in the past year.
In downtown Helsinki, there is a bus station with around two dozen platforms. Hundreds of buses leave from the station each day. They set off on the same route for the first mile, stopping two or three times, all at the same set of stops.
Metaphorically, imagine each stop as a period in your life. Despite being on a different bus from everyone else, you stop at all the same stops. What most people do is they get two or three stops down the road, realize they’re on the same route as everyone else, get off and grab a cab back to the bus station — life is short.
They get on another bus and two or three stops down the road again, they look around to see they’re on the same path. They get off and hop another cab back to the bus station.
But what happens is that after a mile or so, the bus routes fork. The 21 heads South and the 71 heads North. Eventually, the tendrils of bus routes stretch far out of downtown Helsinki, each ending it’s own unique, monopolistic destination.
Originally written as a commencement address for the New England School of Photography as a metaphor for young, ambitious photographers, the Helsinki Bus Station Theory solution is unglamorously simple and effective:
Stay on the bus. Stay on it.
While all four of these strategies have helped myself and others get closer to uncovering the unique skill sets monopolies are built on, there’s no substitute for staying on the bus.
Which of these strategies has worked for you?
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But all of these felt unsatisfactory to me. Plenty of people have these traits. I wanted to know what he did differently.
As I kept reading dozens of articles, videos, and books about Musk, I noticed a huge piece of the puzzle was missing. Conventional wisdom says that in order to become world-class, we should only focus on one field. Musk breaks that rule. His expertise ranges from rocket science, engineering, physics, and artificial intelligence to solar power and energy.
In a previous article, I call people like Elon Musk “expert-generalists” (a term coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Company). Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.
Based on my review of Musk’s life and the academic literature related to learning and expertise, I’m convinced that we should ALL learn across multiple fields in order to increase our odds of breakthrough success.
The jack of all trades myth
If you’re someone who loves learning in different areas, you’re probably familiar with this well-intentioned advice:
“Grow up. Focus on just one field.”
“Jack of all trades. Master of none.”
The implicit assumption is that if you study in multiple areas, you’ll only learn at a surface level, never gain mastery.
The success of expert-generalists throughout time shows that this is wrong. Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field.
For example, if you’re in the tech industry and everyone else is just reading tech publications, but you also know a lot about biology, you have the ability to come up with ideas that almost no one else could. Vice-versa. If you’re in biology, but you you also understand artificial intelligence, you have an information advantage over everyone else who stays siloed.
Despite this basic insight, few people actually learn beyond their industry.
Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t. This is the expert-generalist advantage.
One fascinating study echoes this insight. It examined how the top 59 opera composers of the 20th century mastered their craft. Counter to the conventional narrative that success of top performers can solely be explained by deliberate practice and specialization, the researcher Dean Keith Simonton found the exact opposite: “The compositions of the most successful operatic composers tended to represent a mix of genres… composers were able to avoid the inflexibility of too much expertise (overtraining) by cross-training,” summarizes UPENN researcher Scott Barry Kaufman in a Scientific American article.
At first, Musk’s reading spanned science fiction, philosophy, religion, programming, and biographies of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. As he got older, his reading and career interests spread to physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and energy. This thirst for knowledge allowed him to get exposed to a variety of subjects he had never necessarily learned about in school.
Elon Musk is also good at a very specific type of learning that most others aren’t even aware of — learning transfer.
Learning transfer is taking what we learn in one context and applying it to another. It can be taking a kernel of what we learn in school or in a book and applying it to the “real world.” It can also be taking what we learn in one industry and applying it to another.
This is where Musk shines. Several of his interviews show that he has a unique two-step process for fostering learning transfer.
First, he deconstructs knowledge into fundamental principles
Musk’s answer on a Reddit AMA describes how he does that:
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.
Research suggests that turning your knowledge into deeper, abstract principles facilitates learning transfer. Research also suggests that one technique is particularly powerful for helping people intuit underlying principles. This technique is called, “contrasting cases.”
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you want to deconstruct the letter “A” and understand the deeper principle of what makes an “A” an A. Let’s further say that you have two approaches you could use to do this:
Which approach do you think would work better?
Approach #1. Each different A in Approach #1 gives more insight into what stays the same and what differs between each A. Each A in Approach #2 gives us no insight.
By looking at lots of diverse cases when we learn anything, we begin to intuit what is essential and even craft our own unique combinations.
What does this mean in our day-to-day life? When we’re jumping into a new field, we shouldn’t just take one approach or best practice. We should explore lots of different approaches, deconstruct each one, and then compare and contrast them. This will help us uncover underlying principles.
Next, he reconstructs the fundamental principles in new fields
Step two of Musk’s learning transfer process involves reconstructing the foundational principles he’s learned in artificial intelligence, technology, physics, and engineering into separate fields:
In aerospace in order to create SpaceX.
In automotive in order to create Tesla with self-driving features.
In technology in order to co-found OpenAI, a non-profit that limits the probability of negative artificial intelligence futures.
Keith Holyoak, a UCLA professor of psychology and one of the world’s leading thinkers on analogical reasoning, recommends people ask themselves the following two questions in order to hone their skills: “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?”
By constantly looking at objects in your environment and material you read and asking yourself these two questions, you build the muscles in your brain that help you make connections across traditional boundaries.
Bottom line: It’s not magic. It’s just the right learning process
Now, we can begin to understand how Musk has become a world-class expert-generalist:
He spent many years reading 60 times as much as an avid reader.
He read widely across different disciplines.
He constantly applied what he learned by deconstructing ideas into their fundamental principles and reconstructing them in new ways.
At the deepest level, what we can learn from Elon Musk’s story is that we shouldn’t accept the dogma that specialization is the best or only path toward career success and impact. Legendary expert-generalist Buckminster Fuller summarizes a shift in thinking we should all consider. He shared it decades ago, but it’s just as relevant today:
“We are in an age that assumes that the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable… In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.”
If we put in the time and learn core concepts across fields and always relate those concepts back to our life and the world, transferring between areas becomes much easier and faster.
As we build up a reservoir of “first principles” and associate those principles with different fields, we suddenly gain the superpower of being able to go into a new field we’ve never learned before, and quickly make unique contributions.
Understanding Elon’s learning superpowers helps us gain some insight into how he could go into an industry that has been around for more than 100 years and change the whole basis of how the field competes.
Elon Musk is one of a kind, but his abilities aren’t magical.