There are moments in all of our lives when we feel as if we are doing exactly what we were born to do. Our work feels like a privilege and everything we’re doing feels like a gift to the world.
In these moments we’re in what author Gay Hendricks refers to as our personal zone of genius.
Unfortunately, our education system has done a terrible job of helping people find their zone of genius. In really unfortunate cases, it’s caused them to believe they don’t have one at all. The biggest problem with education today is that it’s a one size fits all solution.
Between lousy grades at Berkeley, getting fired from most of my jobs and accumulating a resume of failures, the idea that I had any sort of zone of genius sounded like a pipe dream.
Because of everything you’ve been taught or told over the course of your life (beliefs, opinions, judgements, criticism, etc) social programming and the matrix, it’s possible you don’t believe that you have a zone of genius.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you do and there’s a way to discover it. As Tim Ferriss said in this animated short below, “I’ve seen too many seemingly freaks of nature achieve outsized success in their 40’s and 50's.”
1. Set Aside Time for Reflection Each Day
What’s really important here? How am I using my gifts? What is my genius and how can I bring it forth to bare on my family and my culture and my business? Those genius questions are things that we need to cultivate in ourselves almost as a matter of discipline. — Gay Hendricks
Whether it’s writing 1000 words a day, going for a walk in the woods, or meditating, setting aside time for self-reflection helps us cultivate the discipline that allows us to tap into our personal zone of genius. When I interviewed Gay Hendricks on the Unmistakable Creative he said that many of his ideas that led to him selling companies for large amounts of money emerged from his daily time set aside for self-reflection.
2. Conduct Lots of Experiments and Collect Data Points
When students or young people write to me, they often express concern that they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. The expectation that you should know what you want to do with the rest of your life when you’re 20 is a bit ridiculous. You haven’t had enough life experience and don’t have enough data points to make a truly informed decision. Not only that, none of the decisions you make about your career are permanent. The early part of your career is really a process of conducting experiments. Ideally, your experiments increase your earning potential.
Experimentation is essential for innovation and creativity. Every article I write and every guest we choose for the Unmistakable Creative are experiments. We have no idea whether our choice will resonate with our listeners. But if we weren’t willing to experiment, we would never find out what works and what doesn’t. Effective experimentation requires you to focus on the process and not the prize and great ideas require a willingness to be wrong.
A good approach to experimentation is to build a minimum viable product. My post about how writing 1000 words a day changed my life was a minimum viable product that became the foundation for my next book. A well-designed experiment shouldn’t cost much in terms of time and money, gives you quick feedback and enables you to iterate.
A short side note: If creativity, peak performance, mastering habits, or being more productive is important to you, you’d love my newsletter. You’ll receive a weekly article like this one, as well as immediate access to a swipe file, where you’ll get my best tips on honing your productivity & creativity, as well as a guide on finding the courage to carve your own path, rather than following someone else’s footsteps. Get it here.
3. Work in a Growth Environment and Choose a Great Boss
In a conversation I had with Liz Wiseman she said the following about choosing your first job
The job you take is not that relevant. What really is relevant is who you work for because your first boss out of school or any boss is going to shape your career opportunities far more than the job description. Go work for a growing company because where there’s growth there’s opportunity. And also a lot of sins are forgiven in growth environments
In his book Things a Little Birdie Told Me, Biz Stone wrote this about his mentor:
“Steve became my mentor. He drove me into work every morning, and we became friends, playing tennis together on weekends. He was more than thirty years older than me, but we were a good match. I didn’t have a dad growing up; he had two daughters and he’d always wanted a son… On the way, I’d ask him a million questions, not just about design, but about life. How did you know when to propose to your wife? How much money did you ask for at your first job?… Learning design with Steve set me on the path that led me to where I am today.
It’s likely that one of the most important career decisions you’ll ever make is the boss you choose to work for. Possibly even more important than the job itself. If there’s one thing I could change about the earlier part of my career it would be to go back and choose a better boss over a higher salary.
Figure out whether your potential boss is a person who will stifle your zone of genius or cause it to emerge. Choose the latter.
4. Seek Opportunities with Autonomy
When we hired our content strategist Kingshuk Mukherjee, he came to us with many ideas for growing our audience. The most important thing we did for him was to get the hell out of his way and listen to what he had to say. Instead of seeing him as someone who knew less than us, we saw him as somebody we could learn a lot from. In the process, he’s found his personal zone of genius, and we’ve benefited significantly from it.
Without autonomy, we tend to lack a greater sense of purpose and meaning in our work, which makes it difficult to tap into our personal zone of genius.
5. Become a Producer
A theme that keeps coming up in the books I’ve read about wealth and success is the notion of being a producer. In The Self Made Billionaire effect, the authors note that all of the billionaires they interviewed weren’t performers, but producers.
Producers have a bias towards action, which shows itself in the propensity to make ideas real and operational so they can be tested with actual customers. — John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen, The Self Made Billionaire Effect
Producers create value by bringing new ideas into existence. There’s tangible evidence of their impact. They tend not to thrive in situations where they can’t see evidence of their contributions. Many of them actually were fired from their earliest jobs because worked for organizations that rewarded performers. Producers are usually working in their zone of genius.
Performers, unlike producers, are rewarded for their ability to follow instructions and hit certain metrics. It’s rare that a performer is an indispensable linchpin. Many could be easily be replaced with someone else. The exception to this is people who work in sales. But top notch salespeople are both producers and performers.
If you look at any organization, the people who have added billions of dollars in value to the company are often producers. Just look at all of the products that emerged from Google’s 20 percent time. Millions of people use them every day.
Anything that you consume on a regular basis: books, blogs, podcasts, apps you use, are all the work of producers.
The challenge with producers is that their value isn’t immediately apparent. They might seem unfocused or scatterbrained. The have to in the words of Srini Pillay, tinker, dabble, doodle and try. It might be a while before their efforts yield an ROI. But if you’re not patient about that ROI it might cost you billions:
While he was at Google, Kevin Systrom’s manager wanted to transfer him to their Associate Product Manager Program. But the program required a degree in computer science and he was denied the opportunity. Eventually, he left, and the rest is history. He cofounded Instagram and sold it to Facebook for a billion dollars. He was clearly a producer.
6. Embrace Non-Linear Thinking
I think what’s going on is a commoditization of linear intelligence. The more we’re able to program, the more we’re able to develop machines that can replace linear thinking. To me, one of the biggest opportunities with unfocus is to activate the default mode network, learn all these ways to master brain plasticity and change so we become the masters of the human universe. Robots will almost definitely be better than we are at number crunching and linear processes. But I think humans are really good at being human, we’ve just lost the time and inclination to do that. As we seek to be relevant in a world that’s being taken over by robots, these unfocus techniques will place us at an advantage. — Srini Pillay
As machines replace things that don’t require human input, we will experience a commoditization of linear thinking.
Chatbots are already doing some incredible things. Every month when it’s time for my prescription to get refilled, I get a text message from CVS that says “would you like a refill.” I reply YES and I get another notification saying the prescription has been filled. When it’s time to call my Doctor, I get a similar text. A lot of jobs are at risk of elimination because of this.
We currently face the prospect of white collars jobs being threatened by automation. When I was younger my parents used to tell me if that if I wanted a good life I should become a doctor. A few weeks ago I downloaded an app called ADA that was created by doctors. It more thorough than a visit to my doctor
Countries are already starting to experiment with Universal basic income. This won’t be an option in the future but likely a necessity if we want to avoid mass hysteria.
So where does that leave us? All this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Salim Ismail, author of Exponential Organizations “mankind has never had a greater lever.” It’s likely we’re going to see an unprecedented pace of innovation. Just look back at the last 10 years. For a person who is creative and can embrace non-linear thinking, there’s probably been no better time in history to be alive. The only question is what you’ll do with what you’ve been given.
When you don’t actively seek out our zone of genius, you deny the gifts that you could give to the world and to yourself. You go through the world with a very limited sense of possibility.
So I challenge you..
Trust yourself. Commit to making your career a lifelong process of finding your zone of genius.
The greatest work of your life is inside you. Give it the fertile soil it needs to see the light of day. Plant the seeds today for who you eventually want to become and you’ll open yourself up to an infinite set of possibilities.
If creating powerful habits or being more productive is important to you, you’d love my newsletter. You’ll receive a weekly article like this as well as immediate access to a swipe file, where you’ll get my best tips on honing your productivity & creativity, as well as a guide on finding the courage to carve your own path, rather than following someone else’s footsteps. Get it here.