So you’re on your career journey and you feel pretty good about your craft, but as you browse Instagram, you see other creatives and leaders who’s work seems more polished than yours or maybe they have more followers. You can’t help but compare your own work, followers or IG with everyone else. We all do it. But how important are the like counts and views? Sure they help get you seen as an entrepreneur but will they sustain your business over the years? There is one thing that matters more than the attention we get on social media and that is the attention and time we put into becoming excellent. When we prioritze honing our craft until we become experts, we will stand out from the rest and become the person people seek out for their needs. But we don’t become experts overnight. It takes time, commitment, hard work and perseverance to reach that goal. If you desire to improve your craft your journey starts here. This list is by no means exhaustive but here are 10 ways you can become exceptional in your craft.
- Find your why. You could be very good at anything but if you don’t have a clear reason as to why you’re doing it, you may eventually burnout or lose interest. Maybe your “why” is simply because you love what you do more than anything else. Maybe your “why” is rooted in conviction and you feel like you cannot rest until you see measurable and impactful change in the area you care about. Maybe your “why” is for someone else; you were impacted by a loved one and you want to continue their legacy. Maybe you’re trapped in a job in which the only way up and out is through excellence and being better than anyone else on the team. Knowing your why will help you on those hard days (yes, they are coming your way, we all have them) and will motivate you to keep going no matter the circumstances.
- Commit to being a lifelong learner. We live in the age of unlimited information and a time when you don’t necessarily have to go to college to create a life for yourself. If you want to grow in your field though, it’s imperative that you’re always learning. Keeping up with the trends and changes, understanding the technology that affects your craft and learning all there is to know about it will not only benefit you but should serve to advance you as well. If there is little information on your specific expertise, you get to lead the way by learning through practice, mistakes and observation and eventually others will be looking to you for guidance and know-how.
- Put out your worst until you put out your best. You can’t become an expert without putting in the hours and there will most likely always be someone who is better than you. But you have to start somewhere. The famous writer Anne Lamott talks about “shitty first drafts” in her book Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She says “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” We need to be willing to put out the shitty first drafts in order to get the superb third drafts.
- Devote yourself to practice. So once you have your shitty first draft, you put out another one and another and another one until they start to improve. No matter what your craft, you need to devote yourself to practicing if you want to become the best. Finneas O’Connell (Billie Eilish’s brother) posted on Instagram a few years ago “I read Outliers when I was 16 – it changed my life and I became obsessed with the idea that 10 years and 10 thousand hours was the amount of time necessary to truly master something. I started writing songs at 12 and I’ve been writing them every day since. I’m 22 now and good LORD I don’t feel like the master of anything – but I’ve gotten better, that’s for sure. And that’s all you should ever aim for. Getting a little bit better every day.” When you commit to practicing, you have no choice but to improve and one day, you may just win 8 grammy awards for all your hard work.
- Have patience with yourself. Practice may get tiring, annoying and inconvenient. Maybe you find you’re not making much progress despite the time you put in. This is when you have to revisit your why. Your why is the boxing coach in your ear after you’ve taken some hard punches. It’s your motivation to keep going. If you’re a perfectionist, this may be the hardest lesson to learn on your way to expertise. Perfection is needed in surgery and space flight but it cannot be the normal standard or it will become an obstacle. But even if you’re a surgeon or an engineer at NASA, you still have to practice to get to perfection and that’s where patience is required. Being willing to journey through the process, breathe deeply through the discomfort and sit with yourself, no matter where you are along the way.
- Embrace failure and humility. In 1995 one of the most famous living authors of our time submitted their synopsis and a few chapters of a book in hopes of landing a book deal. Publisher after publisher rejected it…twelve times in fact. It was finally accepted by Bloomsbury and subsequently Scholastic and the rest was history. If she had allowed failure and rejection to beat her down, we wouldn’t have Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling would not be the first author to become a billionaire. It is imperative to success that we maintain a growth mindset and allow failure to be our teacher. This is tremendously humbling and takes courage, risk and perseverance if we want to win. Each time we fail we must ask ourselves what we learned from it and how we can do better next time. We must get comfortable with mistakes and like a scientist or engineer, learn to examine them with an open mind.
- Stay optimistic. Optimism fuels risk-taking. When we live in a state of “I can” the fear of failure has little opportunity to stand. And when we are willing to risk, reward is sure to follow, even if that looks like a little failure at first. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Fail Forward”? That is because as long as you are moving forward in your life, even if you don’t hit the mark you initially set out for, you land somewhere else. Another way to say it is progress over perfection. Stay optimistic and keep moving.
- Know when it’s good enough. If perfectionism is an obstacle, we have to learn to discern when our work is good enough. Comparing our work to others will lead to one of two things: perfectionism or discouragement. We need to know when we’ve done our best, even if it’s not perfect, and call it a day.
- Study the best (but don’t compare). We likely all have mentor examples and heroes in our creative lives that we aspire to emulate. What designer didn’t hope to be like Virgil Abloh or what filmmaker doesn’t long to reach Steven Spielberg’s mastery? Following the greats helps us to build upon their foundations and is in some ways each generation’s responsibility to take the previous generation’s ceiling and turn it into our floor. It’s also beautiful to watch how each master influences the up-and-coming protegés. If you’ve ever listened to the history of music in chronological order, you can hear the sounds of previous creators imbuing those who come after. Creativity is contagious and so is excellence. When we imitate it and look back, it becomes this historical tapestry of influence weaved for all to experience.
- Seek out a mentor or coach. When we surround ourselves with excellence, it’s hard not to set our standard as high as those around us. But sometimes we need someone who can help us see the specific areas we need to work on. It’s really easy to missperceive what we need to improve and a coach has the outside perspective and experience to guide us in the right direction, shift our mindset and help us to work on the areas that will really take our performance to the next level. A mentor or coach should be skilled at constructive criticism that is to the point and useful. Criticism that is vague or destructive to our confidence should be avoided. We need coaches who will lift us higher, not indirectly tear down our confidence. Be sure to seek out someone who is ready and willing to help; just because someone we admire is skilled at what they do does not mean they are ready-made mentors.
The road to exceptionalism is lifelong. We mustn’t tire of the hard work it takes to get there. Sooner or later, we will become the mentor and coaches the up-and-comings need to join the journey and they will look to us for wisdom and guidance along the way.
Questions for reflection:
- What is your why?
- How are you currently learning to improve your craft?
- How many hours a week can you realistically devote to practice? If possible, create a schedule that you are confident you can stick to.
- What is one lesson you have learned from failure?
- Think of something you feel you “can’t” do. Why can’t you? How can you reframe your thinking so that you can? (eg. “I can’t go to university right now because I don’t have the money.” becomes “I can take one class over the summer.”
- What is one thing you’re working on right now that you can put out into the world as is even if it’s not perfect?
- Who are your mentor examples?
- Who can you ask to mentor or coach you?