Thursday, November 13, 2008

Core Competencies at Work

Part of being a Core Competency Mom is identifying your core competencies at work. These are the things you do best, and that other people cannot do nearly as well. We win at work by focusing as much as possible on these things, and outsourcing or ignoring everything else.

Interestingly, according to the new book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, such focus may be part of a virtous cycle in becoming better at whatever your core competencies happen to be. I won't write too much about the book because I'm reviewing it for The American, but the gist is this: world class performers in a great many areas become best in class not necessarily through innate ability, but through sheer hours of deliberate practice. They figure out their weak areas within their core competencies, focus on improving these areas, and so become even better at their core competencies than everyone else.

I've been thinking about this as I'm trying to move my writing career to the next level. As I approach my 30th birthday, I have proven to myself that I can make a living -- a good living! -- as a professional writer. I can score bylines in national publications and get my ideas out there.

I have also been heartened, reading some of my work from my college days, at how much better I've become at shaping phrases than I used to be. According to Colvin's book, this makes sense. In college I was doing many things. Now, I spend at least 8 hours each workday, and usually more like 10 or 11, focusing on my writing projects. I also crank out an incredible number of words. I was adding it up from this year the other day: a 50,000-word ghosted book, 25 (so far) 500+ word columns for Scientific American, about 8 USA Today columns, 10 or so book reviews, multiple 3000-word plus features, about a dozen Huffington Post columns, a so-far unpublished book proposal and enough revisions of the novel I've been writing that I'll give myself credit for about 40,000 of the 80,000 words it entails. Plus a lot of blog posts and other stuff I'm forgetting. This is well, well, well over 100,000 words of material. And that's in one year. Given that I'm almost always getting feedback from editors and readers in ways that help me improve, how could I not be getting better?

But, of course, getting better is not necessarily the same thing as becoming world-class. In this globalized era, it is becoming more important than ever to truly be world class -- to truly be focusing on your core competencies -- because almost anyone's job can be outsourced. Even dentists. If flights are cheap, you can always go to another city, state or country for your dental work. This makes every occupation a winner-take-all field. So you need to define your occupation to the point where you can be that winner -- or if your field is broader, then you need to be the best that you possibly can.

So, after achieving a certain level of competence, how does one improve? How does one go from "good" to "great?" Some people swear by coaches. Some study the best work that exists and take what they can from that. Some take a ruthless inventory of their faults and set about correcting them. Others seek out new opportunities. I think there's probably a reasonable amount of luck involved, too, in achieving major career breakthroughs. In the coming months, I'll look at some people who have gone from good to great, and how they made this transition.

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