Is it worth your time to be excellent?


You’re not where you’re supposed to be.

You’re not a failure. You’re actually doing well. You have a way you present yourself at parties that sounds pretty impressive. You have a narrative.

But you’re not better at the stuff that makes you great than you were three years ago. Maybe you call those feelings imposter syndrome when they show up. Maybe you keep busy with lateral moves and jumping companies. Either way, you’re running up against the same walls.

I’ve met you. In fact, I bet you think this song is about you.

The secret

I’ll give you the secret. I’ll tell you the thing that knocks down those walls, and unlocks a whole new growth path for your professional life. I know it will, because I lived it. I know it will, because once you know what to listen for, you hear almost every successful leader point to it.

What’s more, it’s so powerful, it will also totally alter your personal relationships. You’ll be a better partner and a better friend.

And here’s the zaniest piece of all: I’ll tell you and most of you still won’t do it. You can send this to other people, and they won’t either.

Isn’t that wild?

Anyhow — here it is. You won’t like it.

Be vulnerable.

What the hell does that mean?

Be vulnerable.

I understand that it sounds like self-help snake oil. I promise that’s not my intent. The truth is that being vulnerable is hard. Really hard. But, past a certain point, it’s the only way you get better.

What’s the common pattern for your last three failures and what are you going to do about it that isn’t just deflection?

Before Malcolm Gladwell made the 10,000 hours thing so cool that it became uncool again, it was a pretty neat paper. The authors did find that most world-class experts took about 10,000 hours to get there, that part is true. But not just any hours. Being alive and present for 10,000 hours doesn’t count. Plinking away at the piano for 10,000 hours or writing bad poetry for 10,000 hours or shooting free throws for 10,000 hours doesn’t make you world class.

Neither, by the way, does natural talent. Natural talent only lets you outrun the amateurs. Look at someone like Michael Phelps — from what I can tell, that guy is part fish. I feel like every four years the US media has a new set of articles about how his arms are a bit longer than average and his lung capacity is larger than most. In the next few years, I suspect we’ll learn that he has gills and swims upstream in the spring to spawn. But I’m here to tell you that, without an incredible training and coaching regimen, Phelps wouldn’t even be a contender. He’d win every local swim meet, and be destroyed at the Olympic level.

The only way to get to world class level, the thing that the study authors actually mean when they talk about 10,000 hours, is something they call deliberate practice. It’s 10,000 hours of watching your tapes, and watching other people’s tapes. It’s spending six months adjusting a single form or working a single piece. It’s asking, constantly, where am I messing up, and how can I get better, who does this better than I do and what can I learn from them? Imagine 10,000 hours of that. Not an hour, or 10, or 100. It’s exhausting. It’s why being a world champion is hard.

Be vulnerable

I don’t swim, or run, or climb for a living. I manage teams. I lead people. And I try to help them build products people love. Maybe you do something similar. I’m still working on my 10,000 hours. And whenever I stall, I find that the same thing gets me out of it.

Where am I messing up? How can I get better? Who does this better than I do and what can I learn from them?

I am open to the prospect that it will hurt to learn that I’m still messing up. And sometimes it does hurt.

I don’t know what it’s like to be an Olympian, but for me, those are uncomfortable questions. Sometimes my narrative takes over. I try to listen and make serious-looking faces, but I also look for the ways to get out of hearing something I don’t want to learn about myself. I have natural talent around people — I can often pass the amateur tests without taking it too much to heart.

But on my good days, which come more frequently with practice, I am vulnerable. I am open to the prospect that it will hurt to learn that I’m still messing up. And sometimes it does hurt. I didn’t make a call when my team needed me to, or I made a call too quickly, or I made a straight up dumb call. I didn’t listen or, worse, I listened selectively. As soon as I hear this stuff, I know how true it is. And I feel like an idiot. Those are the days when I get better.


Maybe you think this is all a bunch of navel-gazing, self-indulgent garbage. Certainly, no small part of my own success comes from privilege that has nothing to do with how vulnerable and brave I am. The very ability to be vulnerable at work is privilege — many folks can’t afford to, and part of my job is to reverse that wherever I can. It’s one of the places I know I still have a lot to learn. And what I have learned so far has come mostly from the generosity and patience of people who have had to work much harder to get where they are than I did.

But, for some of you, those first couple paragraphs sting. You’re stalled and you know it. You’re leaning on your natural talents and your position in life instead of doing the hard work to get better. You tell others, and maybe even yourself, that you are looking for feedback, that you are vulnerable. In fact, you’re the first to volunteer how awful you are at things, partly as faux humility, partly as genuine insecurity. Yeah, I see you.

But honeys: I’m not asking you to beat up on yourself more. Stop that. I’m asking you to work. What’s the common pattern for your last three failures and what are you going to do about it that isn’t just deflection? Who are you asking for help and coaching, and how well can they see through your narrative? How hard do they help you push?

Anyhow, that’s the secret. And if you go back and read the interviews with great leaders and world experts and championship athletes, you’ll hear it over and over again. I hope you’ll grab on to it.
Because it’s killing us to see you stuck like that.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.

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