Doing Less

Become an expert at one thing


By chance last night I found a fortune cookie, and when I cracked it open, the slip inside held the phrase "do less, not more."

I've been thinking about how to write this post. I think it's an important topic, but easily misunderstood. "Do less" doesn't mean be lazy, it means focus. Pick one thing you're really good at and make yourself an expert at it: world-class. It doesn't matter what you pick, just be the best. Be it marketing, dance, or winemaking. If your domain is playing Bolivian panpipes, then make yourself the best that the world's ever seen.

I used to work with a smart and upcoming e-mail marketer. Part of her job was to liaise with the designer on creating the e-mail templates. The emails are written in HTML code, and she would often tell me she intended on learning the basics of HTML so that she could be "useful" there. She was really good at marketing, particularly direct response (e-mail, search engine marketing etc), and was on a path to becoming the best I'd ever seen. If she had spent her nights and weekends learning to code, at best she was destined to become a mediocre coder, and it would likely result in the trade-off of her not reaching her potential in what she could excel at.

I'm hardly against people learning how to program -- in fact, I think it's so important that it should be taught in schools -- I just think that people need to be resolute enough to admit who and what they are, and then tenacious enough to pursue their goals systematically.

Seth Godin talks about this in his book The Dip. The latter part of the title sums it up: "A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)." The basic premise being that most people give up when the going's tough, and instead we should either give up before it even gets hard, or persist through it.

"Well-rounded" used to be seen as a positive. It's now a millstone of blah mediocrity. I'd rather be exceptional at one thing than average at 10. 

As a winery, the goal of "making the best wine" is too nebulous to be useful. So pick something specific... and dominate it.

And me? I'm never going to be the world's best "marketer" -- I don't even know what that means. Instead, I'd rather aim to be the best "U.S.-focused online-enabled wine social commerce marketer." Not that my mother or half my friends know what that is, but it's what I think I'm good at.

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  • Snooth User: tkurilla
    721980 1

    Why the name Snooth?

    Jan 08, 2011 at 8:34 AM

  • Snooth User: bsherry
    343795 1

    Hi Philip,
    As an educator involved in teaching Media literacy, it's been unusual for me to find references to Seth Godin and to "The Medium is the Message" in a blog about wine! It's cool to see traditional lines blurring these days and connections being made across domains.

    Interesting what you say about being an expert. You might enjoy watching this video about how the creative folks at pixar choose their next crop of creative young people. They want that expertise you mention (not necessarily in their chosen field) along with some breadth. Interesting!

    Jan 08, 2011 at 8:37 AM

  • I would actually support the opposite viewpoint, well, actually, a mix. For some people, pursuing being the best at one thing is the way to go. And for some, being reasonably good at a wide variety of pursuits is appropriate. People have different personality types - your viewpoint fits wonderfully with what is usually called a Type A person, but not at all with others. Well rounded = blah mediocrity? Really? On what planet? Personally, I'd rather spend time with someone who is well rounded, has multiple interests and is decent at more than one, than spend time with someone who is so focused and driven in one area that they lack any... roundness, at all.

    Jan 08, 2011 at 9:01 AM

  • Laser focus can also lead to an out-of-balance life, where everything and everyone around you is sacrificed on the altar of your "art." I'm fairly "Type A," but 'refilling my creative reservoir' requires doing things against type, rather than just keep grinding toward perfection.

    Jan 08, 2011 at 11:48 AM

  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,574

    Saltshaker and Heartsleeve - thanks for your comments. I certainly don't claim that I, or any of my team, make the best cocktail party guests. There are plenty more interesting people than us. I'm just writing about what's useful in the workplace.

    Bsherry - thanks for the link. Seth is a genius, I must have read at least 5 of his books

    Jan 08, 2011 at 12:11 PM

  • Interesting article and discussion. For my part, I think any workplace needs a mix of both the laser-focussed perfectionist/specialist and the well-rounded generalist. From my experience, it's just this mix that encourages "out-of-the-box thinking" and challenges assumptions about which role is more valuable to an organization.

    But as social media strategist at a career crossroads, I get what Philip is saying. I am living it right now. My challenge has been letting go of trying to master everything that this new media covers and instead, figure out what I am good at and focus on that.

    I recently interviewed Charlene Li, author of "Open Leadership," and asked her whether she thought it was better to be a generalist or a specialist. Her answer: "It depends on where you want to go as a career. If you want to go more strategic, you want to be a generalist. If you want to double-down and be a specialist and an expert in an area, then obviously, you want to be a specialist. You can’t do both."

    Li sees herself as a generalist. And when she needs specific expertise, she has a network of contacts to source. But just to clarify, I don't think she views specialists as not having a strategic aspect. It's just that the generalist has the big picture role of assimilating the work done by the specialists.

    Jan 08, 2011 at 1:40 PM

  • Snooth User: Shmulik
    355048 1

    One should, of course, strive to be the best one can be in a specific, chosen area. By doing so, one should, by necessity, become fairly knowledgable and proficient in closely related fields. And to do that, one needs to have some knowledge, skill, and understanding of yet broader areas that support that specialty. Diagramatically, the skill, (or proficiency, or knowledge), looks like a pyramid, with broad base that support increasingly focused building blocks leading to the summit of that special skill.

    Jan 09, 2011 at 1:01 AM

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