Two summers ago, I decided I wanted to start running. People seem to like it, and it looked like a hard-but-doable challenge. I dutifully couch-to-5k’ed, and kept running two or three times a week all the way through this fall.
My body is not a great match for running. I have exercise-induced asthma, so even one minute of mis-pacing will leave me gasping for air. I get wicked headaches when the wind blows in my ears. I overheat easily. Frankly, I’m kind of a mess. After a full year of regular running, I can reliably run 3 miles in 40-45 minutes. I can’t go further than that, and I can’t go faster. (If you are not a runner, know that a 14-minute mile is a profoundly mediocre pace.)
Now, if you know me (or have read any of my earlier posts), you know that I also practice yoga. My body loves yoga. I’m strong, have a lung capacity a doctor once called "absurd", and my natural range of motion is high. I can drop back from standing into wheel, or down into full splits with basically no warmup, and it feels good.
But while I’ve been focused on running, I haven’t done much yoga. I do a bit of stretching after a run, and a full practice maybe once a month. As a result, when I practice now, my range of motion is small. I feel tight, and stiff, and creaky.
I used to be fantastic at yoga and terrible at running. Right now, I’m moderately crappy at both.
The Awesomeness Approach
My experience represents, I think, a fairly typical approach to self-improvement: find a thing that I’m not good at, then put attention and focus on getting better at it.
In an interview published this month, Dr Krista Scott-Dixon offers an alternative: The Awesomeness Approach. It looks like this:
Find a thing you love and are already pretty good at. Put 90% of your attention on improving that even further. Use the remaining 10% to neutralize your weaknesses. The goal isn’t to get good at those things, but to get to a point where they’re not actively harming you or holding you back. Find other people whose 90% is your 10% – that is, people whose strengths complement your weaknesses.
Focusing on what you’re good at feels fun, and rewarding, and almost effortless. The idea here is to improve your natural strengths to an absolutely spectacular level, and figure out ways to work around things you’re not great at.
Oh gosh, I love this framing. I love it so hard.
A True Story
I have two good friends who are graphic designers. They design for the web, and so at some point dipped their toes into the water of writing CSS and HTML. It wasn’t a good fit: it didn’t match how their brains processed information, it wasn’t helping them provide a better service to their clients, and they weren’t having fun.
So they stayed with a more traditional definition of graphic design: they create using Photoshop, InDesign, and plain old paper. They don’t design directly in the browser, but they stay involved with the latest conversations about responsive patterns, component libraries, and performance budgets. They’ve found development partners who delight in CSS minutiae, which allows them to stay focused on doing what they love the most.
Without even intending to, they’ve been following The Awesomeness Approach. They’ve been putting all their attention on design – not stretching themselves thin with skills that they don’t enjoy – and where they used to be good, they are now amazing. They’re better at capturing moods, designing strategically, and working within client constraints than anyone I know.
Awesomeness all the things
It’s only been a week, and my life is already better for committing to The Awesomeness Approach. I’m good at content modeling and systems thinking – really good – and it makes so much more sense to stay engrossed in that work than to improve my paltry knowledge of social media strategy. My brain easily organizes information in a way that aligns with database schemas, so why have I been spending my energy trying to understand the politics of editorial governance? I’m not just giving myself permission, but a mandate: do more of what you love. Dive deep.
“Neutralizing” is such a powerful idea. It’s not about giving up, or faking it, but instead learning just-enough. It’s about understanding my limits, and knowing where I can find more information, without beating myself up for not having every answer on the tip of my tongue.
And partnering! Working with good partners is a joy. I love being able to hand off implementation details to an expert, to trust that someone else’s work will be so much stronger than my own. I love knowing that what we create together will be the product of all of our best efforts.
And, it probably goes without saying: screw running. If you need me I’ll be over here bent into some impossible-yet-comfortable shape, feeling awesome.