You Only Need to be Good at One Thing

I have many friends whose solopreneur prowess makes me drip with envy. They are to entrepreneurship what Ryan Gosling is to Hollywood. He can sing, dance and actually act, and they can build, finance and actually market stuff. They’re analogous to the Renaissance people of the past, and I always wanted to be like them. Or at least I did!

These days, I’m more of an armchair admirer than a devout practitioner of the DIY movement. These days, I’m just trying to be good at one thing.

During the dog days of the pandemic, it seemed like almost everyone was online, starting side hustles, day-trading stocks, playing around with Canva, and renovating their homes. At the time, I was also spreading myself across numerous projects: consulting for start-ups, life coaching, trying to build my own personal brand, and still working at my own company. The problem was, I didn’t think I was doing most of it very well. I complained about this to my long-time friend and business partner Alex McAulay. How was it possible to do “all of it” well and still somehow nurture my family and have a few hobbies and some downtime?

His advice: You don’t. You only need to be good at one thing.

At first, the advice seemed to be counterintuitive to “productivity at all costs” and the DIY start-up mantra I’d been adhering to for years. The more I thought about it, however, the more it began to make sense.

In the sage words of legendary investor and philosopher Naval Ravikant, “The way to get out of the competition trap is to be authentic, to find the thing you know how to do better than anybody. You know how to do it better because you love it, and no one can compete with you. If you love to do it, be authentic, and then figure out how to map that to what society actually wants. Apply some leverage and put your name on it. You take the risks, but you gain the rewards.”

For a long time, long before I ever whined to Mr. McAulay about having to be and do everything all the time, I was guilty of being a do-it-all-yourself CEO. Despite having a team of talented people around me, I’d busy myself around the hive, micromanaging each of their objectives. This not only frustrated them, but it exhausted me and rarely resulted in the best outcomes. Those came when team members, working within the parameters of the brand, were able to tap into their own talents and execute their ideas freely.

Just like a brand or company can’t be all things to all people, neither should people aim for such a mark. Or for that matter, compare themselves to others who appear to either be able to do just that or to those who are better at some specific thing.

Naval continues, “At some level, you’re doing it for social approval. You’re doing it to fit in with the other monkeys. You’re fitting in to get along with the herd. That’s not where the returns are in life. The returns in life are being out of the herd.”

It’s true. As we hone our skills, doing what we love in a way that is authentic to us, we become, in a way, a category of one. In this way, excelling at what you’re naturally good at separates the wheat from the chaff in a crowded, competitive world.

As we hone our skills, doing what we love in a way that is authentic to us, we become, in a way, a category of one. In this way, excelling at what you’re naturally good at separates the wheat from the chaff in a crowded, competitive world.

In a way, it’s a positive interpretation of the expression—stay in your lane—except I tend to think it’s more like honouring your lane.

We’re all unique and there is a kind of magic that happens when we honour our own lane, listen to our heart, and do things in our own unique way. That magic is a divine mixture of how we feel pursuing our purpose and the serendipitous forces of life that conspire to enable, empower and reinforce our choice to do so.

This happens in business, art, entertainment, politics, and sports. As we master a skill authentically, although it doesn’t often happen instantaneously, we carve out our own niche in the marketplace, making it easier for consumers, fans, voters, and opportunities to come our way. If we merely copy what others are doing, we’ll more than likely find ourselves drowned out by the noise, stuck in the rat race, and feeling unfulfilled.

We’re brought up on an assembly line of sorts, where the school system compares/grades us across virtually identical lines. Yet, the world values and rewards mastery and authenticity. We’re grouped into demographics or generic job descriptions, yet the thing we’re best at is being ourselves. No one can podcast like Joe Rogan, debate Jungian psychology like Jordan Peterson, carve a deal like Kevin O’Leary, politic like Donald Trump, or sing like Ariana Grande. But you can do any of those things in your own way.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Of course, this doesn’t mean you only have to do one thing. Being versed in a variety of things can give you a competitive advantage. Yes, you can save costs by doing your own bookkeeping, graphic design, or Facebook ads. Yes, knowing enough “to be dangerous” means the person repairing your water heater or writing your employment contract can’t pull the wool over your eyes.

What I’m talking about is having to do it all yourself.

While building his own successful companies, Mr. McAulay focused on hiring people because of their superpowers, as he called them, rather than hiring people to fulfill multiple job functions—which is a tendency in start-ups. Moreover, he hired people whose superpowers enabled him to leverage his own unique skills, thereby maximizing the success of the company. Lastly, the more focused everyone was on what they were best at, the better they felt professionally.

Personally, as I aimed to stretch myself across so many different verticals of work, especially work I didn’t really love, the quality and returns on my efforts went down.

The more I said no to work or projects I didn’t love, and outsourced work I wasn’t great at, the better I succeeded at the things that mattered most to me. My bandwidth widened and I could focus on the quality, creativity, and the most important components of that work. Interestingly, I was also able to attract more of what I loved and less of what I didn’t into my life.

Streamlining my focus meant I had to leave paid opportunities off the table. I exited consulting gigs and stopped coaching clients. That was hard to stomach, literally, as those jobs helped put food on my family’s table. Sacrifice is a core tenet of following your purpose.

I also realigned my perspective on projects and tasks that were complementary components to my core pursuit (that I’ll discuss in a future blog). For instance, I now have a podcast; I’m not trying to be a podcaster. I have a blog; I’m not trying to be a blogger. I have social media; I’m not trying to be an influencer. These little shifts freed up both time and mental energy that could be reallocated.

Since making these adjustments. I’ve had a palpable sense that my entire career is on an exciting new trajectory. My mind is clearer and I feel more at peace. I believe, over the long term, the trade-offs I’ve made will offer a return on the time invested. The best part is, that when you’re doing what you love, you’ve already succeeded.