In early Top Performer pilots (before we even called it Top Performer) Cal and I made a fairly subtle mistake about the process of acquiring career skills. It’s one I’ve seen many people make when thinking about improving their career, so I think it’s worth exploring here in case you might be making it too.
A big part of our course is creating a skill-building project. The goal is to cultivate rare and valuable skills which form the foundation for a successful career.
What I hadn’t recognized in early iterations of our course is that there are actually two subtly different ways to go about it, one of which tends to be more effective.
The Difficulty with Drilling Down
The first way you can design a project to upgrade your career skills is to drill down on some aspect of your work that ought to be important. One of our students was an academic philosopher, and so he decided to get better at logic. Another student was an architect and decided to deepen his understanding of design.
Drilling down works by getting specific. You pick a part of what makes someone great, focus on it exclusively and, hopefully, get better at that slice of what makes someone a top performer.
On the surface, drilling down sounds like it should be helpful. Indeed, the entire idea of deliberate practice, upon which our course is based, seems reflected in it—pick an aspect of your work and design an effort to focus on improving it deliberately. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that a lot of these projects didn’t generate spectacular results. Sure, the person might have felt good about deepening a skill, but these were rarely the projects that resulted in promotions, raises or transformations of a person’s work.
True, there were some exceptions. One person decided to dig deep on their understanding of a programming language, and later translated that into landing his dream job.
But even then, the mechanism underlying success wasn’t just from improving a skill alone. In his particular case, he got the job because his practice activity (making online quizzes about the language he specialized in) brought him to the attention of experts in his field. Had those quizzes not been published (or acknowledged) and it’s unclear how big an impact his project would have had.
A different style of project, however, does seem to work better: benchmark projects.
Benchmark projects are also about improving skills. However, instead of picking a skill and just trying to do work related to it, they work by first picking a clear benchmark accomplishment that defines success. Examples of successful benchmark projects could be:
- Writing – Creating a blog and producing 100 articles.
- Programming – Designing a popular open source library.
- Academia – Producing a paper that has a higher impact than your previous work.
- Entrepreneurship – Creating a new product that will sell more.
Why are these projects (often) more successful than projects which are strictly about drilling down on a particular skill?
My experience tells me that there are two distinct advantages to this kind of project. The first is that by tying your project to a benchmark, you can’t avoid the uncomfortable work. A deliberate practice project that is disconnected from real-world results can unintentionally be steered away from the outcomes that actually matter.
Second, benchmark projects produce a recognizable achievement at the end. This also helps by allowing you to point at something when trying to articulate your newly acquired skill. Good work alone can propel you forward, but making your skills more legible to outsiders is often a key part of translating those skills into actual career benefits.
How You Can Create Benchmark Projects to Grow Your Career
The way I like to think of benchmark projects is to pick something that I can’t do right now, but I might be able to do, if I improved my skills and worked at it.
These projects tend to work better when the benchmark itself suggests what kind of efforts you might take to improve. Improving as a writer, for instance, it would be better for me to pick a project like, “Get published in a national newspaper or magazine” rather than “Sell one million books.” The former will suggest a lot of specific actions I need to take to get my writing to the level where I could be published in a prestigious place, but the latter doesn’t really suggest anything concrete.
Good benchmark projects are often scarier than drill-down projects. “Getting better at research” is a lot more comfortable a goal to set than, “Get my work published in a Top-5 journal.” Yet that discomfort also encourages you to take a hard look at your own work.
What are some benchmarks you could strive to attain in your own work? How would those look different than attempts you’ve made in the past to simply “get better at my work”?