Why Being Well-Rounded Should be 1 of the 7 Deadly Sins

It’s been a week since we returned from France, and Iceland. Like any diligent (geeky) tourist, I reflected on my time in these two beautiful countries, as I fell asleep at the ungodly hour of 6pm like clockwork. Getting over jet lag has never been one of my strengths.

 

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Speaking of strengths, France is known for various things: wine, cheese (of which I brought home 3kg!), fashion, perfume. You don’t expect to go to France for authentic Chinese food, for example.

 

Same with Iceland.

 

Iceland is known for its crystal clear glacier water, its beautiful natural environment, the Blue Lagoon, its funky musicians.

 

 

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You don’t go to Iceland expecting exotic temples and bustling night markets. You go to Asia for that. Just as these amazing countries have their strengths, they also have their weaknesses. They don’t pretend to be great at everything. They don’t pretend to be completely well-rounded countries. On the contrary, like any country, they are perhaps more, egg-shaped, pointed in one or a few general areas, where they excel…what they’re known for. That’s totally normal. That’s totally ok. They are proud and they show off what they excel… their strengths. Their strengths are naturally a part of what defines them. The reason why it’s cool to go there   is that you want to experience their strengths. You go there to experience what sets them apart from the rest of the world.

 

Interestingly enough, when we measure people, we do the exact opposite. We traditionally tend to measure how great a person is on the whole…  When someone isn’t up to par in a certain area, we think of them as flawed. Well.. guess what? That is the essence of being human. Yet our education system is set up to equip our children to be well-rounded people.

 

 

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Thankfully, many of us inherently discover our own natural strengths at some point in our lives. By that point, though, possibly a great portion of our lives have been spent. What if we were able to identify our strengths early in life and dedicate our lives to honing the skills in that area?

 

Here’s the rub. I think it’s quite a waste of time, not to mention boring, to try excel as a well-rounded person. For a long time, I did this. The diligent student that I was, I constantly tried to excel as a straight A honor student. I strived to be great at every academic and liberal arts subject. I never realized, though, that trying to excel as a well-rounded individual… well the best you will do is waste a whole bunch of time being really mediocre. And yet, we reward our children when they get straight A’s in school. Every subject, from Math to Arts…. If you came from my family, anything less than an A is an F.

 

 

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We’re rewarded by trying to excel in every possible area. If you’re great at math, well, why aren’t you a good writer? If you’re a great artist, why aren’t you a good scientist? If you’re just great at academics, well, why aren’t you good at reading people and being empathetic? If you have a high IQ, why isn’t your EQ just as fantastic?

 

Even as I write this, it sounds ridiculous to me. The reality is that it’s impossible to be good at everything. On the same token, to try to be amazing at every possible area of your business… well you know you’re just running at less than optimal efficiency. It gets really expensive to have the best possible everything in-house. Why wouldn’t you outsource to professionals where you can for way cheaper?

 

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Be the Egg

What if we were allowed, even encouraged to be more egg-shaped… even pointed like an arrow in one or a few different areas. What if we were to allow ourselves to be not so great at other areas, in favor of focusing on being absolutely amazing at those few chosen areas? What if we let the kid who has exceptional math skills to be introverted. (Incidentally, being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean you have bad people skills. Just as the social butterfly doesn’t mean automatically that you’re a successful people person. So there.) Here are some gems that we would get:

 

1. Solid Sense of Confidence in our Strengths

In preparation for our trip to France, I gave myself a refresher on French. I was told repeatedly that the Parisians are much more open to you if you at least make an effort in their language. Fortunately, learning languages is one of my strengths. I find it quite easy to pick up new languages. In this case, the 11 years of French from grade school paid off. I still struggled in the first two days. But gradually, I was able to solidly conduct a conversation in Paris, though still far from fluent.

 

 

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On the business side, I know my strengths are in writing, less on the technical, and least of all on the math side. The other day, we actually had to use algebra to prove out formulas for how price-mismatch and volume-mismatches for hedged energy were derived. As my eyes glazed over, my teammate caught the baton. In minutes, he had simplified the formulas and proved out the derivations. Impressive. That’s why we work together so well. Each of us contributes what we do best.

 

2. More Success in Focusing on Your Core Strengths

When you know what your strengths are, you can tailor your entire personal / career branding to show off your strengths. Why would you ever market yourself as good at everything? You wouldn’t. No one would believe you. As they say… ‘Jack of all Trades, Master of None.’

 

 

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When an organization focuses on what they’re good at, you get companies like Apple, Lululemon, Uber, and Airbnb, to give but a few examples. Apple and Lululemon are known for their design. They outsource the manufacture. Uber and Airbnb are known for their ease of use, efficiency, and their omnipresence. Uber owns no vehicles. Airbnb has no properties. Their assets are in their distribution system.

 

 

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3. A Happier, More Confident Individual

I’m willing to bet that more often than not, working on your strengths brings you joy. Working on your weaknesses, by comparison, is grueling. It’s no surprise that our ultimate quest as humans is to use our unique skillset to bring value to our community. We are hard-wired to be fulfilled when we can contribute to the world.

 

 

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When we work to build up our weaknesses, all we ultimately become is less weak. We’re raising the level from sub-par to mediocre. Sure there are instances where someone keeps working at his weakness, and ultimately turns it into one of their strengths. That’s definitely atypical. Here’s the thing: While working on a weakness, you’re neglecting to hone the strength, favor of being a well-rounded, mediocre individual. That’s so sad it makes me puke.

 

4. The Essence of a Market Economy

One of the theories of economics is the theory of comparative advantage. The theory of comparative advantage is where one party (country, company or individual) will produce a good or service that requires less of an opportunity cost. That is, it is relatively cheaper for him to produce that thing and sell it to someone  who finds it more expensive to produce that thing himself. It matters less how much the thing cost to produce on the whole. It matters more if it cost him more than to buy it elsewhere. This is how David Ricardo, a British political economist, back in the day explained why countries engage in international trade. They sell that which they are good at producing.  They buy that which they are not good at producing. Simple.

 

 

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Let’s apply it to you, since at the end of the day, it is all about you, of course. It’s likely going to take you less brain power, less underlying infrastructure, less set up costs to produce and deliver something that you’re already strong. This is worth something on the market. In fact, it’s worth a lot on the market. People don’t necessarily seek out to buy an OK product or an average service. They ideally want an amazing product. They want someone who is an expert in their field. They seek out the best. Chances are, it’s way more expensive to fulfill that same product, or service themselves. See, selling your strengths is the very essence of a market economy. He who differentiates himself wins.

 

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5. Always Someone Better. Why Would That Stop You?

Look. We are by no means an island. We are a community of billions and billions of people on the face of this planet. You just have to accept that just as there will always be someone worse than you, there will always be someone better than you. Who cares? The point isn’t to be the absolute BEST. The rest, by comparison, is not necessarily crap. There’s room for everyone to play. As long as your strength is contributing to someone’s life, someone’s going to pay you money for your skill, or product.

 

Case in point. When I was in high-school, I dated a math whiz. He was exceptional at mathematics and physic. Crazy smart. Me, by comparison, was a math mediocrity. Sure I still made the honor roll. But I was by no means the math prodigy the way Calvin was.

 

 

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One day in May, a girl Alison, who was a grade below me, asked me to tutor her. Of course, she would pay me. I was thrilled! I couldn’t believe that I was going to make money helping someone with their homework. In math, no less! I told Calvin, and I remember his reaction distinctly. “You? Tutor math?” he asked slightly incredulously. While it might seem like arrogance to some, I was secretly winning. Yep. Me. In your face. Little old me, whom you think is an idiot at math. Me, who is going to help this younger girl in the same subject at which you excel. And yet I’m making money. And you’re not. So there. In the interest of peace, I never voiced that. But I was ever so satisfied. Hey, nothing was stopping him from hanging his tutoring shingle. The golden ticket always goes to the one who dares to execute.

 

 

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The winner is the one who executes regardless whether or not you’re the absolute best (which most of us never will be, and that’s ok). Just as there is someone always better than you, there is always someone worse than you. And as long as there is someone whose comparative advantage is different than you, your services will be of value.

 

The Minimum Standards

On the flip side of focusing on strengths, we still need to have a facility to do the minimum standards well. There are some non-negotiables that all of us need even if we were to excel at being an egg. There are some things that you just can’t get away with finding a proxy. What are they? Here are some that come to mind. These are areas where if you were to be any whit of a successful individual, you cannot, absolutely cannot farm any of these out.

 

Communication

Communication is one of those things that is pretty key to being human. Every single second of the day we are communicating with someone around us.

 

 

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Everything requires communication. Even when you outsource, you need to be able to accurately communicate what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. Otherwise, the result will come back way different from what you expect. Then you’re stuck doing the task on your own. If ever there is a weakness that you need to work on, it’s communication. In my post “How to build an Empire with the ONE thing” I talk about Gary Keller’s ONE thing that makes accomplishing all other things easer. Communication is the ONE thing that you need in order to make all other things easier.

 

Morals and Core Values

Shame on you if you think that you can outsource your morals and values. These are key to you being who you are. If you think that showering your kid with gifts is going to substitute for you being there, you’re missing the boat. You can’t outsource spending time with your kid. Just as we can’t (or shouldn’t) outsource our strengths, we cannot outsource our morals and values.

 

 

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Work Ethic

Nothing but nothing will substitute for your work ethic.  Sure the point is that you farm out that which you’re not good. You farm it out so that you can hone those strengths. How can you expect to get good at your strengths, if you don’t have the work ethic to sharpen the saw? Working on strengths is supposed to be easier, but it just doesn’t’ happen on its own. You still gotta work. Not only do you have to work. You gotta outwork the competition.

 

Being Resourceful

A key skill to have in order to outsource your weaknesses is to be resourceful. This is the factor that Henry Ford said that he didn’t need to have all the answers. He just need to surround himself with the guys who had the answers. The dawn of the digital age vastly changed the game for being resourceful. Back in the day, you literally had to know someone who can help you with what you want, or what you wanted to find out. Nowadays, you just need to Google it.

 

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Caring and Advocating for Self

I spent a lot of time in my childhood watching Cantonese mini-series dramas from Hong Kong. In most of all of these dramas, girls were expected to seek protection from some sort of male in her life, be it her father, brother, and eventually her husband. The best case scenario was that she was protected and her interests were well-advocated by her male benefactor. The drama focused on how an unfortunate circumstance left these delicate ladies somehow unprotected or oppressed. This apparently made for good Chinese TV. (I always identified more with the Mulan-type) In real life, though, regardless of whether you’re male or female, waiting for someone else to advocate for you makes a very sad story. And by sad, I mean pathetic. Really. You can’t outsource your own advocacy. If you don’t stand up for yourself, who will?

 

 

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Don’t be afraid to be the egg. That’s what makes you special. Identifying what you’re good at sets you apart from the rest of the minions. Everyone’s good at something. Find it. Own it. Let your light shine. In the wise words of Marianne Williamson, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

 

So I ask you. What are you known for?

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