Do You Want to Be Good or Great at What You Do?

Just because you are good at something it doesn’t mean that you need to do that.

“Great men are not born great, they grow great . . .” ― Mario Puzo

I’ve spent my past 18 years in advertising. Working my way from the very bottom, starting at the boring and tedious stuff — and I was good at it. I was given more and more responsibility throughout the years, I learnt quickly, and I was happy to teach others — and I was good at it. I became the youngest account director at my company, leading a team of 5, then 7, then 12 — and I was really good at that too.

This article is not about how amazing I am — but whatever I did during my career, I was just really good at it. Even if I sound big-headed, which is not my intention, it is true. First I was a very good subordinate, I became an even better leader, I have always been the favourite go-to person of my clients, and my colleagues.

And there came a point when I realised it was enough.

On a September night, at 2 am I quickly typed up my resignation letter and I left it. I left it all behind, the glamour and fame of advertising, the exciting projects, the brilliant colleagues, the promise of an international move, the whole world I have been carefully building for nearly two decades — a world where I was loved and appreciated. A world that paid quite well. Advertising is quite a good one, once you reach a certain level. And when you are good.

And I left it, and overnight I chose a different path: I jumped into freelancing. Jumped is the right word here because I had no safety net, I had no savings, I had nothing but my wish to be away from it all — even though it was a path I have chosen. Even though I was successful. Even though I was very good at it.

I still am.

But just because you are good at something, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it.

See, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10.000 hours rule, you can get good at anything. If you put approximately 10 years into it, even without a real shining talent you will be considered good at it. In his book, he is explaining the reason behind practice and commitment.

Because getting good at something takes that: practice and commitment.

Don’t do it until you get it right. Do it until you can’t get it wrong.

We can all get there. We still have 10 years to learn to play the piano, to become a lawyer, to learn to salsa… whatever.

But the point I’d like to make here is about something else. It is about your calling, your drive, your devotion. It’s not about something you can master if you practice enough with a sufficient amount of commitment. It is about doing something that you do with passion and dedication — and for that, you give it enough time to master it with practice and commitment.

It is about doing what makes your heart sing and your soul roar. It is about something you want to do because you enjoy the practice so much that you don’t need to force the commitment. It’s about loving the journey more than the destination. It’s when after a couple of years you are not telling yourself that you shouldn’t quit now that you put so much effort into it, but you don’t even consider quitting — because it is your life.

I left advertising behind because no matter how good I was it had nothing to do with my core beliefs and my real passion. It fed the overachiever in me with just the right amount of validation and gratification to keep me going and aim for more. It pushed me forward every time I wanted to quit — and I wanted to quit so many times. I was a professional, very good at her job, and I even liked it. But it wasn’t where I wanted to be great.

I did it with intermittent moments of passion and enthusiasm — not being able to picture myself still doing it in 5 or 10 years. It was a thrill ride, but I always wanted it to be over to catch my breath. And I loved the breaks more than I loved the ride.

Writing is different.

It is about a calling. It is about practice and commitment. But it is also about dedication and long-term goals. It is something I want to get better at, for the sake of getting better at it — not for the sake of anything else, like a promotion or a more splendid career path. Making money off it is nice too, but that’s a side-effect. It is something I can imagine doing in 5 or 10 or 25 years. Hopefully better than now — as I am willing to put my 10k or 25k hours into it over the years.

Commitment needs a strategy. If you are in it for the long run, then you will have your strategy, whether you know about them or not. Not having a spelt out strategy doesn’t mean that you are not following a certain pattern that you recognised to be working for you.

I have always been a strategic thinker, I am teaching that at training sessions, I still make a living from it. Writing went from a hobby to a strategic hobby — as I am incapable of doing it any other way. Maybe you think that you don’t need a strategy, as you are doing it on a love-project basis. That’s fine, I wouldn’t insist on you having one or creating one. But whatever you do on a longer term than a few days or a few occasions will infiltrate your life as it becomes a habit. To be able to keep yourself to it, you are creating a “strategy” — even if you are not aware of it.

The advantage of having a spelt-out strategy has one main purpose: to define your track and keep you on it. Whenever you are feeling down or you feel like giving up, your strategy is there to remind you why you started in the first place. It is showing you a bigger picture, and a much-needed distance — to help you focus on the desired outcome rather than the current difficulties. It is guiding you towards your objective and enables you to see it from a higher perspective.

The best strategy starts with knowing why you are doing it. And I am not talking about just your vocation as a writer. I am talking about why are you writing here and now? Why this platform? Why this area? Why this topic? What is it that you want to accomplish with it?

You need to be very honest about it — to yourself. You don’t need to admit it to anyone else if you believe that the answer is not pretty enough or fitting your image enough, but you need to be honest about it at least to yourself.

Why is that important?

If you are doing it for self-expression — then you shouldn’t worry about the money or the follower base.

If you want to push your own limits and write about something you never did before — you shouldn’t be surprised if you gather some controversial opinions.

If you are doing it for the money — you should be aiming for topics that are gathering enough followers and coverage, to accomplish your goals, even if it means that you are not writing within your comfort zone or you are losing your authenticity, or you are just good at it, not great.

None of this is good or bad — it can all be justified. It’s your life, your passion, your choice. But more than anything, you need to admit your own reasons, to yourself.

But back to good and great.

Whatever you do long enough, you will be good at it. It’s beyond question — provided you have the basic skills or you are willing to work for getting them.

If you are a skilled writer or even just someone with enough grit — you can basically write about anything. I mean it. Anything. The right amount of research and editing and time and practice will get you there.

If you are a poet at heart can you still write leadership articles? Sure, you can!
If you are a tech author at heart, should you try poetry? Of course, you should!

Does being good at something give you a credible voice in everything? That’s not so sure.

The amazing thing I noticed is that if you are good enough you can manage to write in all topics, with incredible detail, perfect editing, perfect structure even.

But to be really great — you need to find what is it that you are really passionate about.

There is nothing wrong about writing in 30 tags, but there will be a few where you are gravitating back to. It’s perfectly okay to venture into uncharted territories to stretch your comfort zone and push your boundaries. It’s great to try poetry if you usually write tech. It’s great to write about tech if you are usually writing vulnerable personal essays. There are always lessons to learn about yourself, about your boundaries, about your voice.

But if you are just a little bit like me, and the majority of all the amazing writers I follow and I got to know — they are pursuing their passion more than pursuing the diversity of topics. They write because they want to be great at writing with their own voices, not just to be good at anything life throws across them. They are working on developing and preserving their unique voices — and not risking to lose it for another 1k claps or followers or another article going viral.

Being just good at something is overrated. Getting great at something is underrated.

I would trade being good at everything in a heartbeat for being great at the very thing I am passionate about. As Shannon Ashley wrote in her article Be So Good That They Can’t Ignore You:

“Driven to write and make a living doing what I love even when other people tell me it’s impossible.”

The recent turmoil in the writing community made me think about greatness in writing. I found that all the writers I am following have their special voices and they are good at most topics that they write about — but more importantly they are brilliant at some of them, where their passion shines through to prominently that you cannot not notice it.

The whole turbulence was about lots of things I didn’t want to get involved in. Misogyny, hatred, jealousy, unfulfilled dreams and greed — all sorts of nasty stuff.

It burned some bridges but more than that, it strengthened connections and support between people who are worthy. And it’s all for the best. We’ll get past it, we’ll come out of it better and stronger — it yet again taught us to recognise the red flags and to listen to our intuitions.

But what I also took away from it all, is that it’s not really being good that you should be after. Being after becoming great is a far more valuable goal.

Great and credible and authentic — that would create real value in the eyes of your readers.
Great and true to yourself and passionate about what you do — that is when you know that you could be here for a really long while, even for life.

So? What is it that you want to be great at?

Writer. Dreamer. Hopeless romantic. Newsletter: Email me: zitafontaine (at) gmail

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