The One Golden Rule on Self-Improvement


I continue to be amazed at how much of my parents’ advice in childhood remains with me to this day (as a middle-aged adult :-)).  It’s a constant reminder that what I say and how I behave around my children really will have a formative impact on shaping them as adults.

Of the many bits of advice and wise proverbs my father shared with me, one sticks out rather boldly as having shaped a lot of my personal and professional decisions and direction:

Know one thing about everything;
know everything about one thing.

On a personal level, this guidance encouraged me to explore lots of sports I wouldn’t have otherwise tried, musical instruments and dance styles (yes, I admit it: I took modern dance, ballet, and even ballroom dance) that might have otherwise seemed too foreign.  It also drove me to pick one activity that I really made “mine” (it happened to be martial arts).

Professionally, the same situation applied.  While, deep down, I’m still a computer scientist who loves algorithms, software design, and programming, I was fortunate to have opportunities to round out that core expertise with an understanding of general business, finance & accounting, marketing, sales, services, and so on.  I may not be an expert at reading financial statements, but I forced myself to learn enough to “know something” about them (an MBA was a convenient way to achieve that goal).

Perhaps the big question, then, is what the “something” is that one should choose to “know everything” about.  There, I made a pivot mid-career.  As a younger man, I spent a great deal of time focused on strengthening my weaknesses while taking my strengths for granted.

I realized, however, that while this was a gallant strategy, the contra-plan was much more effective:

Focus on developing and leveraging strengths
while only mitigating weaknesses.

Instead of spending all of my time overcoming my weaknesses (of which I have many), I quickly learned that I made much more progress by focusing on the development of my strengths and, more importantly, leveraging them by choosing areas where those strengths were most relevant.  What about my weaknesses? I certainly couldn’t ignore those; however, the extent of my attention to weaknesses was mitigating them to the point they were not hampering my ability to leverage strengths.

In short, the two thoughts (the principle and its corollary) can be combined sensibly to mean: pick something aligned with your strengths and become an expert in that area; for your weaknesses, spend some time learning a thing or two to mitigate and possibly overcome the weakness.

For more like this post, see Four Steps to Achieving the Impossible.

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