140 - Be the only, not the best—the overlooked lesson in building a career

29-12-2023

career design

I’m sitting at my desk in Mr. Ambrose’s class and I’m annoyed. I have before me a blank page I have to fill up. It’s only halfway through the term in grade nine, yet I feel like I’ve been here this term a million times already.

Sometimes it is an unseen passage; other times, it is a short story; or a poem. On any day, I may have to run into any of these pieces of text. My job is to decode the text. To make the unseen seen.

All of this is part of the syllabus for two papers—language and literature—for the boards. So far so good. But Mr. Ambrose, my English teacher, has a different idea for what qualifies as time well spent. Fill up the page with words out of your head, he says at every possible opportunity, and not with words out of your book. I cannot piece together the puzzle of why I have to do it this way.

English is not my first language. No one in my family speaks it. It is the same for most of my classmates too. But these middle-class families have hope. They hope that their kids will have a better life. This better-life movie hasn’t been scripted, yet it is clear that no version of the script is written in a language other than the Queen’s.

For some reason I cannot figure out, my folks have gone rogue on me. No one else from among my friends comes to Mr. Ambrose for lessons. They have been let off the hook. They spend their time listening to a qualified professional who is paid to unriddle poems, prose, passages to them, and taking notes and oftentimes reproducing them in term exams. Mr. Ambrose seems to have lost this playbook for he has delegated his job to his students, one of whom is me. Must I ask my mother to stop paying for my English tuition and pay me a salary for my English education instead?

Gritting my teeth, I complete the passage. It is supposed to test my understanding skills, though today it seems to have tested my patience more than anything else. There are still far too many minutes left in the time with Mr. Ambrose and I cannot imagine them at the moment.

Mr. Ambrose strolls up, picks up my notebook and starts to read. The questions in my head are louder than ever. I’ve decided to put an end to this cruel and unusual punishment. I’m steeling myself to say the words, when he beats me to it–

‘You know, if I were the Prime Minister,’ Mr. Ambrose says without looking up from the page, ‘I would have you as my speechwriter.’

The words ring in my ears. Each of them makes a sound I know well, but, together, in that combination, they do something to me I’ve never felt in my life before.

That moment leads to three profound things. First, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Ambrose. He becomes my favorite teacher—and why not?

Second, his words fuel a love for the language that burns bright right through to my boards eighteen months later and continues to do so after.

Third, and this I don’t realize easily, as much as I’m swept by Mr. Ambrose that evening, I don’t believe in his words myself. The years after bear it out.


**The best or the only? **

In January of this new year, I listened to Harish Narayanan share his career arc with a bunch of us from his community.

Graduating from IIM Lucknow, he got into P&G, working on brands in the premium hair care division while knowing precious little about hair care. Was there anything about him that made him a unique fit for the position? He was bright, but one of many, perhaps one in a hundred. Six years at P&G earned him marketing chops, along with a knack for storytelling and technology. That intersection was probably the privilege of only tens of others like Harish, down from a hundred. This unique experience stack got him into Google (YouTube). At YouTube, Harish got b2c and b2b experience, and it was also the time he had a taste of digital-first marketing.

Six years down the road, Myntra was looking for a CMO who had experience in both b2c and b2b and had built a digital-first business. That pool was a puddle. By the time Harish moved to Upstox, Harish’s CV boasted of all that Myntra had hired him for plus C-level experience. He was perhaps the only one suitable.

At every subsequent career stage, Harish’s unique collection of skills and experiences whittled down the comparison set for him. He went from being one in a hundred to being the only one.

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When I was younger I often searched for the reassurance that I was good enough to be among the best, if not the best. Being the best mattered. It’s what I–and I suspect many of you too–had been told was worth striving for by teachers and family.

While well-intentioned, the advice misses the point.

I’ve majored in mechanical engineering, written a 100,000-word novel, incubated two startups, and now help people make better career and business decisions. While going through any of these career/life stages, I’ve questioned my desire to write. Is it useful? Can I ever be the best at it? Well, then, what’s the point in trying?

Yet, at every stage in my career it is writing that has brought me clarity. My writing habit has improved my ability to break down complexities, to find connections, to build teams by communicating better. I’ve used the written word in meeting notes, in assumptions maps, in decision journals, in market research. Only when I stacked all these skills over each other did it create unique value.

Here’s the rub: I only see the pattern looking back. All of you looking ahead, who want the guarantee of a return on investment, may struggle to make sense.

Perhaps you need a Mr. Ambrose, who knew it all along and wanted to alert me to all those years back. Or perhaps, you’re worried you may miss the signs like I did. If so, this piece is for you.


A unique talent stack

‘Every skill you acquire doubles your success,’ writes Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. His rule of thumb carries two powerful insights:

1️⃣ People can be extremely valuable in the market without being the best at any one thing they do.

2️⃣ As long as you’re reasonably good, your mix of skills is more important than mastery in any one. You’re better off building a unique stack of complementary talents.

I’m not dissuading you from trying to be the best. You’ve every right to want to be the conventional best. But understand the costs of pursuing that default goal.

Apart from co-founding Basecamp, David Heinemeier Hansson is the creator of Ruby on Rails, an author of two bestsellers, and winner of the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race in his class. He has a kind of talent stack that’s a lightning rod for most. In this 2021 video, Heinemeier Hansson shares his good-enough-is-fine life philosophy.

Nothing I’ve ever learned did I want to be the best at. To be the best, truly the best, at something… it is a maniacal obsession and it is an exclusive obsession where that can be the only thing your life revolves around. I was never interested in that. I was interested in the composition…. You know what, getting into say the top five percent or even the top ten percent of some endeavor in the world [is] immensely achievable for a very large number of people [but it is] almost impossible to be the very best in the world. So I could be in the top ten percent of programmers, I could be in the top ten percent of race car drivers…

Understanding the idea behind a unique and complementary talent stack, much like Heinemeier Hansson and Harish have done, is an unlock. Once you do it, you don’t have to deny your interests. You can indulge them, invest in them, be curious, without being all torn up by guilt.

And when you do things you enjoy, things that give you energy, you tend to get better faster.

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Reframing the pursuit of the best

Perhaps it is deflating. Perhaps it feels hollow to admit that you’ve no dreams to make the climb to the top, if the very summit is where you’ve imagined yourself at all along. How to then empower the winner inside you without letting it sign you up for impossible summits?

I’ve stumbled upon a reframe of that idea that doesn’t feel like you’re cheating yourself. I’ve found two reframes actually. Here they are, one after the other, so that you can pick one for yourself.

👉From entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant: Be the best in the world at what you do. Keep redefining what you do until this is true.

This 2016 tweet has aged well. Ravikant suggests a clever trick here. Retain your desire to be the best, but don’t let society define the category for competition for you. Throw away any assigned category. Make your own and be the best in it, which is to say…

👉From former Wired editor Kevin Kelly: Don’t be the best; be the only.

As a rule, Kelly seems to say, if you are in a domain or a category where it’s hard for others to imitate you, that’s a good place to be.

He goes on to rephrase this advice into this stunner of a line—_Don’t measure your life with someone else’s ruler. _He expands:

I mean in a certain way, what you want to do is [that] you want to kind of grow your own metric for what would be successful for you. And that is hard to do because we’re kind of bombarded with images and suggestions about what would make a successful person. But if you talk to people who seem to have success, you realize that you want to have a different metric.


Success comes through mastery.

It is a great piece of advice. It is a safe piece of advice. No one will laugh at you for saying it. It is a terrible piece of advice. Your life may pass you by, as you try to breathe the rarefied air of greatness and no one will laugh at you for being left gasping. They may just cheer you on, for all you know.

Speechwriting is an unusual category. Mr. Ambrose didn’t see me as a speechwriter any more than he saw himself as the country’s Prime Minister. He was pointing me to a singularity when he said those words to me in that order on that evening two and a half decades ago. He wasn’t goading me to be the best. He was suggesting that there’s value in searching for your own way to live that makes your life yours only.

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