Knowing Your Strengths
A short time ago, a friend of mine wrote a blog post about his experience as a “large in stature”, long-haired, 13-year-old who was trying to play Little League baseball for the first time in his life. Being less experienced, and admittedly less athletic, than the other players, he recalls how he found a way to make himself valuable to his team by finding something he was good at doing – getting hit by the ball.
Taking One for the Team
“In the second or third game, I got hit by a pitch and thought to myself, ‘that didn’t really hurt very bad!’,” he says as he remembers how his discovery that taking one for the team was a reasonable price to pay to allow his on-base percentage to go “through the roof.” Here’s to finding a way to contribute!
My friend's Little League career was not the stuff of which legends or underdog-triumphs-over-adversity sports movies are made of - it began and ended that year. Still, this story of how he was determined to find one thing in the game that he was good at doing, and then doing that to the best of his ability, made me think about the Web design industry’s tendency to do the exact opposite.
Jack of All Trades…
Those of us in the web industry tend to be eager learners. The always-changing nature of the Web forces us to grow and evolve or risk being outdated quickly. While we certainly must grow and adapt the knowledge we already possess, web professionals are also extremely willing to add new skills to their bag of tricks. Sometimes this can be a wonderful idea, adding tools that we can bring to bear on client projects. Other times, this approach can spread us a bit thin.
…Master of None
I was recently reading Dan Cederholm and Ethan Marcotte's new book, ‘Handcrafted CSS.’ In it, they talk about the concept of the “80-percenter.” This refers to the practice of really throwing yourself into learning something new until you reach about 80-percent proficiency. At that level, you have a very solid working knowledge of the skill. The remaining 20-percent is such specific, specialized knowledge that you risk becoming obsessive about the little aspects of that one skill at the expense of the bigger picture.
This approach makes sense to me, but I unfortunately see far too many web professionals who take on new skillsets and only become a “40 or 50-percenter” before they move on to something new. This is dangerous. As an 80-percenter, you have the ability to use this tool effectively, knowing that only in edge cases is your understanding going to fall short (and in those rare cases, you are well positioned to resolve whatever issues arise using the knowledge you do have). As for the 40-percenter, they have just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
Trying to do Too Much
The desire to want to learn everything is something that I can definitely relate to. Just a few months ago, I found myself looking at jQuery books and tutorials in an attempt to add this skill to my repertoire. Everyone in the web design community seemed to be working with jQuery and I wanted to join the party.
Strength in Numbers
Going back to my desire to learn jQuery, I quickly realized that my time would indeed be better spent in other ways, in large part because there was no real need for me to learn this skillset since I had others around me who already knew it. Whether you work in an agency setting where you can surround yourself with co-workers whose skills complement your own, or in a freelance environment where working relationships or partnerships with others can ensure you can offer your clients more services and solutions that you personally possess, there is no need to know how to do everything yourself. You can be more valuable to your ‘team’ by being great at a handful of skills rather than simply adequate at a larger batch of them.
My decision to ask for help with any jQuery needs, rather than try to handle them myself, has allowed me to focus on my own strengths – web site design, front-end development with HTML and CSS, project management and creative direction. I am more valuable to my company and my clients doing what I do best rather than trying to do everything on my own.
Learning is Great, Understanding is Better
Acquiring new knowledge and skills is to be commended. There will be times when no one in your organization or circle of associates possesses a certain skill and you may end up being the one who is best positioned to learn it. Embrace those chances and do not be afraid to add to your bank of knowledge, but be mindful of how thin you spread yourself and make sure that any new skills you acquire are not done so at the expense of your existing strengths. The difference between being an 80-percenter, armed with skills you can use proficiently, and being a 40-percenter who just scrapes by, may be the difference between getting hit by the ball and taking your base and cracking one over the fences for a home run.