I can’t do everything. It’s an obvious statement, but one that can be hard to admit is true. It’s true on a small scale. As in, I’m not going to get everything done on my to-do list today. It’s also true on the large scale. I won’t have time to accomplish all the things I desire in my lifetime. Peter Bregman sums this up nicely in a Harvard Business Review blog post:
The idea that we can get it all done is the biggest myth in time management. … Face it: You’re a limited resource.
The most difficult aspect of facing this fact is letting go of the things that will inevitably go undone. It’s lamentable that the time we have is short. But, there is a silver lining. In Bregman’s words:
Once we admit that we aren’t going to get it all done, we’re in a much better position to make explicit choices about what we are going to do. Instead of letting things haphazardly fall through the cracks, we can intentionally push the unimportant things aside and focus our energy on the things that matter most.
In other words, when we stop trying to figure out how it will all get done, we are free to focus our energies on what things are most important to accomplish.
Prioritizing Leads to Focus, Focus Leads to Excellence
Before we can set our focus, we must determine what things are most important. On the small scale, evaluating importance is relatively easy. We often prioritize our to-do lists based on our schedule for the day and upcoming deadlines. However, it can be harder to evaluate importance over longer periods of time. This is especially true in thinking about the big things of life. How do you determine the most important tasks of your lifetime?
I’ve thought a lot about this question, specifically in terms of vocation. What is the most important work I can spend my life doing? This is a much more difficult question to answer1, especially if you have multiple interests and skills. Since time is a limited resource, the development of some interests and skills must suffer in order to go deeper with others. How do you choose which to pursue as a career or even as a speciality within your field? Saying yes to one thing means saying no to many others.
Seth Godin reiterates this point in his small book The Dip:
You really can’t try to do everything, especially if you intend to be the best in the world.
Here, Godin adds an important dimension to the discussion – the idea of excellence. It’s possible to do many things if you don’t care about doing them well. He argues, however, that things are worth doing well. In fact, he argues that you should be the “Best in the World” at what you do. He continues:
Best as in: best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know. And in the world as in: their world, the world they have access to. … Best is subjective. I (the consumer) get to decide, not you. World is selfish. It’s my definition not yours.
In other words, “Best in the World” can have many different meanings. It’s ultimately up to someone else to determine if you are the best in the world to do a particular type of work at a particular time in a particular context. Find your niche, and be better than anyone else.
I love Godin’s focus on excellence. He doesn’t want people to fill the world with mediocrity. He wants you to do something great, and the rest of his book outlines strategies for knowing when to quit something and when to stick it out so you can achieve success.
Godin’s advice serves as a good starting point to evaluating the big-picture question of what work is most important in your lifetime. However, focusing solely on what you can do better than someone else presents problems.2
The Problems with Focusing on Other People
What if you can be better than anyone else at something, but it harms other people? Also, if you’re solely motivated by being better than others, your success will always be dependent upon the actions of other people. This can lead to crushing disappointment and jealousy when you encounter others who are better than you. And if you are the best, it can lead to pride and arrogance. As C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, pride at its root is competitive:
Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.
Competition alone is a poor metric for choosing the work of your life. Additionally, focusing so much on how you compare to others may hinder you from charting your own course if you are too fixated on simply outdoing what someone else is already doing.
A Shift in Perspective
Perhaps a better question than “What can you do better than anyone else?” is “What can you be the most competent at?” In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller quotes William Diehl who wrote:
Competency is a basic value. It is not a means to some other end, such as wealth or position, although such results may occur.
If competency has intrinsic value, it follows that we should be focused primarily on being as competent as possible in our work. This helps in prioritizing what to focus on in our life’s work. Instead of asking “What can I do better than anyone else”, the question becomes “What work do I have the potential to do with the most competence.” Shifting the perspective away from competition helps us avoid some of the aforementioned pitfalls.
However, it is still possible to be very competent at something that harms other people. Both Diehl and Keller address this problem from a Christian perspective. They view competent work as a way to love God and other people.3 Viewing competence in this way excludes harming other people in pursuit of excellence. In fact, it does the opposite. Keller expounds:
The application of this dictum—that competent work is a form of love—are many. Those who grasp this understanding of work will still desire to succeed but will not be nearly as driven to overwork or made as despondent by poor results. If it is true, then if you have to choose between work that benefits more people and work that pays you more, you should seriously consider the job that pays less and helps more—particularly if you can be great at it.
This advice has been very helpful to me in narrowing down my list of interests and skills in order to determine the work that is most important for me to focus on during my lifetime. Given my skills and context, what work can I be most competent at while helping the most people? How would you answer this question?
Granted, it’s a luxury to be able to ask the question. Most people across cultures and time have not had the ability to choose their work. ↩
This isn’t intended as a knock against Godin or his book. The main purpose of The Dip is not to help you pick out a vocational field. Rather, it’s main purpose is to teach you how to quit the right things at the right times so that you can focus and become excellent at what you do. ↩