Blog 2014

Versatility vs Universiality

Which would you prefer to be: good at everything, or great at one thing and above-average at everything else?  At first glance, it might seem being superb at everything would be the path to supremacy in whatever endeavor.  After all, if there’s nothing you’re bad at, if you command excellence at every knowledge and ability in a designated pursuit, how could you not excel?  Well, the evidence would suggest that you will be mediocre.

Take a look at the UFC.  Who are some of the greatest UFC fighters to ever step into the octagon?  According to ESPN, the list includes names like Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, GSP, and Anderson Silva.  What do all these fighters have in common?  They weren’t good at ‘everything’.

Take Anderson Silva, usually at the top of every ‘greatest mma fighters’ lists.  Anderson ‘the Spider’ Silva is not known for his grappling skills, nor is he known for his takedowns.  Oh, his grappling is good.  Definitely more than adequate.  But when Silva fought, people didn’t look for a grappling match.  They were expecting striking, specifically kicks.  Anderson Silva was known as one of the best strikers of all time; out of 33 wins, 20 were by knockout (meaning he won with striking) while only 6 were by submission (meaning he won by grappling).

Look at another example in the UFC; Royce Gracie.  One of the pioneers of the sport, Royce Gracie has 14 wins to his name; 12 of those are by submission and he has no knockouts.  He’s proven he can strike, but that isn’t where he excels.  He excels in grappling.

In Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John talk extensively about this phenomena, that attempts to be masters at everything yield burnout and exhaustion rather than true productivity.  In this treatise, they suggest instead focusing on one or two primary qualities and abilities and letting everything else more or less take care of itself.

Life-hacker and efficiency activist Tim Ferriss espouses much the same in his books, the 4-Hour Body and the 4-Hour Chef.  Rather than zero in on one’s weaknesses, he advocates playing to one’s strengths and letting weaknesses improve more casually.

In head-to-head competition – whether it be physical or intellectual – focusing on a single aspect of play where you will not be surpassed often improves performance as a whole.  The inverse – trying to make sure all performance is flawless – rarely if ever results in notable success.  The myth of the ‘man skilled in all ways of contending’ is therefore somewhat counterproductive.

That isn’t to say that one shouldn’t improve your weaknesses.  That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to be good at every aspect of your craft/sport/passion.  By all means, improve your weaknesses and tighten your shortcomings.  But the majority of your time and effort needs to be focused not on making you ‘less bad’ at something, but making you ‘that much better’ at what you’re already good at.  Don’t neglect where you need improvement, but don’t fixate on it either.

Play to your strengths.

This is true regardless of your pursuit.  As an athlete, if you naturally skew towards endurance over power, don’t try to turn yourself into a powerlifter.  Excel more and more at endurance and learn to make your opponents try to keep up with you.  Don’t let power become a liability, but don’t bother with making it your forte either.
As a writer, if your descriptive skills are only adequate, but dialogue is where you excel (and what you enjoy), don’t break your back trying to turn your stories on their ear.  Focus on your dialogue.  Make it that much better.  Pay attention to your description and work to make it better, but don’t bust yourself trying to become something you’re not.

Universal aptitude is overrated.  Being familiar with, adequate in, good at, all the skills associated with your chosen pursuit is what you need and want, but fixate on the one thing you can truly excel at and enjoy, and knock that out of the park every time.

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