If you’re good at your job, the work comes naturally to you.
That’s a rare and precious thing. Yet also dangerous, especially when you know you can get a pat on the back and a “nice job!” from your colleagues without too much strain. It’s easy to coast along just by being consistent. Which is fine. Consistency will get you far. But only so far.
The problem is when we interpret being “consistent” at work as meaning doing the same things we did the last ten times.
What we should instead look for is how we can be consistently impressive, or at the very least, how we can consistently improve.
It’s these things that get us noticed. It’s why Picasso’s later paintings and the various periods of his work so fascinating: we see an artist consistently challenging himself to be more innovative, more expressive, more unique.
I truly believe that what matters most in your career is exceptional work.
A successful career path is punctuated by moments of exceptional work, which you can then use to acquire leverage, get yourself noticed, and demand bigger rewards next time.
But exceptional work only comes when we push ourselves harder. It’s in those moments of what Cal Newport calls “Deliberate Practice”, when we are stretching ourselves beyond our normal capabilities and jumping into new territory that we truly produce work that stands out and gets attention.
The reason most people never produce exceptional work is because they are in a hurry to get noticed, to get rich, to pump out a body of mediocre material so that they can feel productive. Always in search of shortcuts, they resist cognitive strain whenever the chance for it arises.
This isn’t a pep talk telling you that you need to work harder. Rather, it’s a challenge to seek out ways that we can be even just 10% better. 10% more creative at what you do. 10% more critical when you appraise your last piece of work. Or make 10% more effort to seek out honest, brutal feedback so that you can chip away at your bad habits and become more effective (as my friend Edward Druce mentions in this excellent article).
We don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time we go to work. But adding that 10% builds up. It can lead to some of our greatest discoveries further down the line. It can change culture. It can produce astonishing insights and work that surpasses anything we’ve done before.
Training isn’t just putting in the effort to stay the course. It’s the forensic analysis of what we’re doing right and wrong; it’s the push to create something newer and better than we made yesterday.