How to do things if you're not that smart and don't have any talent
This is a blog post aimed at people who want to do important work or make meaningful contributions to work, but feel they aren’t that smart and don’t have any talent.
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Be audacious. Most people who are talented or smart are scared of doing things. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s more often than not the case. The ability to do scary things on their behalf is extremely powerful, both in terms of advancing the goal/project and also getting them to better utilize their talents.
For example, you will find that a lot of talented or intelligent people are scared of cold emailing or just do a really bad job at it. Offer to do this work for them, and by offer I mean just do it. Send the cold email, get the response and then tell them about it*. They will be really impressed and have an incentive to get the ball rolling on said project. They might end up so impressed that they also stretch the initial goal of the project!
A by-product of this skill is that you may start to feel like a little bit of an imposter because the work doesn’t feel hard, and therefore you’ll assume it is not valuable in the grand sheme of things. This is not true. By being audacious on these peoples behalf you will make them, and therefore the work you both do together, a reality. Talented and smart people tend to have the technical ability to do work, but often lack the courage or audacity to actually do it. Pushing them to make it a reality is a very big deal, so don’t underestimate that.
Do grunt work. Most people do not like doing grunt work. More often than not people want to be doing “creative” work, such as discovering or creating new things. Fortunately for you, this is your opportunity to shine. Become someone who loves grunt work. Most times the work is not that complicated, it’s just laborious, repetitive, and not that intellectually challenging, but it is important. Learn to genuinely love it and do it for the team or project. People will appreciate you.
Do the boring things. Similar to grunt work, there will always be boring work to do. Learn to love it & do it! This is an especially good area to work in if you aren’t so smart or talented because people will show you more grace & patience to get up to skill (purely because they don’t want to do it themselves).
Learn undefined skills. Learn skills that have not yet been professionalized or established. A really good example of this is learning to code with AI.
For example, most people don’t actually know how to use AI to code up real products, especially if they don’t know how to code. There is no proven course or guide written to do this either so its even harder to do, which is what makes this a great opportunity for you to shine. If you teach yourself how to do so you are not only in a unique position to set the standard for other people to learn (write, write, write about what you have learnt!) but you also get to apply this skill set on behalf of super smart or talented people who most likely wouldn’t have done so due to lack of time, skepticism or both. Again, do and show the results, rather than seek permission first to avoid discouragement (if the stakes are low enough).
Work hard. If you are not that smart or talented it’ll often take you more time on average to complete a task. And that’s okay. Just be aware of this and put in the extra time and effort to not only produce at a good pace but produce above standard. Again, most smart or talented people can produce above standard with much less effort than you. But sometimes they don’t do so because they don’t see a clear reward at the end. Try to counteract this and put in the extra effort. It might not always lead to a super fantastic outcome, but you significantly increase your chances of bumping into such an outcome if you do.
Bring a sense of urgency & move fast. If you think about it, most deadlines are arbitrary, and smart & talented people know this. They will still work to the deadline but they may not feel a real sense of urgency to move faster. Try to counteract this energy. I’m not sure why but moving faster increases the likelihood that work will actually get done, and also opens you up (and therefore the team) up to a lot more opportunities along the way. Most likely because you are “prepared” when you meet luck, or something along those lines. Anyways.
Tiny things you can do to bring a sense of urgency and move fast:
Don’t let things be scheduled to be discussed in the next meeting. Push to get it sorted now, even if it is just a make-do v1 solution.
If you can get something done faster, or produce more per unit of time, then do it. Don’t look for a reason to do so first. Sometimes this is of no benefit, but often this sets you up to take advantage of an unknown opportunity (in the future) a lot quicker.
Keep things stupid simple & focused. As I have mentioned before, smart and talented people often want to do creative work, that involves inventing or discovering. Because of that, they will naturally be driven to complex work and shiny new ideas. Your job, should you choose to accept, is to keep things simple and focused. To make sure you (they) are always moving one leg in front of the other so that shit is actually getting done at a fast pace. Otherwise, you will find that you have moved in every direction apart from forward, which leads to a lack of progress => lack of momentum => low motivation, and eventually death of the project.
Improve things. Similar to boring work, a lot of times what it takes to improve things is just a lot of boring grunt work e.g. optimizing incubation times of an antibody, tweaking marketing email times, etc. Boring but impactful work. Learn to love it and then do it without asking. This doesn’t need to just be your own work, but the work of others too.
Ask your naive questions. If you aren’t that smart or talented, you will find that you will have a lot of “noob” questions, that’s okay. In fact, it is kind of a superpower. Ask them! Especially if you are entering a new field, take note of these questions before you become entrenched in current knowledge. These questions may just probe you or your teammate to question dogma that may not be so true in your project’s case. More importantly, on occasion, you will bring forth questions that other people have but are too afraid to ask due to fear of being seen as not smart or talented. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes, so don’t be afraid to say something!
Now I will warn you, it is uncomfortable doing so. You may be made to feel silly for asking, and may even receive push back for asking. Don’t get defensive in these situations. If you have a simple, low stakes** way of testing out your hypothesis / answering your question then just do it and report the results later. Avoid asking permission.
Simplify things. I have mentioned this skill a lot, but it’s a pretty awesome skill to have and one that you probably already have. Simplifying things does not only apply to communication. It could be a development process, operational process, the project itself, etc. There is usually always some sort of benefit that comes from being able to simplify things.
Follow up. Most people are super sensitive to being seen as annoying, and that’s the primary reason they don’t follow up and therefore watch opportunities go down the drain. Super simple solution, follow up! Most people just forget to respond, haven’t prioritized your request, or something else along those lines. But don’t just follow up, make it easy for the other participant to act on this too. For example, if you are following up on a due-to-be-scheduled meeting with someone, offer multiple specific times (including “now”), offer to meet them where they are (if possible), and send them light talking points so that they know the meeting won’t be a waste of their time. This will make it a lot easier for them to want to accept and actually turn up.
Show up during the hard times. Every piece of work experiences hard times, the same goes for people. Sometimes the project isn’t going to plan or something majorly bad is happening in your personal life. It’ll be tough but your job here is to simply keep going. It will be hard, and you will have legitimate reasons to take it easy, but try not to use them (within reason) and keep going. People remember and count on people who pushed through hard times to make things work. You will also surprise yourself at the end of it all and have proof that you can get through things of certain difficulty if push comes to shove.
Figure out the first step. Most people can achieve more than they think they are capable of, but they often get intimated by ideas and just “don’t know where to start”. Make that your job and become very good at it. Learn how to figure out the first step of any idea and get the ball rolling. Often times you can usually find a cheap, low-stakes, simple way of getting started. The point is to build momentum. Momentum => morale => shit getting done! You may not have the technical skills to execute things super well, and that’s okay. That’s the job of the super smart and talented people. Your job is to get them off their asses and make them realize that progress is possible.
Finish things. Probably the most important thing after being audacious. Most people don’t finish things. They either get distracted, don’t have the motivation to or get stuck. Learn to finish things, it’s a big deal. It’s proof of work and of your idea (actions speak louder than words and all that). To do so requires a combination of all the previously mentioned skills, and probably even more skills that I haven't mentioned. I don’t have that many practical tips to share here as it’s a skill I’m still developing. But once I feel I have more insight I will share it either here or in a separate blog post.
*Do not make the mistake of seeking their permission first, they will say “no, let’s wait until x” (and x will never come), or they will find ways to demoralize you from doing so (it’s nothing personal)
** There is usually always a simple, low-stakes way of doing something.
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