A Bit Better
A mindset for professional development
June 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
To stand out, you don't need to be great; you just need to be a bit better than your peers.
To stand out, you don't need to be great at any particular skill; you just need to be a bit better than your peers. That essentially makes you the best among your peers.
The conventional wisdom for becoming effective at your job or academic studies is to first identify the skills required for success, and then work toward becoming great at those skills.
It's hard to become great at anything, so that burden is daunting enough to stop most people from even trying. Instead, shift your mindset from “I need to be great at X” to “I just need to be a bit better than people around me at X.”
Now it's just a matter of figuring out which useful skills you're capable of becoming even slightly better than your peers at, and then honing those skills. For example, if you're a biologist and notice that everyone around you is deathly afraid of statistics, then it might not be hard to become the best statistician in your lab.
As an example, I'll recount how I developed three particular skills throughout my past decade as an aspiring computer science researcher: public speaking, writing, and programming.
Like most people, I'm naturally anxious about public speaking. But in college, I recognized that this skill was essential for success in many professions. So throughout undergrad and grad school, I took every opportunity to give talks on my research and class projects. Doing so helped me get over my natural fears, but I still felt that my presentations weren't all that good.
The gap between being a mediocre public speaker and a great speaker seemed too daunting to close. I knew I couldn't ever deliver charismatic speeches like Barack Obama or Steve Jobs (or even Steve Ballmer), so why even bother trying to improve?
My mindset shifted a few summers ago as I sat through dozens of talks at a two-day research workshop. I noticed that many of the accomplished researchers on stage—whose resumes were much more impressive than mine—weren't great public speakers either! I thought to myself, “Wait a minute ... I can't ever speak like Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, but with some training, I can at least do a bit better than these folks.”
Realizing that the bar wasn't impossibly high gave me the impetus to start improving. During that workshop, I jotted down what I liked and didn't like about the way each talk was presented; that list eventually turned into my Oral Presentation Tips article. Then I started trying hard to improve my own speaking skills, body posture, and PowerPoint presentation visuals in every subsequent talk I gave. In particular, reading Even a Geek Can Speak and watching a bunch of technical talks on YouTube helped a lot. Today I'm a much better speaker than I used to be, but I still have a lot of room for improvement.
I was a horrible writer as a kid. English was my third language (after Chinese and French), so I struggled with reading comprehension and writing during my early years in America. Despite my best efforts, my grades on English class assignments often looked like this one from 8th grade:
Even though I dreaded writing essays for school, I really enjoyed writing as a hobby. So I just wrote and wrote in private—in my diary, on pieces of scrap paper, and in half-finished Microsoft Word documents. I wrote lots of terrible, embarrassing ramblings that I wouldn't even show my own family. But I kept at it and eventually improved with more practice and self-reflection.
After about ten years, I finally started writing online articles that people actually wanted to read. And to my pleasant surprise, it turned out that writing was an important skill for aspiring researchers. I didn't plan it that way; my hobby just ended up being useful for my work.
As I progressed through grad school, I learned to write using the style and conventions of academic research. I knew that I didn't need to become the best writer; I just needed to be a bit better than fellow grad students.
I'll probably never become a great writer of the sort who wins prizes. In particular, I'm not good at injecting humor, symbolism, analogies, imagery, or beautiful words into my writing. I mostly write simple sentences—just nouns followed by verbs. But that's okay; as long as I can write clear technical prose to communicate my research ideas and findings, then that's good enough.
I didn't start programming seriously until age 21. I've already accepted that I'll never be as good as some of my friends who started programming at a young age. But that's okay; I don't need to be. I just strive to be a bit better than other researchers in my subfield.
I got better at programming by writing a ton of code over the past decade, but I also improved relative to my peers using another hack: switching peer groups.
Throughout undergrad and my early years of grad school, I worked on computer systems and program analysis research. These subfields tend to attract expert programmers; just look at the distinguished alumni list from the MIT PDOS group.
Mid-way through grad school, I realized that I couldn't ever become better at programming than these people, and that I didn't really enjoy spending endless hours debugging memory errors in C code. Thus, I gradually shifted my research focus to HCI (human-computer interaction), a subfield that captured much more of my interest.
Suddenly I went from being a mediocre programmer among systems researchers to being fairly good among HCI researchers. Of course, I'm still not at the level of all-stars such as Jeff Heer, but I can now create good-enough software prototypes for HCI research projects.
To stand out, you don't need to be great at any particular skill; you just need to be a bit better than your peers. That's often not as hard as you think. You can get better relative to your peers by
Now get to work!