Be The Worst
When I was in college, I took a particularly challenging Probability and Statistics class - most of the subject matter was new to me and it took me all of about five minutes to realize I was severely out of my element. One day after class, I expressed some frustration because I felt like there was only so much I could learn from the book and online examples, and that limited knowledge alone was insufficient to excel in my class. Overhearing my complaint, my professor gave me some great advice that I will never forget: “All you have to do to succeed in this class, or any area of life, is to find a group of people who are smarter than you and start working with them.”
What do I do when my rate of learning has leveled off?
You have taken the time to learn something new, immersed yourself in the subject matter, practiced diligently for a period of time and look up and see that you are ahead of those around you. Congratulations on your accomplishment. Now what? There are only so many books, blogs, and other resources you can learn from until you reach a point where you must learn new skills from other humans. We are social creatures, by nature. We rely on each other to survive and part of that survival involves learning from each other. It’s difficult to imagine a world where we all had to learn everything on our own and couldn’t benefit from the knowledge and insight of those around us.
In Apprenticeship Patterns, Dave Hoover and Adewale Oshineye outline this very problem and propose a solution [pattern] called Be the Worst.
The idea behind being the worst is to surround yourself with people who are better than you in a given area - this will force you into a position where you have room to grow. Be the worst one around at programming or guitar or soccer. Over time, the better people around you will cause you to elevate your game, mostly through observation and instruction.
[As] the weakest member of the team, you should be working harder than anyone else. This is because the goal is not to stay the weakest, but to start at the bottom and work your way up. You do this by consciously finding ways to improve and mimicking the stronger [team members] until you are on the same level as the rest of the team. -Apprenticeship Patterns
Of course, there are risks associated with this strategy. You will, by definition, be the least effective person around. This means that your contributions will result in a net drag on the team. Because of this, most teams and organizations won’t put up with you for very long. You will also force yourself into a sink-or-swim situation with some very real consequences if you don’t improve quickly. The best solution to mitigate this risk is to outwork the problem - make being the worst a temporary solution to solve a larger problem. Focus on consistent, determined effort to get you from where you are to where you want to be. If you find yourself getting distressed, you may have bitten off too much and it’s time to scale back a bit.
Being the worst is a great way to improve your effectiveness in a given subject area quickly. However, this is a risky strategy that takes concerted effort to constantly improve and ensure you aren’t drowning in the more intense sink-or-swim environment. Next time you are looking for a way to improve your skills and have exhausted all of the resources currently available, seek out a change in scenery. Find a team filled with people who are better than you, work hard, and watch yourself grow at a rate you didn’t think was possible.