I believe but can not (currently) prove that if you want to develop unique economically valuable expertise, you need to move outside your comfort zone fairly regularly.
I call this “leaning out over your skis”.
A helpful Quora user said the following about leaning out over your skis:
I’m a skier. As most people intuit, this expression means getting ahead of yourself. In skiing, getting out over your skis has a particular connotation; to ski aggressively and in control on a steep slope you have to lean forward over the fronts of the skis (because you will be using the front part of the skis to turn, rather than the middle which is the norm on less steep slopes). Leaning forward on a steep slope is counter-intuitive because the natural reaction if you start to lose control is to lean back, which does not usually end well. Getting too far forward doesn’t end well either, but it’s a much less common mistake because it’s a very uncomfortable place to be — leaning hard forward down a steep slope — and you have to be overly aggressive to make it.
If you wanted a hearty laugh you’d invite me skiing and watch me repeatedly fall all over myself. I’m not much of a skier, but the analogy of leaning out over your skis is so very apt for developing economically valuable expertise.
In other professional services like law, medicine, and accounting, there are formal licensing and education systems that help practitioners develop expertise. There is, in other words, a system for developing expertise.
In our world of unlicensed professional services, there is no formal system for developing expertise. It’s all more or less ad hoc.
You get a feeling for what the market needs and values. Maybe you do this with a formal market research process like I teach, or maybe you kind of stumble your way into it. Either way, you end up with a sense for where there might be an opportunity you can capitalize on.
You improvise your way into developing the expertise needed to capitalize on that opportunity, often with little or no formal support along the way. Your willingness to listen deeply to your market, be assertive in your efforts to provide more value to them, and speculatively develop expertise before your clients ask for it are your best assets here.
The feeling of doing this is like leaning out over your skis. You feel close to losing control; close to a dangerous and painful crash.
But it’s also imperative that I point out that you’ll feel close to maximizing your potential in ways beyond your wildest dreams. And that, my friend, is a THRILLING feeling.
Depending on where you are today, leaning out over your skis might look like one or more of the following:
- Saying no for the first time to a prospective client that really is a bad fit.
- Asking a client “how’s business going this quarter?” for the first time.
- Deciding that this will be the year that you find a project that makes a measurable positive impact on a client’s financial performance and taking credit for that improvement in your subsequent marketing.
- Reaching out to and conducting customer development-style interviews with 10 business decision makers in a vertical that is of interest to you.
- Finding your first project where you are expected to make a risky, consequential decision with or on behalf of your client.
Those are just a few of the many many ways you could lean a bit further out over your skis. I bet you don’t crash. And I bet you find the ride more satisfying; more thrilling.