How To Do Great Work
Nobody sets out to be average. Nobody wants to reach the end of the road feeling that they haven’t fulfilled their potential. We all want to do great work.
Great work is a form of wizardry. People who do great work are wizards. The path to wizardry can be summed up in one sentence: surround yourself with wizards.
It seems naively simple, but when you get to the end of this essay you’ll understand why on the quest to do great work, the only thing that matters is whether you’ve been surrounded by wizards or not.
Great work doesn’t come from moments of magic. It comes from making incremental improvements over a long enough time for them to compound. Steph Smith wrote an essay about this where she arrives at the conclusion that great is just good, but repeatable. The image below summarises the argument.
If great work is just good work done repeatedly, two questions need to be answered:
- How do you do good work?
- How do you do it consistently?
The answer to both is simple: surround yourself with wizards.
THE GOOD WORK PART
When I was 13 years old I made the challenging jump from junior to senior cricket. The players were physically and mentally stronger, and far more mature. The coaching was more intense, the fitness requirements whizzed up a notch, and everything seemed to shift from 0 to 60 extremely quickly.
One of the players on the team was phenomenal. In my first game for the side, he walked in to bat and hit 5 fours off his first 5 balls. He was retired and he walked off the field as if nothing had happened. It was magic. That was my first encounter with a wizard.
Wizards do work that is not only brilliant in its own right but work that makes everyone around them better. Our team was filled with an unrivalled sense of confidence. It's what makes wizards valuable. It's why we want to be wizards.
That season was a phenomenal experience. Even though we were on the same team, and logically we were playing at the same level, it seemed like the skills required were completely different. You couldn’t compare my abilities with his. I improved more in that season than in any other.
It leads me to wonder how one person on one team helped me produce good work for years to come. The best explanation I’ve come across is tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge and skills we pick up from the people around us and it plays a disproportionately large role in doing good work.
Tacit knowledge is challenging to wrap your head around. This anecdote from an essay series on the topic provides context:
“Gallwey (a tennis coach) relays the story of teaching a student without explicit instruction: “I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations to beginning players about the proper grip, stroke and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind several times and then just let his body imitate.” It worked. Gallwey concluded: “I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results.”
Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be captured through words alone. It’s what’s on display when you ask someone how they did something and they tell you that "it just felt right.”
Tacit knowledge is a catalyst that transforms average people with average skills into people with the intuition and know-how to produce good work. It’s not to say that you can’t do good work without it, but you’re far more likely to succeed with it and as a result of it.
When learning a new skill, your tacit knowledge resources start at zero. Over time they increase and the quality of your work increases with them. Time spent with wizards reduces the effort required to develop tacit knowledge and produce good work. Why? Because when learning, images are better than words, showing better than telling, and too much instruction worse than none. When you question and imitate wizards, you learn extremely quickly. You place yourself on the shortest path to doing good work.
It happens because stress elicits growth. Place your body under stress and it’ll overshoot and overprepare in response. It’s how you get stronger and more capable. Do it often enough and good work becomes your default.
In theory, it’s simple: place yourself under sufficient stress to elicit desired growth. In practice, it’s more complicated. Imagine I went to the gym every day and pushed myself as hard as I could. I’d see growth, but would it be the most growth I’m capable of? Probably not. My biological and nutritional knowledge would let me down, and it would be far tougher to remain motivated when in pursuit of this goal by myself.
Intellectual and career growth works in the same way. I can push myself to read more books and learn new skills. I’ll grow, but will I reach the levels I’m capable of without the right environment? Probably not. To get a more accurate picture of the type of growth you’re capable of, you need to be in an environment that fosters and values growth.
Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify, began an apprenticeship at the age of 16. In an essay he wrote about the experience, he says the following:
That is an enormous statement. It comes from someone the CEO of a $120 billion-dollar company. For him to attribute a move to the basement as the most important thing to happen in professional life shows the importance of environment.
- Great work is just good work, done repeatably.
- Tacit knowledge is the catalyst that transforms average work into good work.
- You acquire tacit knowledge by placing yourself in an environment where the people around you are better than you. Stress leads to growth. Growth leads to good work.
CONSISTENCY, CONSISTENCY, CONSISTENCY
Environment plays an important role in doing good work, but it’s unlikely that it’s the only way to produce good work. It’s simply one that is effective for most people.
It’s not uncommon for people to produce good work, but it is uncommon for them to sustain it over a long period of time. To maintain consistency, environment is non-negotiable.
There’s a part of Paul Graham’s Cities and Ambition that reads:
I thought about this for days. If I am trying to do good work on a consistent basis and my environment isn’t suitable, I don’t stand much of a chance. I’m gritty and stubborn, but if 15th century Milanese Leonardo couldn’t do it, I don’t fancy my odds.
Even if I did manage to win the battle against my environment, it would require plenty of energy and determination which would be better spent on trying to improve the quality of my work. If environment is so powerful, using it as a tailwind seems a more effective strategy.
People are the critical component of any good environment, for two reasons:
- Your habits and behaviour align with theirs.
- Your interests and motivation fluctuate with theirs.
I suspect that in pursuit of greatness, motivation and passion are two ingredients you’re likely to need. Not because you can’t produce great work in areas that you’re not passionate about - I doubt that people in the portable toilet industry are passionate about shit, yet successful companies continue to emerge from the near $25 billion market - but that doing great work requires time.
The correct environment for you is the one where the people around you care about the things that you do. When the people around you care about the things you wish to care about, it becomes easy to do the same.
In neuroscience, long-term potentiation is the persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent patterns of activity. In the context of your environment, the people you’re surrounded by determine the behaviours and beliefs that get strengthened.
Put a lot of cynical people in one place and they become more cynical. Put a lot of ambitious people in one place and they become more ambitious. Put a lot of wizards in one place and they become more wizardly. If you want to learn to produce magic, surround yourself with wizards. By spending time around them, you can’t help but develop the same traits.
The pursuit of greatness is an uphill battle. Being surrounded by people that motivate and inspire you reduces the friction associated with getting to the top.
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY
Joseph Tussman has a fantastic saying:
“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”
Placing yourself in the correct environment is like finding yourself in a riptide - you can’t help but get pulled along with it. The riptide represents a leverage point: a place where little effort produces large output.
Most of us understand this or at least have an intuition about it, but we struggle to identify leverage points. Developing tacit knowledge will help you navigate the sea you’re in and find the riptides heading in the direction you want to go. Your effort will compound to the point where it becomes near impossible to not do great work.
This is an essay about how to become a wizard. It's about doing work that isn't only great in its own right, but work that inspires the people around you to be as good as they can be.
Surrounding yourself with wizards is the first step of this journey. The time you spend around them will transform you from an average person with average skills, into someone with the intuition and know-how to produce good work on a consistent basis. Great work is just good work, but repeatable.
You won’t get your wizard hat straight away, but each day that you spend surrounded by wizards and the magic that they produce will take you closer than you were before.