Pen{g}sieve Vol. 10: Build your system, then success becomes inevitable

“Why do people not getting better at something despite working very hard for a long time?”

How to get better at the things you care about, Ted Talk

Watching the Ted Talk, I realized that I had stopped growing on my previous job way before the event that shocked my career in the summer of 2019. I stopped growing because I was too busy getting things done and barely had any time to invest in my own system.

Why do people stagnate in their careers?

While my career did not look plateauing at the time from the outside, I felt the strain from the ever-increasing demands of my job inside. I was like an overloaded cellphone, running many shining new apps but on the same old operating system and hardware. My system was not ready for the next level. I was burnt out.

Changing from directly going after an outcome to patiently building up the system that generates the outcome is a powerful mind shift for me. I got a taste of the latter when I prepared for the interviews last year. The company I was interviewing had a rigorous process. With so many to prepare for and in a short time, I decided to boost up my learning efficiency (though it felt a bit late at the time). I signed up for two online courses — Learning How to Learn on subject-area learning techniques (e.g., the Pomodoro method) and Learning Ritual on experiential learning techniques (e.g., decision logs). It was the first time in a long while that I invested in improving a meta-skill like the ability to learn, and it paid off. I never expected that twenty years after graduate school, I could learn much more effectively after some training courses.

It is the fundamental skills, stupid!

Why had I not invested in improving learning skills until then? Because I always considered learning, like eating or walking, to be a skill acquired once and staying the same forever. I never believed that fundamental skills need to be improved. I was always after new skills and neglected the old ones that I was so used to taking for granted.

Then came the eureka moment — it is the fundamental skills that propel one up to the next level or hold one back down. The realization unlocks a new world for me. I started to pay attention to the smallest fundamental skills that can help me get a little bit better at what I do at the moment. I called it upgrading my fundamental skill map.

For the past six months, I focused on two fundamental skills — active listening and conversation skills — out of the necessity of transition to a new job. I took an online course called VIEW and deliberately practiced VIEW conversations in all my one-on-ones. Conversations are such a common activity in our lives, a boost in this one skill fundamentally changes the way I experience others and them experiencing me.

If people ask my secrete sauce of ramping up in the new job, I will contribute it to three of my newly upgraded fundamental skills — writing, active listening, and habit design — in addition to the beginner’s mindset. My new job experience taught me that, while technical skills are crucial, it is often the non-technical skills that set people apart.

Develop skills via the hierarchy of competency

I first encountered the hierarchy of competency in the Building a Second Brain course in September 2020. By then, I had already experienced rapid personal growth for more than a year. This picture, however, crystalized the framework of my growth — I grew by upgrading my old fundamental skills along the hierarchy of competency.

Take habit design as an example. We have all built new habits before, but very few people understand the process of habit formation and deliberately apply it as a tool. In my case, I was completely ignorant of habit design (i.e., unconscious incompetency) throughout my adult life until I read the book Atomic Habits in the summer of 2019 (i.e., conscious incompetence). Then I started to practice tiny habits and build my own system for the next two years(i.e., conscious competence). Today habit design becomes an integral part of my system. Not only did I start a newsletter to describe my system last October, but I also started a support group to help my friends build theirs a month ago (i.e., unconscious competence).

Reflecting on the past year, I saw much growth in several fundamental skills, most notably learning skills, writing, habit design, decision making, active listening, and conversation skills. The process of improvement always starts with awareness. When awareness becomes the intention to improve, I learn from good resources (books or online courses are my favorites), practice deliberately, then share and teach others.

How do all of these have anything to do with success? Success is the outcome of our system (with some luck). And our system consists of our habits, fundamental skills, and beliefs. If you find success at the next level is out of reach, it is probably because your system is not at the next level yet. Be patient and build the system, then success becomes inevitable.