Is it defeatist to concentrate on what you’re good at?

CC0 Clem Onojeghuo (via Unsplash)

A book I’ve been gifting recently, especially to clients, is Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself. It’s a short book, applicable to almost everyone, and earlier this week I was discussing a very particular part of it with someone.

It’s a difficult section to quote directly but, basically, Drucker’s point is that we spend too long trying to get ourselves and others up to a mediocre standard of competence. Instead, we should focus our efforts on helping ourselves and others move from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’. Initially, this feels a little defeatist to those involved in learning and development, as it suggests that not everyone can be good at everything.

As someone’s who reads Stoic philosophy most days, I’m more sympathetic to Drucker’s position than my interlocutor was. For example, take this passage in Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life:

You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition take you… Inborn disposition s do not respond well to compulsion, and we labour in vain against nature’s opposition.

According to my observation scores, I was a good teacher, but it felt like being on stage every day. It wasn’t sustainable, long-term. I much prefer the situation I’ve got now, where I keynote conferences, run workshops, and organise webinars รข€” but all on my own terms.

In Montaigne’s Essays (‘On Solitude’)he offers some advice for those choosing a career:

The occupation we must choose for a life like this one should be neither toilsome nor painful (otherwise we should have vainly proposed seeking such leisure). It depends on each man’s individual taste.

Until I became a parent, I was convinced that 99% of who we are and how we act was environmental. Now that I’ve got two (quite different) children, and reflected on my own life, I’m now wondering if that figure is even 50%. If I’m right in my recently-revised opinions, then what Drucker states makes sense; we should focus on what we’re good at, and become excellent at those things.

I don’t think that’s defeatist at all.