I have a friend we’ll call Jeff. Jeff is a smart guy with a lot of talents. He’s started multiple seven-figure businesses. He could be a professional artist if he wanted to. He could do just about anything. And that’s why he was broke.
Jeff and I trade coaching services. One our monthly calls we often tell each other about great books we’re reading. I had just read The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, and I told Jeff about it, especially this concept the author shares about the “genius zone.” There are actually four zones Hendricks talks about in his book:
- The zone of incompetence: In this zone, you are engaging in something you are simply not good at. This is me trying to dance in the ballet.
- The zone of competence: You can get the job done, but no better than the next person.
- The zone of excellence: In this zone, you are doing something you are very, very good at compared to most other people.
- The zone of genius: When you’re in your genius zone, are in what author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” You’re taking advantage of your natural talents and doing what you earnestly enjoy. You have what could almost be called an “unfair advantage” over your competition.
Most of us don’t struggle too much with the first two zones. Where we get into real trouble is when we allow our zone of excellence, or what I like to call our expert zone, to get in the way of our genius zone, our calling.
My friend Jeff was spending too much time in his expert zone. He would come across an opportunity and think “I could be good at this. I could be very good at this,” and then he felt obligated to invest his time and resources into it. We only discussed The Big Leap for a few minutes, but it changed Jeff’s entire perspective. The next time we had a call he said “I realized I don’t have to do something just because I’m really good at it.”
Your problem is not that you’re not an expert at anything, but that you’re too good at too many things. You know too much, and it paralyzes you because you can’t choose between good, better, and best. That’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. The antidote is to find your genius zone, the area where you can contribute something truly unique.
Identify Your Expert Zones
To find your genius zone, first identify your expert zones. Here are a few of mine:
For example, I’ve run a marketing agency for 20 years, so marketing is definitely one of my expert zones. I’ve also lived in China, so compared to someone who has never lived in China, I could be called an expert. Note that you don’t need to be The Best or The Most Knowledgeable at something in order to be an expert. Here’s an abbreviated list of my expert zones:
- Thought leadership
- Public speaking
- Email list building
- Online course building
You don’t have to be THE BEST at something to be an expert, you just need to be good enough at it, or know enough about it, to help someone who knows nothing. When I moved to Hong Kong in 2013 I got into trail running and I had just begun to write for Forbes and other publications. In Mui Wo, the village where I lived, I met the owner/editor of Asia Trail Mag, the first publication in Asia focused on trail running. He asked me to write articles for his magazine, but I told him “I’m just starting out, I don’t really know anything about trail running, I’m not an expert.”
“That’s ok, you can write the beginner’s section,” he said.
Each month I would think of a question I had (and I had a lot, since I was a beginner), and then I would research it and find the answer. Once I found the answer, I would write an article about it.
If you don’t know anything yourself, you can become an expert by researching the topic and staying one step ahead of your audience, or interviewing other experts. If you’re having trouble coming up with expert zones, list your “interest zones.”
Next, start overlapping your expert zones to find potential genius zones.
For example, I know a few things about marketing, but so do a lot of other people. I know a few things about skateboarding, but so do a lot of other people. But when you put the two together, I’m in a very small group of people who know as much about marketing and skateboarding.
I haven’t chosen to make that intersection my focus–right now I’m focused on thought leadership, influence, and LinkedIn, but you get the point.
Your genius zone might be made from combining two areas, or three, or four, or ten. Your genius zone might be your language + your home country + your college degree + work experience + a hobby, or some completely different combination of skills, traits, and experiences.
While your genius zone may be related to innate talents and abilities you possess, you don’t need to feel pigeonholed. You can choose what you want your genius zone to be and work towards it.
What position do you want to occupy in your audience’s mind? — Al Ries and Jack Trout, Positioning
The magic of the genius zone is that once you find it, it makes it a lot easier to focus and come up with ideas for content. It makes it easier to pinpoint who your audience is and speak to them effectively. It makes your service to your audience much more meaningful and valuable, not to mention fulfilling.
Homework: Find Your Genius Zone
- What are your expert zones? List everything you can think of, even if it seems very basic. For example, having grown up in the US I know a lot more about the US than I do about China and Brazil, and yet it might not occur to me to list that I’m an expert on the US because, well, to someone living in the US that doesn’t seem very special. However, compared to someone who grew up in China and has never been to the US, my expert-level on what it’s like to live in the US is off the charts. To give another example, if you’re 15 years old, you might not feel like an expert at much, but compared to a 70 year old, you are an expert at what it’s like to be a 15 year old today. Some 15 year olds have leveraged this expertise to become consultants to Fortune 500 companies that are trying to figure out how to sell to today’s teens.
- What’s your One Big Key Zone? From your list of expert zones, there is one big thing that has to be included. What is it? If you have 30 years of marketing experience, it’s probably marketing. To create a genius zone without it would be virtually impossible. What can’t be left out of your list as you narrow it down? This is your One Big Key Zone.
- What are your secondary key zones? I was once coaching a woman from Singapore who had been doing business in China for 15 years and as we spoke about her key zones it became clear she had a special affinity for helping female, Asian entrepreneurs who were trying to break through and make it big. And no wonder, because this is who she had been a few years before. She got these women, understood their struggles, and knew what they needed and how to assist them. Some of her key zones were; female, Asian, entrepreneur, entering China.
Chances are, the overlap of your One Big Key Zone with your secondary key zones is jumping out at you and you’re realizing “This is it. This is my calling.” If you’re not feeling this, play around with those key zones, and don’t be afraid to try a different One Big Key Zone if you’re not 100% sure about it.
What’s your genius zone? Tell me in the comments below, or if you’re struggling to find it, tell me about that struggle and let’s work on it together.Liked it? Share it!