This is the second in a series of posts about how to leverage The 7 Systems of Influence to become a better author. If you want to start from the beginning or find links to all the posts in this series, go here.
Would you like to do work that is both intellectually stimulating and pays you well? That’s the power of your genius zone, a concept I first became familiar with after reading The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. What’s more, working within your genius zone means your life will be 10x as productive, because working in your genius zone is easy.
Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction. – Gay Hendricks
Your genius zone is your unique combination of:
When you find the right mix it’s like having a superpower or an “unfair advantage”—you can do things nobody else can, and as an author you will be able to write about things nobody else can. When you operate in your genius zone, success comes so easily it appears almost magical. What’s more, your genius zone will point the way to what your book will be about.
If something is easy for you, but hard for other people—that’s your book topic. — Tucker Max
Several years ago, I was invited to help a professor at the Harvard Business School (HBS) write an academic journal article. I had never written an academic article before, but I had written hundreds of business articles for well-known publications, plus my first book had just come out, so how hard could it be?
Academic journal articles, it turns out, require a completely different type of writing than what I was used to. I needed time to wrap my head around it. Unfortunately, time was in short supply because I was running a business and preparing to move to a new country. I tried to complete the project but was unable to and had to apologize and back out. I felt like I had let my co-authors down and burned a bridge.
Years later, I was invited by a different professor at HBS to co-author a case study with him and another HBS professor. This time, I did my research ahead of time and committed to the project only after I was confident I could do the required work. Case studies are easier to write than journal articles, and I was able to easily complete the project. In fact, it was so easy, I felt guilty to have my name on the case study as a co-author and felt like I should apologize to the professors and tell them, “I didn’t really do anything.”
My wife talked some sense into me. “Just because it was easy for you doesn’t mean you didn’t add value,” she said. “In fact, you probably added more value.”
“It just felt too easy,” I said. “Not at all like trying to write that journal article years ago.”
That’s when my wife drove the lesson home. “Yeah, it was easy this time because you were in your genius zone. When you were trying to write that journal article you were in your idiot zone.”
Although working within your genius zone allows you to take advantage of your strengths, don’t make the mistake of leaving your weaknesses off your list of expert zones. Sometimes, a weakness can form a critical part of your genius zone. For example, during the 20+ years I’ve been an entrepreneur I’ve made a LOT of mistakes. Making mistakes might seem like a weakness, but those mistakes allow me to empathize with other entrepreneurs who are going through tough times. That empathy helps me to assist them through their challenges. Don’t hold back as you work to find your genius zone, because what you think of as a weakness might be your greatest strength when it comes to making your vision reality.
STEP 1: LIST YOUR EXPERT ZONES
To find your genius zone, list your “expert zones.” These include demographic information such as age, gender, language, occupation, nationality, etc. but also your skills, hobbies, interests, degrees earned, places you’ve lived, industries you’ve worked in, and other experiences you’ve had.
What does it take to be an expert? Does it take 10,000 hours of practice? A PhD? Recognition in the mainstream media? No, we’re not looking for that level of expertise. Perhaps this illustration will help explain what you need to consider yourself an “expert.”
Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest man. He can run 27 mph, at least for a few seconds.
Your average bear can run up to 35 mph, and do it for longer than Mr. Bolt can.
Now, imagine you’re out in the forest with a friend, and you’re suddenly confronted by a bear that begins to charge both of you.
How fast do you have to run to survive?
Answer: Faster than your friend.
To be an “expert” at something, all you have to know is a little more about your topic than your audience.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about tricking people into thinking you’re an expert when you really aren’t. Instead, it’s the fact that when you know something someone else doesn’t, even if it’s just a little thing, then you can serve them. You can share your knowledge and lift them to where you stand.
When I moved with my family to Hong Kong in 2013, we settled down in a small fishing village called Mui Wo. Coincidentally, Mui Wo is the ideal place in the world to live if you love trail running, and I had discovered the joy of trail running just before moving to Asia.
Not long after moving to Mui Wo, I met the founder of the largest trail running magazine in Asia. When he found out I was into trail running and also wrote for Forbes, he asked me to write articles for his magazine. I was interested, but due to being so new to trail running, I didn’t feel qualified and told him so.
“That’s ok,” he said, “We’ll let you write the beginner’s section.”
Each month, my job was to take a question I had about trail running (as a beginner, I had a lot of questions!), research it, and write an article that would appeal to someone who was a beginner, just like me.
It turned out I was ideally suited to this kind of writing because I could relate to beginners in a way none of the magazine’s other writers could. They had forgotten what it was like to be a novice, whereas for me, being a novice was something I was an expert at. Staying one step ahead of my audience through research gave me just enough knowledge to serve them.
Today, a partial list of my expert zones include:
- CEO role
- Chinese (language)
- CMO role
- Gen X
- Trail running
To drive home the point that you don’t have to be the best in a field to add it to your list of expert zones, I included Chinese. Although I lived in China for two years, studied Chinese, and can speak enough to get by in restaurants and taxis, I’m nowhere close to fluent. However, expert status is relative. Compared to someone who has never lived in China and speaks absolutely no Chinese, I am an expert. I know enough to help someone who knows nothing.
Similarly, I’ve never been directly involved in politics beyond voting, but I enjoy following political news and reading books about economics, government, and political thought, so I added it to my list. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with my current dreams, because I can’t predict what may come in handy or when. If I was approached tomorrow by someone who asked “Could you customize your talk on the 7 Systems for an audience in DC that’s focused on politics?” then it would instantly be relevant.
Don’t hold back. You can’t put too many expert zones on this list. You never know what interesting overlaps you may find.
What are all your expert zones? Write them down.
We’ll now use your expert zones to find your genius zone. This is where we want to think about your vision and which expert zones will be necessary to make your vision reality. To do this, you’ll overlap two or more expert zones to find interesting and unique combinations.
For example, skateboarding is one of my expert zones. I grew up skateboarding, ran a retail skateboard store in high school and college, and have stayed loosely involved in the industry over the years. However, by itself, that’s not worth much. There are too many other people out there with more experience in the skateboarding industry than I have.
Another of my expert zones is marketing. I ran a marketing agency for twenty years and worked on thousands of projects and campaigns. But that’s still not enough that I could say my genius zone is marketing, all by itself. There are too many other people out there with more experience in marketing than I have, and too many parts of marketing where I lack expertise.
However, what if I overlap those two areas? What if I ask “How many people know as much about skateboarding and marketing as I do?”
Perhaps ten to twenty people in the entire world have the kind of experience I do. If my vision included getting a job in the skateboard industry, I could make this my genius zone, go to Nike or Adidas, and make a strong case that if they hired me I could help them sell a lot of shoes.
Although I only show two expert zones in the diagrams above for the sake of the example, a real genius zone will be more likely to include three to five expert zones.
Got it? Let’s move on to Step 2 of finding your genius zone.
STEP 2: CHOOSE YOUR TOP EXPERT ZONE
Which ONE of your expert zones has to be part of your genius zone? Surprise—it’s not writing. You don’t have to be a great writer, or even a good one, to become the author of a great book. Instead, your top expert zone should be the main thing you do, or that you’re known for, or that you want to be known for. For example, if your business is in the HR industry, you’re an HR expert, and you’re writing a book that deals with HR issues, then I feel pretty comfortable saying that your top expert zone is probably HR. No need to overcomplicate this.
What is your primary expert zone? Write it down.
STEP 3: CHOOSE YOUR OTHER KEY EXPERT ZONES
What other expert zones combine or overlap with your primary expert zone to make you ideally suited to turn your vision for your book into reality? List at least two, and no more than ten.
What are your secondary expert zones? Write them down.
STEP 4: FIND YOUR SUPERPOWER
When I was a little kid, sometimes I would walk down the street and hang out at the house of an older woman from Mexico named Josi. My mom called it “babysitting,” but I felt like Josi was my friend, and every time my mom tried to pay Josi, Josi would give the money to me and tell me to give it back to my mom.
Josi wasn’t just my friend, she was a friend to all the kids in the neighborhood. There were usually five to ten of us at her house at any given time whether it was after school or during the day in the summer. We liked to hang out at her house because she was like that grandparent who lets you do whatever you want, plus she would make us slushies by freezing fruit punch in small metal cups, which we would then chip away at with spoons while we watched TV. My parents only allowed me to watch TV on weekends, and only when the family was watching, so that alone was a big bonus to hanging out at Josi’s house.
One of the shows I remember watching at Josi’s was the old black and white version of Superman.
Unlike the Christopher Reeves Superman of the 80s, the black and white Superman (played by George Reeves, no relation to Christopher) was a bit pudgy, old, and balding, and he didn’t look all that strong. Regardless, I enjoyed watching the show that always started out with the narrator’s powerful voice booming out:
Faster than a speeding bullet.
More powerful than a locomotive.
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!
I sometimes dreamed what it would be like to fly around like Superman, jump over buildings, and have unlimited strength. What would it be like to have those powers? However, when I began to work on the 7 Systems I realized Superman’s true superpower wasn’t any of those abilities. Instead, Superman’s powers, combined with his goodness, formed his genius zone. Superman’s superpower was his ability to save lives nobody else could save, often by defeating enemies nobody else could defeat.
It’s the same with all other superheroes. What fun would it be to watch a movie about a superhero who does things someone else could do? The entire premise of superheroes as an archetype is that they can do what nobody else can.
You are also a superhero. You have superpowers and can do things nobody else can. Your genius zone is not your superpower but it’s where your superpower comes from.
Are you a parent? Then your genius zone includes everything you know about parenting, your love for your child, and one more thing—the fact you’re the parent. We all feel inadequate as parents, but in our children’s eyes, there is nobody who can replace us. Nobody can do what we do for our children.
It would be a shame if Superman spent his time fixing leaky toilets and rescuing cats from trees. Any competent plumber or random ladder-carrier can do those things. It would also be a shame if you spent your time doing things others can do just as well or better than you can. Your time is too valuable for you to not use the superpowers you’ve been gifted with.
What are some of your superpowers that relate to your role as an author and thought leader? What can you do in these roles that nobody else can? Write down at least one superpower, but more if you’re not sure which one to focus on. You can always come back and edit this later.
Your superpower(s). Write them down.
You now have a vision for your book and you know why you’re the right person to make it happen. The next question is, “Who do you want to influence?”
YOUR GENIUS ZONE & YOUR CALLING
Another factor that influences your genius zone is your calling, mission, or purpose in life. Some of us feel born to do a certain something, but when we’re born, we lack the abilities to do it and must develop them. If your genius zone doesn’t perfectly suit your calling, don’t let that stop you. Instead, learn what you need to know, develop the necessary skills, and collect the experiences that will build the genius zone you need to rise to and fulfill your calling.
PONDER, ACT, & ASK
Think about what you have learned from System 2: Genius Zone and consider what you can do with it.
What are the most meaningful things I learned in this section? Write it down.
What will I do as a result of what I learned in this section? Write it down.
Want to get free book coaching? Sign up for my masterclass.
SYSTEM 2: GENIUS ZONE — ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
- The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks
- The Genius Zone by Gay Hendricks
- Discover Your Genius by Michael J. Gelb
- How the World Sees You by Sally Hogshead
- StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- The Path Made Clear by Oprah Winfrey
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- Reinventing You by Dorie Clark
- Peak by Anders Ericsson and Andrew Pool
- Different by Youngme Moon
- Play Bigger by Al Ramadan et al.
- Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout
- Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
- Influencer by Kerry Patterson et al.
- The Art of Work by Jeff Goins
WEEKLY BOOK COACHING
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