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The Things We Are Good At
by Moira Allen
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Rather than vanishing into my subconscious as compliments are apt to do, however, this one kept nagging at the fringes of thought. Yes, I'm "good" at HTML. But it began to occur to me that being "good" at something is not always, in fact, a "good" thing.
We're all good at lots of stuff, sometimes whether we know it or not. Often, we don't fully appreciate what we are good at, because those skills have become second nature. We don't think, for example, "Wow, I'm really good at washing dishes!" We just get on with washing the dishes. Often, we become good at something because we had no choice but to do it ourselves. When I started creating my own websites, back in the Dark Ages when Facebook wasn't even a gleam in someone's eye (when, in fact, its founder wasn't even out of grade school), I had little choice but to learn to do it myself. Web designers were something only big companies could afford. Fortunately, HTML is based on the same principles as a coding language I already knew: Wylbur. (If you remember Wylbur, let's get together sometime over a nice hot cup of Geritol!) Over the years, I've gotten pretty good at it.
So, over the years, I've done a lot of web work. Not that this is a bad thing, but... a couple of months ago, a "quick fix" to Writing-World.com turned into a four-week HTML marathon. And while I'm pleased with the results, it occurs to me that if I weren't "good" at HTML, I wouldn't have spent four weeks tweaking code. Instead, I'd have called my trusty web designer (I'd need one, if I didn't know HTML), and simply say "make it so." And then... I'd have done something else with those four weeks. Possibly, something more important. One problem with being "good" at something is that, quite often, we feel this obligates us to do it ourselves. Part of that is based in the same sort of thrift issues that may have caused us to develop that skill in the first place: If I can do my own HTML, wouldn't it be silly to pay someone else to do it? While we generally see the logic in hiring someone to do something we can't do, it appears, on the surface, to make less sense to hire someone to do something we can do.
Another problem with being "good" at something is that it's easy to limit our efforts to those things we are good at -- particularly if they produce positive results. I was once extremely good at writing articles about pets. (I probably still am.) I had relationships with several pet magazines, which kept the assignments and the money flowing in, so freelance-wise, that was pretty much all I did. Then, in the space of a few months, my best markets got bought up or shut down or the editors moved on, and suddenly I faced the realization that I'd better get good at something else -- quickly!
Being good at something generally means that we're comfortable with it. The better we are at a particular task or skill, the less stress it involves. We may not particularly enjoy it (HTML is not exactly stimulating), but it doesn't disturb our comfort level. As I discovered the hard way with pet writing, doing what one is "good" at is a very good way to get stuck in one's comfort zone.
The problem with being "good at" things is exacerbated when, as is the case with many writers, we are good at quite a lot of different things. I suspect this is a problem with most creative types, because if you're creative, chances are that you have more than one outlet or interest for that creativity. It's creative types who have 15 different unfinished projects stashed around the house. (Think about it -- we start them because we're creative. People who aren't strongly interested in "creating" are far less likely to start a bunch of craft projects -- and so are spared this plethora of unfinished projects in their lives!) For example, I have by the couch a needlepoint project I started seven years ago, and I'm trying to finish knitting a scarf I've been working on for at least two years. More to the point, I started this year with a lengthy list of work-related projects -- and so many new tasks have come up since January that I haven't even touched the original list.
Being good at a lot of things can mean that we are continually adding those things to our "to-do" lists, based on the principle that if we're good at it, we should be the person to do it. Again, this problem often arises out of thrift. Early in one's writing career, one learns to become a "jack of all trades" -- because on the limited budget of a freelance writer, the only way to get something done is to do it oneself. It's a lesson we carry with us, deeply internalized, even when (a) we no longer need it and (b) it may actually be doing us more harm than good.
One of the things that we need to learn at some point in our writing careers is how to determine the difference between "things I can do well" and "things only I can do well." At least, it's something I know I certainly need to learn -- and I'm sure I'm not alone! Sure, I'm "good" at HTML -- but so are many other people, including people who actually do HTML for a living. I can hire someone to manage my website; I can't hire someone to write my novel.
So, as we face the fact that nearly half the year is already behind us, we may also need to face the fact that our to-do lists are never going to turn into "hurray, job well done" lists unless we learn one more vital skill: The art of delegation. We need to learn how to hand off things, even things that we're very good at, so that we can focus on the things that we are best at.
Here are some questions that I'll be asking myself as I examine my project list for the rest of the year -- questions that I believe every writer needs to ponder:
Of course, we're bound to run into situations when the answer is simply yes, I'm the best person for the job, I'm the only person for the job, but... there just aren't enough hours in the day. And that's the time to take a deep breath and embrace the fact that, for most of us, this year is not going to go down in history as "the year I got everything done!" Even the stuff we're good at...
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.