Take Off Your Blinders and Branch Out

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Branch out.

That’s my mandate/order/request/challenge to you today. Branch out.

Let’s face it, most of us live our lives on autopilot. We get up at the same time every day, we eat the same things for breakfast, drive the same route to work, listen to the same radio stations, read the same books, talk to the same people. And the sad thing is that we seem fine with that.

award winning performanceWhatever happened to curiosity? Curiosity about the world, about other people, about other ideas. Whatever happened to the idea of being a well-rounded person? (Not just a round person—we all know that there’s a weight problem in America.) It’s been replaced by the new gold standard: specialization and expertise. We get really good at one thing and one thing only.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with specialization and expertise. There is something wrong with specialization and expertise to the exclusion of all else!

I have what I think is a better model. It is, admittedly, an oversimplified model, but here it is:

Become a jack-of-all-trades and master of one.

That’s right—I said master of one. To achieve award-winning performance, you do have to have one area where you are an undeniable expert. You can have more than one, but you must have at least one. In many of my speaking engagements and private coaching conversations I challenge people to answer the following question:

What is it that you can do better than anyone else?

So that’s an important focus. But if that’s all you focus on, you’re missing the boat. When you branch out, you open yourself up to entire new worlds.

“So what?” you say, somewhat belligerently. “I like the world I’m in.”

Fair enough. So here are just three things you gain when you branch out and bring new information, new ideas, and new people into your life:

1. You start to see connections that the competition misses.

We all know how important creativity is in today’s ultra-competitive world. It’s a world where the next great idea wins, while the rest of us just play catch-up. But what is creativity, really? It’s nothing more than seeing connections that the others miss. And it’s hard to see creative connections through the myopia of specialization. Take your intellectual blinders off. Read outside of your area of expertise. Biographies are especially good (particularly biographies of people you think you have no interest in); so is great fiction. Once a month, have lunch with someone outside of your normal circle—and outside of your particular field. If you’re a businessperson, have lunch with a beekeeper. If you’re a retailer, have lunch with a history professor. If you’re a Republican, have lunch with a Democrat (and vice versa). Why? Because creativity is a game of connect-the-dots, and you never know where the next dot—the one that completes the picture—is going to come from.

2. You become a more interesting—and more successful—person.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but people don’t want to talk about your interests. They want to talk about their interests. And to the degree that you can have a conversation with them about their interests, they will find you fascinating! Here’s my benchmark:

I like to know enough about everything that I can ask an expert an interesting question about their topic.

If you can do that, they’ll take care of the rest. I remember being at a party once where I found myself talking with a doctoral student in Russian history. I said to him, “I don’t know much about Russian history, but it seems to me that Czar Nicholas II was a great husband, but a very weak czar. What do you think?” That question comprised pretty much my entire knowledge of Russian history (I read a biography of Czar Nicholas II once, years before), but it was the catalyst for a wonderful half-hour conversation—a conversation during which I may have asked two or three follow up questions, but that’s it. The student did virtually all of the talking. Later on he said to me, “I’m so glad I ran into you; I was afraid this was going to be another one of those boring parties.”

Now, picture yourself in that same situation—except instead of a doctoral student, you’re talking the boss’s husband, or a potential big client. If you can find out what they’re interested in, and ask them an interesting question about that topic, you’ll be perceived as an interesting person in your own right—and one that they’ll want to keep an eye on. But you can’t do that if all you can talk about is your stamp collecting hobby.

3. You’ll enjoy life more.

It’s a rich world out there. I don’t mean just in financial terms, although that’s true as well. Our world is rich in art, in music, in history, in politics, philosophy, economics, science, and a multitude of other things. You are doing yourself a huge disservice if you choose to isolate yourself from 99.9% of what the world has to offer—and yet people do it all the time.

Have you ever had this experience? Somebody tells you—or maybe you read in the newspaper or a magazine—some little factoid, some little piece of trivia that makes you smile and think, “I didn’t know that!” For example, I just read that humans share 60% of their DNA with a banana (I think the percentage is higher for some of my friends and most members of Congress). That’s a fun little fact. And the world is full of them!

There are 7 billion people alive on the planet, and each one has at least one unique story that you don’t know. That woman that you just passed on the sidewalk? She might be the one with the missing piece to your puzzle.

Life is meant to be lived, and you can’t really live it from a hole in the ground. Come on up where the sun is shining. See what else there is to experience.

Branch out.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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  • Brian Walter says:


    Reminds me of a business dinner I had in the 80s. My wife Karen was a food broker and we went to dinner with some Safeway buyers. I was the “spouse” along for the ride. I was seated next to the buyer and heard him mention that he was in the National Guard and was in charge of a tank, a “Sheridan.” My sole military involvement in the past was building plastic models when I was a kid. But I remembered building that one. So, when I replied with, “Is that the one with the 90 mm cannon?”…he looked at me in shock. Then he launched into an enthusiastic and enlightening discussion about the merits of various tanks. It was fascinating and fun to engage in a conversation on a topic that has never been repeated.

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