The Importance of Mastery and Working Smart

min read

Jack Suess is Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

This is the second in my blog post series building on Richard St. John's TED Talk "8 Secrets of Success." The first post in the series, "Finding Your Secrets to Success," was about finding your passion. Today's post will combine two of the eight secrets that I feel are related: get good at something; and learn to work hard.

I chose these two topics because I'm assuming that readers are looking for ways to advance their skills. The most valuable skill we can teach students as undergraduates is how to learn on their own. As you get your first job, or enter a new area of responsibility, how you approach mastering your craft—your chosen field—is critical to your future success. In the field of information technology, those who move into management often got noticed for their abilities in their job and were given added responsibility or higher-profile projects.

My first piece of advice for how to become good at something is to spend some time surveying the field. The model of mastery I discuss with students is to think about levels of mastery, such as those seen in programs like martial arts or scouting. These programs emphasize that mastery is a journey. To keep you on track and to motivate you, they provide many indicators of progress (e.g., badges or ribbons in scouting). These programs initially focus on having you master the basics. From that foundation, they all recognize that as you progress to a higher level of skill, the time or effort to achieve mastery will be greater. One of the hallmarks of these programs is that most people don't reach the highest level of mastery. That will be the same in the work world: getting good at a field may not require you to become a nationally known expert, but it does require some baseline level of mastery that allows you to know what is, and isn't, possible.

The challenge for many of us entering the workforce is that most organizations do not develop an individualized, multiyear plan to guide each employee's mastery of an area. If you don't work for an organization that does this, you are often on your own. What you need is something akin to a strategic plan for You Inc. In the 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell notes that many experts claim it takes roughly 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a field. Whether it is 2,000 or 10,000 hours, any plan that you develop should be thought of as a multiyear approach and should be reviewed regularly.

I suggest that students try to find people at a higher level of mastery and reach out to them to find out how they got to this point in their career. The question I encourage students to ask is, "Knowing what you do now, what lessons can you share and would you have done anything differently?" This is a great way to use LinkedIn; most people are willing to share advice when asked nicely. EDUCAUSE is another excellent resource: you can do a search on your area, look for people who regularly present at conferences, and then contact them to discuss their work. As you talk to a few people, you will find the commonalities that you need to build your own professional development plan. In addition, you are likely to build relationships with people who can help you as you progress in your career.

Another piece of advice I give students is to remember that in fields such as information technology, change is a constant. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that as new software or techniques are developed, you will need to allocate time to stay current in your field. The opportunity is that as change occurs, new situations open up in IT areas that didn't even exist a few years ago. One of the key ways I stay abreast is by reading EDUCAUSE Review and participating in EDUCAUSE and Internet2. These organizations allow me to tap the best thinking in higher education. Managing change requires that you regularly assess your professional development plan. As new opportunities arise, weighing those opportunities as adjustments to your professional development plan is a critical part of your career planning.

I'll digress for a moment and tell a personal story. I started my career in programming and then quickly moved into system programming and system administration. I taught assembly language programming in the computer science department as an adjunct, and I was able to work with the early versions of UNIX in the mid-1980s. I designed our network and set up most of the TCP/IP network on campus—in other words, I was deep into becoming a technical expert. Then, in the early 1990s, when I was working on a project to configure an online information system, I stumbled onto the World Wide Web (WWW) project. For over two years, I had the opportunity to refocus my work and lead a campus project to launch our first campus website. As part of that project, UMBC ended up developing our first campus portal. In creating the portal, I worked with staff in our administrative computing group to develop code to link our legacy student system to the portal. These projects caused me to work with a large number of campus stakeholders outside of the IT organization and took my career in a different direction. Instead of continuing as a technical expert, I was tapped—through the relationships I had developed—to manage the department. Ultimately, this led to my being named Director of Information Technology. Being willing to take a chance on a new and unproven technology (the WWW) made a real difference in my career.

The second secret to success that I want to discuss today is how to work hard but smart. I'm assuming everyone already works hard. To get good at something often requires being willing to put in extra time—usually outside of the standard workday—to stay abreast of the field and build expertise. I tell students that careers are the ultimate marathon and that it is critical to not burn out. People often are so eager to become experts that they try to do in two to three years what should take four to six years.

Moving too fast can come at the expense of your personal life. One book I share with many of my staff and with those I mentor is Robert Kelley's How to Be a Star at Work. Conducting a large amount of research when he was at Carnegie Mellon University, Kelley identified the key elements that cause some people to be seen as stars at work. He found that having emotional intelligence, being willing to serve the interests of the team, and building a personal network were the distinctive characteristics of high-performers vs. average performers. In his book, he offers advice on how you can build your strengths in all these areas.

Success is not about being the smartest; it is about being the most indispensable to the organization. I strongly recommend Kelley's book as one that shows you how to work smart. (Buying his book will be the best $12 you spend on Amazon.) By building your personal network inside and outside the organization, you expand your expertise by integrating what others know. We all need a Yoda. Learning early in your career that it is not necessary to work independently in building your expertise is often critical to reaching new levels of mastery and providing high value to your organization.

I'm interested in your comments and feedback. Have any of you put together a multiyear plan of what you want to accomplish? If so, how has that worked for you?