A Methodology to Pit a Strength Against Your Perceived Weakness
I recently became aware of the concept of “Zone of Genius,” while having a conversation with our guest Elise Buie on The Thought Leadership Project podcast. Apparently, the concept was first introduced by Gay Hendricks in his book The Big Leap as a methodology to achieve one’s highest potential. More on that in a bit.
Another concept that has been a center of conversation lately, whether it be on our podcast, in articles we write and read, or more generally in conversations we’ve been having with attorneys and other professionals, is this notion of “imposter syndrome.” It’s a bit of a tragic moniker, in my view, as I am hearing more and more attorneys confess to suffering from this affliction—either at present or in the past—and I can’t help but hear echoes of self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy that are almost certainly unfair and unfounded.
But it’s not an entirely foreign concept to me, either. I suspect my English heritage and a clinical introversion have conspired to hardwire my own brain for imposter syndrome, as I find others are typically far more confident in me than I am in myself. Too often I might dismiss accolades as being signals of obligation—you know, the mother who proudly displays the scribblings of a toddler on the refrigerator door, despite its messy and frenetic shortcomings. This is how an introvert accepts praise: “Of course you’re going to speak highly of the project outcomes; you’re just being nice!”
So when I began to understand what is meant by “Zone of Genius,” it dawned on me. I realized what was at the root of my own imposter syndrome…and I finally had the cure. And now I’m ready to share it with like-minded professionals who resolve to overcome their own affliction in order to, once and for all, embrace the stature of “thought leader.”
Pitting One Against the Other
This Forbes article crystallizes the concepts in The Big Leap quite well:
Gay Hendricks identified four different zones of function in his book, The Big Leap.
The zone of incompetence: In this zone, you are engaging in something you inherently do not understand or are not skilled at.
The zone of competence: In this zone, you are doing what you are efficient at, but recognize that many people are likewise efficient at it, thus not distinguishing your capabilities in any significant way.
The zone of excellence: In this zone, you are doing something you are tremendously skilled at. Often, the zone of excellence is cultivated, it’s practiced and established over time.
The zone of genius: In this zone, you capitalize on your natural abilities which are innate, rather than learned. This is the state in which you get into “flow,” find ceaseless inspiration, and seem to not only come up with work that is distinguished and unique, but also do so in a way that excels far and beyond what anyone else is doing.
As you can imagine, highly successful people function in the lattermost zone. Most successful people are operating in their zone of excellence, in which they are doing things at which they are highly skilled. This zone is ultimately unsatisfying, though, because it does not engage the innate genius of the individual.
But here’s the rub:
Your zone of genius is what’s most effortless for you. If you are truly able to relax and begin the work, you recognize that you are able to create almost instantaneously, and without too much thought. When you combine this natural talent and skill with hours of practice and repetition, you find yourself among the small percentage of people who can break through and redefine an industry.
Which, in my experience, is what leads to imposter syndrome: For seasoned attorneys, it’s usually less of a case of being unworthy, or operating in the zone of incompetence; but rather, operating in the Zone of Genius and mis-appropriating one’s own self-worth that comes from achieving big outputs with little exertion of input:
“How can I be highly regarded for that which comes so easy?”
“What I do isn’t rocket science!”
“Who would ever consider me a thought leader?”
“Can I fairly charge a premium fee for doing something that requires such little effort?”
You’re not an imposter. You’re simply operating in your Zone of Genius. You’ve likely spent the requisite 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell speaks of in his book Outliers, which has elevated you and your work to the status of mastery.
That may seem of little accomplishment in your own myopic retrospect, but others perceive it as true achievement. Admirable excellence. Expertise in short supply and high demand.
It may seem easy to you; to others, it’s genius. And that’s worth paying for…
Finding Your “Flow” State
Now is the time to harvest the fruits of your career labor. The first step is making that mindset shift to eschew this notion of imposter-ism and embrace the far more gratifying stature of “genius.” Recognize the investments you’ve made in your career and in yourself, and in doing so, give yourself permission to cross that final divide. Remove the self-doubt; stop mistaking ease for lack of value.
Next, spend some time and consider the exercises that will challenge you to focus on the intersection of your acumen, your training, your 10,000 hours of experience, your passion, your natural ability, and a demonstrable market opportunity. Hidden in the center of that Venn diagram lies your Zone of Genius, with potential just begging to be tapped. (I’m happy to share some of our own methodologies and processes for making this discovery.)
This process will almost certainly require that you narrow your focus. But when you do, you will more easily and authentically find your Zone of Genius, and when that happens, everything will become easier: serving clients, developing business, booking speaking engagements, and commanding industry attention.
The difference is this: now that you’ve given yourself permission to operate in a zone where work becomes effortless, you’ll recognize this as a virtue (a feature), and not the vice of an imposter (the bug).
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