Skill Isn’t the Most Important Part of Performance

The real secret sauce of high performers.

Photo by Joe Neric on Unsplash

When I was a teenager, my friends and I would abuse each other recreationally. It’s what men do. Any chance we had to shove, kick, or hit, we’d take. And a commonly acceptable way of doing this was through games. Games specifically focused around inflicting pain.

One game involved taking turns to flick each other’s fingertips as hard as possible. It was elimination by concession — the last one standing wins. Now, I’m not a big guy — even for Asian standards. Wasn’t exceptionally strong back then, either. And I went to school with Americans and Europeans. So I’d routinely be up against some guy with hands the size of my entire head. And yet, I almost always won.

I never could outplay them. After all, they had the technique and the strength. What I did was outlast them. At the start of every game, I’d say to myself, “If I could just stay in the game long enough, I’ll beat this guy.” So that’s what I did.

No matter what kind of pain I felt, I kept going. If it got too excruciating, I’d just stop looking at my fingers. That helped me tolerate it. And eventually, I’d win through attrition. Big guys feel pain, too. It just takes longer. And all I have to do to beat them is survive long enough.

I still think of this barbaric game from my childhood all the time. It’s surprisingly relevant to my work as a part software engineer, part algorithmic trader, part entrepreneur, part writer. My tasks today require plenty of skill. But more importantly, they’re constantly trying to take me out.

Take one of the tasks, for example: Coding. Most people don’t make it very far as programmers because you have to do it for a while to get good. It’s not complex, just tedious initially. The complexity of the task isn’t as significant as its ability to make you want to stop doing it. So I realized I had been focusing on the wrong thing, all this time.

Skill doesn’t matter nearly as much as resilience. The conscious ability to do something well? That’s not worth as much as the innate ability to survive long enough to do it half-well. Over the years, I’ve found that you don’t need to be good. You just have to survive long enough to be decent.

And here’s the best part: You don’t need to be smart to do this. How do you think I got here? You just need to be annoyingly persistent. Stop at nothing when you’re up, and stop at nothing when you’re down. That’s how you keep performing against all odds. Don’t worry about being good, worry about staying in the game.

Trading bot engineer, songwriter, sponsor of artists. <mika@myika.co>

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