The 20% of activities that got you here are the 80% keeping you stuck

“To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invent new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.”  — Yuval Noah Harari

What got you here won’t get you there.

You have to ask yourself: What’s your ultimate goal?

Is it a specific destination (status)? Or is it continuous expansion (growth)?

If it’s the former — then you actually can continue doing the same thing over and over and over.

But if your ultimate goal is continuous growth and expansion, then you must continuously disrupt your current approach. You can never get stuck. Even when what you’re doing is working, you can’t allow yourself to peak and plateau.

The world’s most creative and successful people are willing to disrupt even the most successful businesses and processes to get to the next level.

What got you here can’t get you there. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Your behavior and environment generate your results. Repetition, although vital, becomes the very things that get you stuck in a rut.

For the few willing to continuously chase the next wave of growth, regardless of the waves they’ve ridden in the past, this post is for you:

The 80/20 rule

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

80% of your success comes from 20% of what you’re doing.

The logic, then, is to cut out the “trivial many” and focus directly the “vital few” — those activities, relationships, rituals, and environments that are actually pulling you forward.

This isn’t necessarily easy to do in a world of constant distraction, not to mention the need to pay bills, etc.

But for the brave souls who decide to take a step back and examine the situation of their lives more mindfully, they quickly realize they were playing someone else’s game in the first place.

They don’t need to do everything they believed they needed to do. In fact, they could actually begin living their dreams, today. Sure, it may be messy. They may have to wake up an hour earlier to sneak some work in before the kids wake up, or before their college exam.

But their behavior begins to align more congruently with the future they want, with the life that they want.

Those behaviors begin to have a subconscious effect. They begin disconnecting increasingly more with the typical ways most people operate. They discover more ways to focus on their priorities and goals.

Over time, their life starts to change. They become more confident and capable. They begin making progress and seeing results.

Chances are, they’ve initiated what psychologists call a “keystone” habit or behavior, which ripples into all the other areas of their life. Their standards for themselves increase, so they begin listening to and reading more stimulating information. They begin working out. They become more thoughtful in their relationships.

They change.

They become “successful.”

And then, at some point or another, they get stuck.

The 20% of activities that elevated them out of the rat-race become the new 80% of activities that keep them stuck in a new one.

They now are left scratching their head and wondering: Is this what I really want?

An existential crisis ensues, wherein they begin to question everything. They think back on their successes and failures over the prior years and become scared.

Their mind fixates on the past.

They no longer have a deep connection to their future because they’ve powerfully achieved most of their goals, faster than they thought possible.

They lose connection with their WHY and feel lethargic. Just at the pivotal moment when they became world-class at what they were doing, they became bored.

That’s a costly place to be.

At the very moment when your work is worth potentially millions, you are no longer connected to that same passion.

You’re lost.

And this is exactly where you’re supposed to be.

— — —

The remainder of this article breaks down the four fundamental stages of learning and high-performance.

Following that break-down, I will highlight the powerful strategy and mindset of “lateral thinking,” and how you can apply it to continuously leverage your prior successes, never get stuck, and continuously upgrade your vision and your future.

The four stages of competence

Here are the four stages of knowledge/skill acquisition:

  • Unconscious incompetence: This is where you have no comprehension that you don’t have a particular skill or ability. You don’t see the usefulness of it. You must recognize your own incompetence and the value of the new skill before moving to the next stage.
  • Conscious incompetence: At this stage, you don’t have the skill developed but you can at least now see your own inability. You can also see the value of the particular skill, and it becomes desirable to you. At this stage, you need to start making mistakes and stumbling your way through the early learning process. Most people stop here because they don’t want to face the failures or the seeming mountain of learning the new skill. They give up before they really start, due to either a fixed-mindset or a belief that the amount of work isn’t worth the uncertainty of the outcome.
  • Conscious competence: At this stage, you know how to do something. However, in order to perform the skill, you need to concentrate. You can break your process down into steps but there still remains conscious involvement in executing your skill.

Hitting the ceiling of this third stage is where “successful” people stop. You can get paid really well for being at this level.

This is where you are really good at what you do, but you haven’t drifted back to the childlike play — where everything is instinctive and nothing really matters. You haven’t fully become absorbed in what you’re doing for the sake of it, where you’ve left all competition behind.

But once you take that next leap out of conscious control and into deep intuition, then you’re now in your own world. You have deep mastery, and you also have complete freedom.

You now have a completely open pasture. You’re no longer bound to doing your work, your “craft,” for money. You’ve developed the inner freedom to know that money is something you can have whenever you want it.

You can create wealth — because creativity is a realm you’ve become highly comfortable with. You create results, you don’t wait for them. You know that the thoughts and ideas you have can quickly translate into physical equivalents.

You’re no longer bound by the chains of needing to make ends meat. If you need to make something happen, you’ll do it.

So now you’re free.

Free to roam and create — or, if you want, to go to the next level where few people are willing to venture.

This final stage is where pure creativity can thrive. This is where the true masters go, and for them, their greatest joy is going deeper down the rabbit hole. Their mission has become to serve the broader world. They are no longer concerned about their own needs. Thoughts about themselves and their situation rarely arise to their conscious awareness.

They are radically interested in solving bigger problems. They’re interested in inventing new systems, processes, ideas, products, and solutions. This is the highest level of skill-development.

Specialists work.

Experts solve problems.

Craftsman invent.

Specialists are a member of a team or part of an already established system or process.

Experts focus on mastery.

Craftsman focus on mission.

  • Unconscious competence: The final stage of skill development and knowledge acquisition is where your identity has entirely reformed — wherein you can not only perform your skill instinctually and without thinking, but you can teach your knowledge, skills, and abilities to others in multiple contexts and at different levels. You know your stuff inside and out and can connect it to broader and seemingly disconnected topics/concepts.

Perhaps the most fascinating part about reaching this level is that you stop playing by the “rules” of even masters. At this stage, you begin inventing new systems and processes and concepts. You begin changing the world.

Because your knowledge is so deep and wide — and your skill so instinctual and polished — your mind can wander beautiful places while you do your work. You begin exploring realms far outside your typical “work” or “craft.”

You begin thinking far bigger picture.

And here’s where lateral thinking comes in.

Lateral thinking

“The system will always be defended by those countless people who have enough intellect to defend but not quite enough to innovate.” — Edward de Bono

In the book, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, journalist and entrepreneur, Shane Snow, breaks down the topic of lateral thinking.

He explains that the most successful people in the world didn’t get there by climbing vertically up the ladder, as is customary in corporate America.

Instead, you climb a few rungs or develop a few skills, and then laterally shift to a different ladder. This is akin to going from student to teacher faster than you feel ready, but it then forces you to really know your stuff.

You take what you’ve learned and you transfer it to something else. Interestingly, a true definition of learning is the ability to transfer a skill or knowledge from one domain or context to another.

Snow provides an example, showing that most of the United States Presidents spent less time in politics than the average congressman. Moreover, the best, and most popular Presidents, generally spent the least amount of time in politics. Rather than spending decades climbing the tedious ladder with glass ceilings, they simply jumped laterally from a different, non-political ladder.

Ronald Reagan was an actor. Dwight Eisenhower laterally shifted from the military. Woodrow Wilson bounced over from academia. These men spent considerably little time in politics and became fabulous Presidents. They reached the top by skipping the unnecessary “dues-paying” steps.

Insanely productive people think the same way. Rather than climbing up ladders the traditional ways, they think of alternative routes. They skip unnecessary steps by pivoting and shifting.

As Snow says, “Lateral thinking doesn’t replace hard work; it eliminates unnecessary cycles.”

The moment you attain skill or success in something, leverage it. Use it, and then parlay it into something else.

Continue developing the skills, knowledge, and mindset. But apply them in a way different from the norm. Apply them laterally, not vertically.

Use your skills to help people in other industries.

Perhaps be in a different industry than everyone else with your skill-set.

Once your reach a plateau, rather than trying to bust through it, just do something different altogether. This isn’t how you stop you’re skill and knowledge development. It’s actually how you expand it. It’s how you make your learning, thinking, and skills more fluid and dynamic.

You can jump laterally to a different project or team for a while — which will be fundamentally good for your brain. But also, you can eventually jump back into your previous realm but at 10 or 100 or 1,000 steps higher than you were previously.

In other words, you can avoid most of the glass ceilings and ridiculousness by skipping those steps.

You develop skills, apply them in unique ways, and never get stuck. Then, if you want, you leverage your skills, insights, connections, and successes to apply them in a different way — but at a different level than you could ever achieve in a traditional manner.

This is a highly adaptive and collaborative approach.

Most people will prefer the routine of doing the same work in the same environments. It’s safer. It’s more predictable. It’s slower, but at least there is security.

It also stunts creativity and innovative thinking.

It stunts experiencing wild new ideas and emotions.

It stunts 10X or 100X thinking, where you’re now collaborating with people wildly different from you.

When you begin to shift laterally, and try new things then you’ve done in the past, your prior skills actually deepen, because you use them more subconsciously to guide your new insights.

You take what you’ve learned before and apply it to something new to quickly bring a new insight or project or challenge to success. You eventually become a master-learner.

With these skills and mindsets, you can then evolve way beyond the realm of mastery, where everything is about personal growth and skill development. You truly can become an inventor with a sacred and powerful mission — and you’ll have enough context, connections, and adaptability to take the mission to success.

Don’t get stuck with what worked before

“The step-by-step advice that made an ancient Greek hero rapidly prosperous will be entirely different from what makes a 21st-century businesswoman successful, just as the exact methods an Internet startup uses to grow today will be irrelevant in five years.” — Shane Snow

The 20% of strategies that made you successful can quickly become the 80% that keep you stuck beneath a glass ceiling.

Eventually, you’ll need to pivot.

You’ll need to become more fluid and dynamic.

You’ll need to think laterally about how you can take your skills and abilities and apply them in a fundamentally different way then is typical.

This is a far more creative and collaborative approach — but ultimately, it’s required to go 10X or 100X bigger than most people are willing to go.

From a psychological standpoint, it’s also how you keep your brain continuously adapting, expanding, and becoming more creative. This is how you don’t get rigid, stiff, and stuck.

Do you want status? Or do you want growth?

Is this about your skill-development and mastery? Or is this about changing the world and being a part of an important mission to improve the lives of other people?

Those are questions only you can answer.

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This article first appeared on Medium.