Tuesday, December 27, 2011

School Is Never Out For The Pro by Bob Bly

Some time ago, I casually mentioned in my e-newsletter that I was taking a writing course.

One of my readers, JN, was absolutely shocked.

"YOU are taking a WRITING course?" she asked incredulously.

The implication was given that I have been a writer for over 3 decades, my taking a writing course is either frivolous or silly—a waste of time and money.

JN could not be more wrong.

"School is never out for the professional," I answered concisely.

It's my observation that folks who are really at the top of their field are constantly reading, studying, learning, and attending lectures in their specialty.

Why? To raise their mastery and skill to an even higher level.

On the other hand, those who are at the bottom seem to feel they learned everything they need to know at college, trade school, or on the job.

And they exhibit little or no desire to spend more time learning it better.

To me, this attitude seems lazy and counter-productive at best and dangerous at worst.

Can you imagine going to a doctor who didn't keep up with the latest medical research?

Of course not.

So why is the idea of a writer taking a writing class so surprising?

JN's reaction reminds me of an American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) weekend writing conference I attended many years ago.

The person sitting next to me and I were both studying the curriculum in our conference brochures.

"This looks good," I said, pointing to a page, "a session on how to write book proposals."

She sniffed haughtily.

"I wouldn't need to go to THAT," she said in a snobby, superior tone. "I am ALREADY an author and I have written a published book."

At the time, I had written 30 published books. But I didn't tell her that.

Instead, I just went to the session. And I learned a lot—enough to sell 50 more books since then (and counting).

Maybe JN thought that, seeing as I presumably know how to write, I would be better off taking a course in flower arranging or bookkeeping or PowerPoint.

But as busy adults, you and I have extremely limited time. We can take only so many courses.

And you will get a far better return on your investment in education by taking courses in things you are already good at—your strengths—rather than areas in which you are weak.


Your strengths are what make you successful.

The other stuff doesn't much matter.

In his book "Strength Finders" (Gallup Press), Tim Rath writes: "People have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies."

Yet, notes Rath, 77% of parents think that a student's lowest grades deserve more time and attention than the subjects the student is best at.

Think about it this way; in a horse race, the winning horse can earn tens of thousands of dollars more than the horse that "places" or "shows" (comes in #2 or #3).

Yet often, especially in major races, the first-place horse beats the second-place horse by only a fraction of a second.

Therefore, if the horse and jockey make a massive effort to improve in speed, and beat their previous time by only a second or two, they can win instead of place or show—and make the owner and jockey a lot richer.

On the other hand, a racing horse is a lot less powerful, and can pull a lot less weight, than a Clydesdale—those humongous horses that pull the Budweiser beerwagon.

If you strength-trained the racehorse for years, it could probably get stronger.

But it would never get even close to the Clydesdale in strength...and it wouldn't earn a dime more on the track.

Many things about success are counter-intuitive, and the notion of training is one of the most counter-intuitive of all.

Most people, when they see classes being offered, gravitate toward classes on subjects they are weak in, hoping to improve their skill level from minimal to acceptable, or learning something new.

For instance, I am not an expert in search engine marketing, which is a hot topic in Internet marketing.

So to correct the defect, I signed up for the Direct Marketing Association's Certificate Program in Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

I took the class and learned a lot about search engine marketing—useful for me as a copywriter.

But I have also learned something else...

Namely, that no matter how much I study search engine marketing, I will never know more than a small fraction of what the top gurus—like the ones who wrote the DMA program—know about search engines.
So does that mean I gave up learning SEM...and did not optimize my website?

No. I am still learning SEM. And my website was optimized. But not by me.

Instead, I did something a lot smarter than trying to do it myself.

I went out and found a top SEO consultant, who (with my assistant's help) optimized the site for me (although I DID write the copy).

As you can tell, I am a big believer in specialization and the hiring of specialists.

There is so much to know, no one can know it all. And trying to do so is futile.

As Thomas Edison once said, we don't know one-millionth of 1% about anything.

Given the overwhelming amount of information in the world today, and our increasingly limited time to master it, I am convinced that we get the best ROI on learning and training by focusing on our strengths and learning to do what we do well even better.

I have found that, with rare exception, most people are only really good at one thing.

In particular, I am wary of professionals with hyphenated expertise (e.g., writer-designer, illustrator-photographer); I find that these folks are usually good at only one of the two designations—and usually mediocre at the other.

I also agree with the late direct mail consultant Dick Benson, who said: "Do what you do best in-house; buy everything else outside."

Bob Bly is the author of "World's Best Copywriting Secrets" and has written copy for more than 100 companies including IBM, Boardroom, Medical Economics and AT&T. He is the author of more than 75 books and a columnist for Target Marketing, Early To Rise and The Writer. McGraw-Hill calls him "America's top copywriter".

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