Last week I had coffee with a good friend with whom I used to work. She left the company a few months before I did, and this was our first opportunity to catch-up. She and I have what I would consider actual conversation. Neither one of us view the other one as being wrong, less than, or in need of assistants or help; unless of course one of us asks for it.
The consequence to operating this way is that every conversation we have is about me; and from her perspective, it is about her. When there are no problems to solve, predatory listening ceases to be something that is helpful. Instead, you listen to what the other person is saying and you actually take the time to hear it – listening is what the words do to your ears, hearing is what the words do to you brain. It is engaging and while the conversation may have a starting point, there is no map and definitely no ending point. It goes where it goes and it lasts as long as it last. And when it ends, our brain continues to process the conversation and make whatever hay out of it that it can. This is what I enjoy most about talking to other people, and it might be the reason why I have a tough time making small talk and talking about the sports.
She left the company to work for a company in a different industry and is enjoying the learning opportunities that her new role is giving her.
When I left the company, it was to pursue writing, or coaching, or, well, something other than working for a company doing a task that I was good at but had no real connection to. I was competent at my last job, but it wasn’t alivening and it wasn’t a manifestation of who I am or the expression of what brings me the most fulfillment in terms of using my brain and body.
As conversations like ours do, it moved on to what I was going to do next, and generally what was I going to do to generate an income. Her asking gave my brain the task of thinking more about the question “so what?”
The way I see it, the notion of value is connected to the answer of this question. Specifically, when someone has a skill and they are asked to answer the question “so what?” when it concerns their skill, what comes next is an outline or list of some actions that they can take using their skill that other people might value and will be willing to pay for. A clear so what answer is effectively the instructions on how to capitalize upon a skill.
For example, someone who knows a lot about exercise can answer so what by saying they can teach other people how to exercise, they can exercise safely themselves, they can teach other people how to coach movements, and they can review the quality of other people’s exercise programs and offer helpful advice. Some of these things are jobs because they will allow the person to act as a proxy or stand-in for the lack of skill other people have concerning exercise.
I have been wondering about the “so what” of my skill set for a while now. The first moment of it in the most recent phase was about six months ago during dinner with one of Heather’s friends and her husband. I have known this lady for about four years and have always had extremely intense conversations with her. She’s exceptionally bright and having lived a very different culturing life, she has a very different way of looking at the world than I do. It’s a welcome change although it can be a big challenge to manage being so absolutely clueless around someone who is so intelligent. I lean into the discomfort because if nothing else, I will get a different perspective of things if I swallow my pride accept that I do not know as I listen and hear what she has to say. True to form, this was one of those moments.
It was nice to have her say some lovely things to me. She mentioned that I always had a way of talking about subjects that was free of judgment, loaded with information, and lacking the normal dogmatism that tends to follow people who have thought a lot about something. Talking with me was always going to be interesting because what I would say would land somewhere between unique way of looking at something and profound insight. I made her think, and since she enjoys thinking, time with me was rewarding. She was always going to be better off at the end of the conversation and at no point would she feel like I had attempted to use manipulation to drive home a point. “You know you don’t know, and that doesn’t stop you from voicing your theories because you almost seem willing to be wrong so that you don’t have to be wrong like that again.”
In fairness, this is arguable the nicest thing someone as intelligent as her could say to me, so I just keep being me around her and the talks are always outstanding.
This dinner was more of the same, although I had a lot less to say because I do not know the world from which she was speaking. She has an MBA, has recently moved on from her last corporate job to start a consulting company; which generated more revenue in the first three months than she was making in the previous year, and she understands how to deliver services when there is a demand for those service. She’s very clean on her own “so what,” and she is more than capable of setting up the service delivery once someone else has figured out the answer to their “so what” question.
This is where we ended-up during dinner, and it was a painful place to be.
“What is your USP Pat? You have a lot of skills and a ton of information, but what is your unique selling proposition?” As we talked – she talked, I listened – it was evident that I didn’t know what she was talking about, or what my unique selling proposition is. All I knew was that I really enjoy learning and figuring things out, and left to my own devices, I would do this full time just for the sake of understanding the world more clearly.
I didn’t know, I still don’t, and after a few days and weeks considering the conversation, I began to realize that knowing my unique selling proposition was the same thing as having a clear and concise answer to the question “so what?”
Heather is crystal clear on her unique selling proposition and she knows the answer to the so what question about her skill set. She is a shaper and leader of corporate culture, she is able to get people to generate the solutions to their problems, and she is able to get large groups people moving together to achieved a shared goal. It’s frightening and remarkable all at the same time. Frightening because she is so good at it and remarkable because people end up figuring out and choosing to do the things they need to do. She’s kind and smart, and plays her role without anyone feeling that she’s pushing them to do anything. At worst they let out a sign, announce that she’s doing it again, and play their role in solving their own problems, but most likely the people are unaware that she’s helping them and only tend to notice a few months later when their existence has improved dramatically.
Now of course I would be crazy to not attempt to enroll her in helping me surface my USP, but it would be even more crazy for her to try. Relationships work because each partner plays a role, and they work best when there is a complement between the two. There is a risk associated with one partner taking on a non-established role this far along in the relationship – we give each other the space to figure out stuff on our own because neither one of us want the responsibility of having to manage any aspect of the others life. Had she taken on the role of leading me at the beginning, our relationship probably would not have progressed very far. It’s a catch-22 of sorts, and as much as I would love to get her help, we both know that it isn’t going to happen.
The conversations we have shared over the last six months have been helpful, but they amount to conversations the one would have with a spouse and NOT to the ones they would have with their coach. All of this being said, I have been thinking about my USP and trying to figure-out the answers to the “so what” question of my skills.
Last weekend when the conversation between my old work friend and me landed at the “what next,” I felt the urge to talk about the “so what” question. The reason was very simple, I do a lot of my thinking through talking out loud, so the perfect moment presented itself.
I have a thought that maybe the “so what” answers are not as clear cut as they could be. I have no difficulty understanding how someone can take an inventory of their skills and figure-out how they can use these things to earn an income. It’s a matter of figuring out how to use them to add value to lives of other people. The challenge I am running in to, at least I think I am running in to, is that I don’t share the same definition of value that is captured by that question. I don’t care about money all that much. I have a relationship with it, but it is a second cousin type relationship, as opposed to a sibling type. Heather likes money, but more than that, she knows she needs it. She’s been able to work hard to cultivate her talents to the point that she is able to bring immense value to other people and that this value can easily be measured using money. Money is a place holder or proxy for something else that she needs, wants or likes, and she has been able to establish a direct relationship between taking specific actions and earning money. I don’t have the same relationship. Money is more of a nuisance to me than anything else. I don’t really want anything other than the opportunity to learn, write, and think. Sure, I need some money to pay of things like rent, food, Internet, and transportation, but once that stuff is taken care of, I just don’t seem to give much consideration any more.
For a very long time I didn’t actually believe that I would get much older, so I never conditioned myself to believe that saving for retirement or a rainy day was something that I needed to do. That isn’t one of my habits or automatic ways of thinking. The reality is that I am now much older than I ever thought I would be and each day I wake up, I move further away from the expiration date I had created in my mind. The truth was that for too long there didn’t need to be an answer to the question “so what” because I wasn’t going to be around to deal with there having to be an answer. I was able to do what I wanted and what felt good because bills and money didn’t matter. Money is only a thing that has value in the future when you are earning because it is a way of circumventing the need to trade time today for goods and services later. But for me then, later didn’t exist to the same extent or in the same way it does now, so I would pursue what I found rewarding vs. what I found lucrative. This was the habit I instilled and for a very long time I was able to take the mental steps that were required to continue this line of reasoning.
But it became unworkable simply because the world doesn’t operate that way. Other people set about generating wealth and saving for their future. When they connect with me, I am a mark for them because I don’t care about money so if they are able to provide me with fulfillment, I am satisfied. They get to keep the money because I got what I wanted. But sooner or later I was going to die, which would take care of things, or I was going to reach the point that money would become important because it would come to represent the future. When that happened, I would be stuck trying to figure everything out and would need to determine what my USP in order to demonstrate value and bring services of market.
What I love doing, and what Heather’s friend highlighted as a unique skill, is not really the easiest thing to bring to market. I love figuring out how the world works, how people think, and why things are the way they are. I’m not all that focused though – a mechanical engineer is focused on how machines work, and can therefore bring a very specific set of skills to the market place, a corporate lawyer understands a very specific set of rules and is therefore of great value to those who need access to those rules – I am as interested in how a hydro dam works as I am about the innate reward system of the brain, so am not all that driven to learn all there is to know about a specific subject. This is not to say that I know with certainty that I cannot train myself to focus my drive onto the pursuit of learning everything that I possibly can about a specific subject, just that I am not innately driven to do this. In fact, there have been periods of my life when I did go after specific things with all that I had and each time I did this, I was able to bring on board a lot of knowledge and I did show a very large improvement in those things that surrounded the subject.
So this is where I stand right now, it’s a good place to be, but it isn’t prefect. If I didn’t need money I would just keep devouring information and learning whatever I could that I was moved to learn. However, I do need money, and there is a part of me that is beginning to grow annoyed at the ongoing nature that a need for money creates.
Now is the time to shift course slightly and focus more of my efforts on generating a substantial enough income that I no longer need to spend any time having to address the need for money. To either generate sufficient enough income that I can quickly save enough money to cross its pursuit off of my list or sufficient enough residual income that I don’t need to think much more about it.
What is my unique selling proposition? Well, I don’t exactly know, but I have a very good chance of figuring it out. Just because I have never consciously set about trying to figure it out before does not mean that I haven’t every taken advantage of it in the past. The answers are there, I just need to spend the time looking for them. The “so what” is not a matter of money, it’s a matter of freeing up the time to do the things that I want to do, and maybe that reframe is all that I need to get after it….