Loving Your Idiot Zone

The genius zone idea is popular among many friends of mine. The idea is that we should spend more time doing what we do amazingly well, and delegate or eliminate everything else that we can.

Imagine being a surgeon with a surgical team who handles everything else for you. They do all of the prep work. Then you come in and do the surgical procedure that only you can do. With respect to your genius zone, you’re the hub, and other people are the spokes. Your team supports you in doing what you do best.

This sounds like a pretty good idea in principle, and it apparently works well for some people. I find it rather limiting though, so it’s not a model I use for myself. I dislike the lifestyle consequences, namely boredom.

The issue I have with focusing on my genius zone is that I don’t grow as much when I’m working from my most highly developed skills. I tend to get more value from life when I step outside of my comfort zone repeatedly, such as I’m doing with the current delegation challenge, and this takes me far from my genius zone.

If I opted to stick with my genius zone, I’d never get into delegating because delegating isn’t my strength right now. Delegation is among my weakest skill sets. My intention is to turn this area into a strength. I expect this will take years. If I work on this enough, I can expect that my future self will be pretty good at delegation, perhaps even great. This is how I built many other skills that I’ve been able to leverage, such as programming, writing, and speaking.

I had to pass through my own idiot zone to level up in these areas. If I’d stuck with my original genius zone, I’d still be a programmer today, but I don’t think that would have been as valuable a path for my life, especially in terms of creating positive ripples for others.

What appeals to me (and also scares me) about getting good at delegation is that it will allow me to spend even more time outside my comfort zone. If I have a team helping me, then I’ll get to spend more time in my idiot zone. This appeals to me more than spending tons of time in my genius zone. I love the experience of pushing through incompetence to become increasingly competent.

I love working on personal growth – it’s what lights me up inside – and this requires spending plenty of time tackling challenges that involve failure, rejection, and awkwardness. I often feel more enthusiastic about my life when I’m in my idiot zone than my genius zone. I grow faster when I’m in my idiot zone. I don’t pressure myself with expectations to perform well, so I have more fun. I expect to fail now and then, so I don’t worry about it. I play with risk.

To me the genius zone isn’t nearly as important or useful as it sounds. It’s one tool among many.

I tend to put more emphasis on being in my fun and enthusiastic zone. If I do have a genius zone to speak of, I’d prefer to think of this as my ability to plow through learning experiences, including plenty of failures and setbacks, with no loss of enthusiasm.

I’m motivated and enthusiastic about this delegation challenge and also about where I could take this after the initial 30 days. And yet presently I feel like I’m firmly planted in my idiot zone. Every day brings more lessons that seem profound to me right now but could be considered no-brainers for those with more experience on this path. I rather like that though because I’m learning quickly, and I’m able to get results in new ways. I’m not very skilled with this new tool of delegation just yet, but simply because it’s a new tool, I can already do some interesting things with it regardless of my skill.

I suppose you could reframe this by saying that my genius zone is to explore my idiot zone enthusiastically again and again. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but if you’re feeling clingy with the genius zone concept and feel a need to defend it, I’ll make it easy for you by giving you that out.

Many people also struggle to identify even one potential genius zone, as if it’s something we’ve been granted at birth and are supposed to discover later in life. I think we can develop multiple genius zones throughout our lives – with the keyword being develop. This involves some exploration and discovery too, but it’s mostly about learning, practicing, and gaining experience.

How can we expect to develop our genius areas unless we’re willing to embrace our idiot zones too? We all have to pass through the dummy phase to build our skills.

My experience in coaching others suggests that the genius zone has merit for some, but thinking along these lines can easily backfire and keep us stuck. We can waste a lot of time searching our minds, hearts, and spirits for some innate source of genius, and then we come up short. We offer up vague answers like “I’m really good with people.” Or we second-guess our answers. Perhaps we really should be looking to our hands and feet to help us develop that genius, tripping occasionally as we go.

The worst part is that we tend to hide our idiot zones, a trap which leads us to pretend to be geniuses instead of developing any real genius. We’re ashamed of our incompetence. Many of us learned growing up that incompetence is criticized, and genius is lauded. But if we want to develop some genius, it’s easier if we can fully embrace and enjoy the incompetent phase.

You know what got me past that? Getting arrested four times as a teenager when I’d previously been a straight-A student. I screwed up badly. I almost went to prison because of it. And yet I gained more value from those crazy, reckless experiences than from sitting through computer science lectures. I learned that I could make tons of mistakes and still keep right on learning and growing. I learned that people could criticize me and that I could playfully agree with them… and keep right on living. I learned that I felt more connected with people when I let my honest incompetence or my honest genius shine, without trying to pretend that I was the opposite.

Given the choice between leveraging my genius zone and learning and growing in my idiot zone, I have to go with the latter. The more time I spend in my idiot zone, the less self-conscious I feel about being there, and the faster I’m able to learn, grow, and embrace new experiences. I still appreciate my genius zone, but without the habit of embracing my idiot zone, I wouldn’t have a genius zone to speak of.

I’d rather not settle into a surgical unit. I’m fine with other people going that route, including actual surgeons. It’s just not the path I choose for myself. To me that surgical unit is too much of a trap and a cage.

Even so, I’d rather be operated on by a robot if I actually did need surgery – a robot developed by a group of people who were strong in various fields (including surgery and robotics) and who embraced their idiot zones to explore new ways of thinking about surgery, realizing that it’s better to solve this problem in a bigger way, delegate it to technology, and then move on with our human lives to explore more of our idiot zones.

If we don’t embrace our idiot zones, we can’t progress. We ought to delve into those darker parts of life that scare us. Expose our fears. Tame our dragons. And celebrate that we’re still learning and growing. Whatever genius we develop along the way, we can then seek to put that into more lasting forms to embed it into this reality – through writing, videos, software, technology, processes, etc.

Merely being a genius is old school thinking. If we seek to be geniuses, technology will eventually make idiots of us all. I think a more useful aim is to get used to being frequently off balance, out of your element, moving through your fears, exploring the vastness of your idiot zone, sharing hugs with people who are doing the same… and yet still enthusiastic about life because you’re learning and growing each day.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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