In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
It marked the start of a new paradigm in the story of our species. The scientific revolution. We went from a world where certainty took precedent to one where uncertainty was invited.
Suddenly, it was okay to acknowledge ignorance because we had a method of observation and testing that allowed us to make sense of what we didn’t know. Our fear of not knowing was forcefully stripped away in the centuries following, and the world advanced rapidly.
Since then, we have constantly flirted at the boundary of what we know and what we don’t know, and every time we have made progress into the realm of what we don’t know, we have expanded our circle of knowledge. That’s what pushes us forward and allows us to innovate.
We can think of this circle of knowledge as an island in a vast ocean. The island is where we operate and what we know, and the ocean represents everything we don’t know. Every time we enhance our knowledge, this island gets a little bigger and the ocean gets a little smaller.1
A bigger island gives us more leverage and space, and sometimes a few more tools, to try new things and that opens up more opportunities to increase the quality of how we live.
Science advances when we work to broaden our circle of knowledge after acknowledging our limitations. Our lives work in a similar way, but for us, there are three key forces in play:
• The circle of awareness
• The circle of competence
• The circle of opportunity
Expanding your functionality in these areas correlates with your ability to get what you want.
The Circle of Awareness
How you think and what you know determines the scope of your circle of awareness.
A part of this is built on experience, and as we age, the diversity of our experiences inspires much of our mental input and how we make sense of it. But a far larger part is nurtured by proactively consuming valuable information and through exposure to challenging problems.
In today’s world, a major thing that differentiates merely smart people from effective people is their ability to internalize a range of different thinking patterns so that they can bring them together to make sense of reality in a new way that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Dean Keith Simonton, a professor at the University of California, Davis has done some fascinating work that supports this. In one of his experiments, he analyzed the training of 59 opera singers to understand the degree to which mastery was influenced by specialization.2
Interestingly, he found that those at the top were often not the most specialized, but those with the most exposure to cross-training across a number of genres. Variety in internalized experience allowed them to make creative connections that an inflexible training system would be less attuned for. He’s observed a similar pattern in many of his other findings, too.3
How you think shapes how you solve problems, and at its core, the ability to solve problems effectively and efficiently will determine a large part of any outcome across all domains.
The more angles you can see the world through, the better you understand it. The greater your ability to decipher patterns in complexity, the broader your circle of awareness will be.
Reading good books, seeking out hard challenges, putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, embracing low-cost failures, and challenging biases are a few ways you can better yourself.
Awareness is the foundational stage. It largely determines your approach to everything else.
The Circle of Competence
Competence relates to skills and abilities. It’s built on how you leverage your awareness.
The importance of expanding your circle of competence can’t be overstated. For example, cartoonist Scott Adams makes a strong case that the quantity of the skills we have matter.
Adams has built a $85 million empire off of his cartooning. When discussing his success, however, he points out that he isn’t exceptional in any one skill. He’s above average at drawing, and he’s somewhat funny. It’s this combination that gives him his edge.4
Rather than focusing on becoming the top 1% in a field, the idea is to maximize the number of different skills in which you are in the top 20%. Getting into the top 20% is challenging but not overly difficult. It can be done in a few months. Becoming a top 1% performer is near impossible for most people due to the diminishing returns of practice as time goes on.
When you have multiple skills in which you’re in the top 20%, you can find ways to combine them to give you an edge. Instead of being the best and fighting the competition, this allows you to completely bypass everyone else and carve out your own niche. Each additional skill acts as a multiplier because it gives you more options to combine them in different ways.
For example, you’re far more likely to succeed as a writer if you have a blog and understand online marketing and branding than if you were to simply write novels on your own, hoping you become so good someone comes to you. If you really want to be the best in the world, you can always focus on that after, but multiple skills provide a shortcut.
It’s one thing to have the awareness, but it’s quite another to put it into practice in unique situations and use it to create real results. That requires both an arsenal of useful skills, and the capacity to know when the boundaries of those skills are being pushed.
Your circle of competence is the toolkit. It’s what allows you to make your impact tangible.
The Circle of Opportunity
Nonetheless, even a strong sense of awareness and competence can’t always compensate.
Although research is beginning to favor the fact that our genetic make-up isn’t as big of a factor in prosperity as was assumed, there is a growing body of work that shows that our environment matters quite a bit. We’re a product of our circumstances in more than one way.
Most of us are very fortunate. If you are reading this, you are unimaginably lucky. Even accounting for your unique personal struggles, you have a roof over your head, you probably don’t have to worry about being fed tomorrow, and you have the internet at your fingertips.
The leverage of skills and a sharp mind isn’t going to do much for someone raised in a slum, but the vast majority of us don’t have that problem. We can increase our circle of opportunity.
We get to choose who we spend time with and the influence they have on the person we become, we have the ability to build a network that increases our reach and our influence, and we can design our immediate environment to accommodate optimal behavior patterns.
There is no doubt that a lot of life comes down to luck, timing, and coincidence. That said, it doesn’t mean that these things can’t be managed to work in your favor. Through the internet, you can tap into the collective intelligence of our entire species. At most, you are one or two degrees of separation away from millions of people that can change your life.
For example, it’s also no coincidence that you’re more likely to create the next Facebook in Silicon Valley than you are in Washington. Your environment largely determines opportunity.
If you reverse-engineer the steps it might take for you to get to your goals, figure out what the high-impact activities that increase your odds of making it there are, and maximize your exposure to those activities, then over time, you can make the math work in your favor.
Opportunity is what inspires possibility. The better your exposure, the further your reach.
All You Need to Know
At any point in life, we know very little relative to all there is to know, we can do very little relative to all that there is to do, and we are exposed to only a fraction of opportunities.
No journey can be reduced to a rigid formula, but by thinking of your potential in terms of expanding the different circles of knowledge and action, you have a framework for guidance.
There are three primary areas that help do this:
I. Your circle of awareness. This is the core pillar that influences every other part of the journey. How you think and what you know shapes the way you approach problems and your understanding of the complexity in the world. It’s best refined by exposure to a broad range of thinking patterns and using that exposure to see reality in a new way.
II. Your circle of competence. Awareness is where it begins, but it’s not effective unless that awareness is translated into skills and abilities that impact the world. To do that, you need to optimize a number of capabilities that provide a unique competitive advantage. It’s easier to be different than it is to be the best, and to do that, you need to build an arsenal of skills. The more you have, the further you can go.
III. Your circle of opportunity. Awareness and competence give you the tools to mold the world, but the degree to which you can do that is determined by the circumstantial factors you can sway in your favor. It depends on the people in your immediate circles, the reach of your network, and the possibilities in your environment.
We live in a world of immense possibility, and we can do a lot to make whatever kind of impact we want. It’s not at all easy, and it never will be, but it is easier than ever before.
The future is shaped by what you think, do, and are exposed to. All of that can be controlled.
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