Down the Rabbit Hole

How clever is it to start a story with “Once upon a time?” I doubt if that opening would ever be confused with cleverness. Even so, it may be as good as anything else if I have no interest in being clever. Some people can pull off being clever but I’m not among those (Dare I say?) clever types. I’m more aligned with those who just say what they have to say and let it go at that.

A few years back, I had the notion that I could teach myself to play the organ. I’m not talking about the kind of organ that fills a church or great hall with powerful music. I am just referring to a little organ that is smaller than most pianos. It wasn’t a toy but definitely less than the real deal.

I know. “A few years back” is pretty close to once upon a time but I’ve already admitted that something more clever is not in the cards for me. My only goal is to get you into the picture where I’m trying to play the organ. Are you there with me? I’ll just assume you are so we can move on.

Every day for nearly six months, I spent an hour or so teaching myself to play, and gradually I learned. I could play a few songs, press the right keys, and some days I believed that I was even making music. I admit that even I didn’t think it was great, but it was some better than nothing. Not a lot better, but some better.

I don’t recall the day specifically, but one day somewhere in month six, I realized that, no matter how long I worked at it, I was never going to be more than an organ player, and not a very good organ player at that.

To compound the insight, I realized that I didn’t particularly enjoy organ music all that much. Here is the point. I could play the organ but was never going to be an organist; I liked some types of music but was never going to be a musician. If the truth be known, I didn’t enjoy trying to learn to play the organ all that much either. It was just something I was forcing myself to do.

That insight got me to wondering how often I start down that particular rabbit hole. How often do I get invested in doing something only to discover that I am not very good at it and am unlikely to ever get very good at it? I’ve definitely been there a few times over the years and don’t figure that I am any better off for the time and energy spent going down those rabbit holes. Here’s the problem. I often have no good way of knowing whether something that peaks my interest is a rabbit hole or a real opportunity without investing in it enough to test out its potential.

It might be easy to conclude from all of this that it’s all just one big crap shoot. The best I can do is to just keep trying this and that, hoping that I stumble into more opportunities than rabbit holes. Fortunately, I came up with what is for me, a much better strategy. It starts with knowing what I’m already good at. Note that I didn’t say knowing what I’m already great at. I just inventoried the few things I was good at. For each of those things, I personally know someone who is better at it than I am. This means that I can’t hang my success on being great and certainly not the best at any of the things I am good at. So what’s the better strategy?

As it turns out, it’s pretty simple – not easy but also not complicated. My area of practice is human services, but I suspect the strategy works equally well for any area of practice. For me, I identified the dozen or so critical skill or knowledge streams that are essential within my practice area. What does it take to deliver quality human services to an identified population?

For example, it takes a particular skill set to work directly with service recipients. It takes finance management expertise to assure the resources are in place to support the service activity. It takes organizational expertise to coordinate the people, resources and facilities needed to provide the services. It takes data management expertise to evaluate and track the various elements and activities associated with service provision. The list continues, but I think you likely get the idea.

The idea is that any practice area from agriculture to zoo keeping has multiple skill sets and knowledge streams that are critical for success. It’s certainly appropriate to pursue being an expert with any of those skill sets or knowledge streams. For me though, I am just not that focused. Nonetheless, I could develop a good working knowledge of as many of those skill sets and knowledge streams as possible. My goal was to know a lot about several skill sets and knowledge streams within my practice area. Over time, I learned more and more about what it takes to deliver quality human services and came to understand what it takes to be an expert in any of the specialties within the practice area. Beyond that, I understood how to manage all of the people and parts to assure that the people needing the services get the help they need and deserve.

That brings me back to playing the organ. You probably think I forgot all about that. I certainly didn’t become an expert organist but definitely learned a lot about the skill set and knowledge stream that has to be mastered to be an organist. It also gave me a higher level of respect for the talent and expertise of real musicians. Perhaps my organ rabbit hole didn’t turn into an opportunity; but my strategy of going down those rabbit holes associated with my practice area did combine into a rather successful career.

Perhaps you will identify a few rabbit holes of your own. Here’s to digging in.

Now you know so there you go.