The Great Lie We’re Told About Doing Exceptional Work

This is an excerpt from my weekly Unthinkable newsletter, which shares thoughts about conventional thinking at work, plus stories and ideas to break from it. In the Era of Advice, it’s never been a better time to think for yourself.

So you want to do exceptional work. Great! But now the question becomes: How?

Well, here’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe it takes…


First, you need EXPERTISE.

This is the foundational layer. The most critical and fundamental part of building great companies and careers is knowing how to do the work.

Next, you need RESOURCES.

In order to do the work you know how to do, you need the means to do it. This means money or the various things money can buy, like tools, teammates, training, visibility, and more.

Next, you need an AUDIENCE.

Once you know how to do the work and have the means to do it, you need other people to receive your work. Whether you have readers or customers, fans or clients, the exchange that occurs between you and them is commerce, distilled. Who is your work FOR?

Lastly, there’s YOU, the person or the team.

You provide the final layer of improvement to your work. It’s that last mile push towards greatness. You know how to do things and have the means to do them, and you have an audience of people who wants what you can do. As a person or a group, you can now leave your unique mark on the world. Eventually, who you are makes a difference.

This is what we’ve been told to believe about doing great work.

But this … is wrong.

In fact, it’s entirely backwards. We have to flip this on its head.

So let’s start over…

So you want to do exceptional work. Great! But now the question becomes: How?

Well, the least foundational thing is EXPERTISE.

As knowledge workers, knowing THE answer has become the most commodified thing in our world today. We need it, but we can Google it. We can watch a video on YouTube for it. We can ask someone on social or consult any of the millions of blog posts, books, podcasts, Ultimate Guides, blueprints, cheat-sheets, templates, online trainings, and offline events.

We can launch side projects, and we can access experts. We can even outsource and automate.

In reality, it’s simply not sufficient to know how to do the work. In some cases, it’s barely necessary.

Access to RESOURCES has also become democratized in knowledge-based jobs.

The internet has leveled the playing field and removed the gatekeepers. We have more free tools and cheaper technologies. We can watch or hear the world’s best thinkers for free and try entire curriculums from our couches. We can earn a living through traditional jobs, yes, but also through freelance, remote, or gig economy-based work. We can fund our company through traditional capital or by turning a profit, sure, but also through crowdfunding, angel investors, and micro-VCs.

And most powerfully of all, in a world without gatekeepers…

We can access our AUDIENCE directly and for free.

We can reach people ourselves, without permission. We can learn about them more intimately and identify key insights to create better work. The more we know the customer, the easier the other stuff becomes. In a world where knowledge is a commodity and resources are increasingly democratized, if we know our audience better than the other guy, WE. WIN.

But in all of this, the most foundational thing and the key to doing exceptional work is something long considered to be the commodity:


What we’ve long considered to be incremental is actually fundamental. It’s where we should start. All our lives, we’ve been told that that exceptional work is built on expertise.

It’s not.

Exceptional work is built on self-awareness.

The gurus and the experts are over-valued. The what and the how-to, too. But the most critical thing we can understand to do great things is our own context, and nothing makes your context more unique than your very presence.

YOU are the variable. YOU are the great unknown. YOU are the unfair advantage.

How do you understand your context? How do you understand yourself? You stop obsessing over the expert’s right answers and instead ask yourself the right questions. It is so much more powerful that we know how to find answers than knowing THE answer, because THE answer will change. But if we can throw ourselves into any scenario in this fast-changing world of ours and know how to figure it out? We’re unstoppable.

That’s what this whole Unthinkable thing is about: From the outside looking in, someone might deem our work crazy, or creative, or innovative, or impossible. But it’s all because we know something the expert never could about our context. We operate in our specific situation, and so we act more like investigators than experts.

To be exceptional, you have to be an exception. And the good news is, every individual, every team, and every situation IS an exception. But you have to make that the foundation of your work. You have to trust that reality. You have to USE THAT in your work. Everything else, even the expertise we choose to acquire, flows from that self-awareness.

If you can just flip your understanding of what it takes to do great work, you’ll realize you have what it takes already. You can lay the foundation without needing to know THE answer from any expert. You see, YOU are the answer.


So you want to do exceptional work. Great! But now the question becomes: What are you waiting for?

Be the exception,

~ Jay