The Proficiency Continuum

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 6 min read

There were many times throughout my life where I mistakenly thought that because I had a talent, I could make a career out of it.

For example, over the course of my life, I’ve developed a knack for doing some decent impressions. This includes a variety of characters from TV and movies, and a collection of different accents delivered with varying degrees of accuracy from passable-to-cartoonish. At times, I have honestly believed that, if I wanted to, I could become one of the great voice actors of our time.

Does that resonate at all? Have you ever thought about something you’re good at and said to yourself: “yeah, I could probably do that…if I wanted to.”

What I came to understand throughout all of my daydreaming of future success, is that the defining characteristic of those who make an impact versus those who don’t, is how keenly aware of their location on the Proficiency Continuum.

Talent

two Minions character figure on red table

My dream of becoming the next great voiceover artist came crashing into reality when I met my first professional voiceover artist at a networking event.

We met for coffee and chatted about her work. She explained the importance of her demo reel, how she invested in her equipment, who she networks with, what her most exciting gigs have been, and how she markets her talents. Over the following months, I saw how she hustled to find work from recording corporate voicemail greetings to doing commercial voiceovers for videos.

All I had was a few voices that often degraded after a few catchphrases. Sure, I had some natural talent but I was a party trick. She had developed her talent into something consistent and repeatable. She did something with her talent.

Talent is raw material but it needs to be developed, refined, and honed. It takes time, it takes dedication. The number of people who can get by on talent-alone is so small that we can justifiably say that no one does.

Ability

orange fruit on black pan

I have been cooking since I was around seven years old. I love being in the kitchen.

Over the years, I’ve consistently added new cooking skills to my repertoire.

  • My knife skills moved from “don’t cut yourself” to “I think I should brunoise these carrots for this dish.”
  • My understanding of textures and flavors started with replicating recipes, and developed into inventing my own.
  • My methods of preparation started with just boiling and pan frying but developed to include sous vide, pressure cooking, pickling, and dehydrating, among others…

From the start, I had both the right environment and some natural talents that allowed me to pick up cooking a little more easily. However, it’s the thousands of hours I’ve spent with a cutting board and a knife, studying and experimenting with new foods, and preparing meals for myself and friends that turned talent to ability.

Talent are the raw ingredients, ability is a finished meal. Ability is the point at which you can use your talents in a more meaningful way, whether that is professionally, or just more creatively on your own.

Ability is why the voiceover artist could be paid for her voice, and why I could not. Lots of people give up when talent doesn’t pay off, neglecting to realize that ability is more likely the minimum requirement for entry.

Mastery

gold and silver round pendant necklace

You’ve probably heard that it takes 10,000 hours to develop Mastery of a skill. While that is true, I don’t think that tells the whole story.

At this point in my life, I’ve probably spent 10,000 hours or more cooking. There are people who began cooking much later in life but studied under Thomas Keller, Joël Robuchon, or Ferran Adrià. Their 10,000 hours are different from mine. They are working under much greater intensity and the skill level required for each level of advancement at that level is mind-boggling.

Mastery is less about time and more about depth. It just so happens that sufficient depth often requires time.

People who have developed talent into ability may think that they can hone that ability over 10,000 hours and they will achieve Mastery. Depending on the definition of Mastery, that may be true. This is where we need to go back to the original point: the Proficiency Continuum.

Destination vs Continuum

Despite our love of standardized testing, it’s important to note that the lines of demarcation are fuzzy at best. Remember, “we” make up the exact point where those milestones start and end. But since we all have differing strengths and weaknesses, defining a single measure for aptitude is tricky.

The truth is that proficiency is not a set of destinations, like this.

It’s more of a continuum, like this…

Somewhere along the way, you’ll know you have turned your talent into something more. Somewhere along the way your ability will stand out.

Mastery is not the end. In fact, for “the greats” Mastery was the actual beginning. It’s where they’d been trying to get to their entire lives.

Don’t get stuck on your talent

No doubt some of the greatest humans to have ever lived, failed to capitalize on their potential or make their mark because they were overconfident about their talents. They wanted it, but they mistakenly thought they were much farther along than they were. Locating yourself on the continuum is a good first step, because it can be a sobering look at the journey ahead.

I believe that if you are here, on this blog, reading this post, then you share a belief that we are capable of becoming superhuman and collectively transforming the world for ourselves and future generations.

That’s what this blog is about, as I’ve continually pointed out.

By examining, interrogating, and seeking to improve the various systems we are a part of, and searching for ways to continually grow our own abilities, we give ourselves the tools to make a kinder, safer, and equitable world.

Yes, the world needs you and it needs your talents. More than that, we need you to not get comfortable resting solely on your talent. We become superhuman in our moment of discomfort, in the lessons learned from failure, and in the challenges overcome.

Most dreams are dashed when we think we can get by on talent alone. We give up on passion when we lack the patience to turn ability into mastery.

It doesn’t matter if you want to cook, do voiceovers, or try to completely redesign human society to confront the reality of climate change. Whatever it is, we need your talents and your abilities.

Find yourself on the continuum, take a deep breath, ready yourself, and more forward.

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