“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.”
― Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald

I have been reflecting on my career, thinking about what it is that separates top performers from average ones. Is it a particular skill? Specific experiences? A specific attitude or mindset? When I listened to an interview with Adam Robinson on The Tim Ferriss Show, the answer suddenly appeared to me. Specifically, Adam’s response to the question “What advice would you give a smart, driven, college graduate?” [around 20:54 in the podcast episode]

I thought about Adam’s answer (spoiler: enthusiasm) and compared it against the experiences I had: good and bad.

Why enthusiasm is the number one skill to have

When you start your career, and especially if you have graduated from a top university, you feel on top of the world. You graduated with great marks and now you’re ready to earn a living. But university doesn’t prepare you for the real world. The real world has different sets of rules and policies than the ones you followed at university.

For example:

  • With school, a passing mark (say 50%) is awful. In real life, a passing mark (50%) can be outstanding depending on what you do.
  • In university, there are people you can go to if you feel you are not on the right path (academic advisors, peer advisors, career counsellors). Out in the real world, seek people who can guide you (and then also figure out whether you should take their advice).
  • In university (and school), you are taught that there are right answers and wrong answers to questions. In life, there are few circumstances where there are right or wrong answers. Instead, there are answers that align with your values and those that don’t.

If university doesn’t prepare you for the real world, what do you really know? Nothing. If I’ve learned anything from work, I learned that little I learned in university helped prepare me for work. Mind you, things may have changed since I graduated from university at least a decade ago.

If you don’t have the right skills or the right experience to do the work you do, what can you do? Let’s frame the question in terms of what do you hope to get out of your job. If you frame it that way, I think most ambitious individuals would want to learn as much as possible. And the best way to learn as much as possible is to work with as many people and on as many different projects as you can. How can you make that happen? One is doing amazing work no matter what you do. The other? Being an enthusiastic employee. With all things being equal though, managers and leaders will want to work with those that bring enthusiasm to the team and work environment vs. those that don’t.

Five ways to be enthusiastic without being fake

Notice I said enthusiasm is a skill. It’s a skill, and not a trait because it is something you can learn and grow if you don’t have it. What I’ll cover next are natural ways to tap into your enthusiasm:

  • Identify your strengths, and focus on bringing those to bear on the problem. While at a professional services firm, one thing I liked doing was PowerPoint presentations. I know that sounds strange, but it was great trying to think outside of the (PowerPoint) box. I found it easy to communicate key messages through visuals. It was also something that differentiated me from other consultants I worked with.
  • Develop a growth rather than a fixed mindset. No matter the project, whether it is good or bad (and I have been on the whole spectrum of projects), there is something to learn. Sometimes it’s about how to get ahead of work. Other times about the resiliency and support of your teammates. When you come into a task with a growth mindset, mistakes and other obstacles become learning opportunities rather than setbacks caused by you.
  • Every day, save a life. James Altucher, as part of his daily practice, looks at himself in the mirror in the mornings and tells himself “I’m going to save a life”. And then throughout the day, he looks for the person he is going to save. I don’t mean it in a dramatic, someone falling off the roof and you see them and rush over to catch them before they hit the ground, kind of way. I mean in the sense that there are some people that just want to be heard. There are people you meet or talk to that just seem depressed or down or seem off. Those are the people you should look out for, cheer up, and spend more time with than normal. In a similar way with work, tell yourself “every day I am going to earn my rate” or “every meeting, I’m going to ask one question”.
  • Give out compliments. Every organization I have worked with has had a system for recognizing coworkers. I don’t give away compliments often. I throw out criticisms left and right to others. It’s easy to judge. It’s not as easy to compliment another person on the excellent work they did or the support they provided on a project. In fact, I want to make sure I’m reminded so I have a reminder in my calendar every month to think of people I have worked with, and to send them kudos for the work they have done, whether related to my projects or not.
  • Find ways to bring your passions and hobbies to your work. Through informal conversations with coworkers, I have learned about my coworkers and their love for Dodge Ram trucks, love of non-fiction books, love of gardening, love of musical biographies, love of the strongest coffee you can get. It’s astounding to see the change in my coworkers from when we talk about work, to when we talk about their passions and hobbies. My advice: try to bring it into a conversation at some point and find as many appropriate opportunities as possible to talk about your passions and hobbies.