10 Essential Steps To Get To The Top Of Your Field
By Leo Babauta
Every freelancer can get better, but only a handful are at the top of their field — the best writers, the best designers, the best marketers, the best tech guys, the best artists, the best photographers. That’s where you want to be, if you want to succeed in your field.
Be the best, and someday others will be emulating you.
For now, if you’re not already at the top of your field, there are some essential steps you can take today to get there. Whether you’re just starting out or even if you’ve been doing what you do for over a decade (like I have), there’s always ways to improve.
Learn from the best. Who are the best in your field right now? If you don’t already know, find out now. These are the people you need to know, in detail. How did they get so good? What makes them good? Know their work from their early days until now, and how it has changed, and improved over time. Know the elements of their work that make them the best, and analyze them. And emulate them. Steal their styles until you’ve mastered them, and then use them as a leaping board to create your own.
Read up. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of technical manuals and websites and magazines on honing your skills. Read as much as you can. You should always have a book or a website bookmarked, and read every day. If this seems like too much work, you probably don’t really want to be the best. That’s OK … there’s nothing wrong with being satisfied with your talent as it is now. For the rest of you, who want to get better, put in the time and effort to read about your skill. And don’t just read — take notes. And implement the ideas.
Practice. Probably the number one way to get better. Practice as much as you can. Get a lot of jobs (that’s not always easy, I know) and do as much work as possible until you can do it with your eyes closed (that’s a real feat for artists and photographers!). If you can’t get a lot of work, practice on your own. Work during your spare time, doing samples and copying the best and trying out things you’ve read about and trying out new things. Over and over.
Get feedback. You’ll never get better if you don’t have someone to criticize you. Actively seek criticism from those who are more experienced. If you get a lot of work, ask those who pay you for your work to analyze it and give you some honest feedback. Tell them that you would like to hear the good and the bad — what’s working, and what you need to improve. Ask them to be as honest as possible. And then take the criticism without getting your feelings hurt. This kind of honest criticism is what you need to improve — thank them for it. If you don’t get a lot of work, submit stuff to others who are willing to help you out. Find mentors, and ask for criticism.
Analyze. In addition to the criticism you get from others, learn to criticize it yourself. Closely analyze your work, and try to see what you’re doing right and wrong. See if there are things you can smooth out, things that are just so-so, things that you repeat too often.
Practice some more. If you feel you’ve already practiced enough, you haven’t. Not unless you’re already at the top of your field. The feedback loop, with criticism from others and analysis from yourself, is the way for you to modify your practice so that you are changing what you do and improving yourself. Practice some more. Do it a lot. You’ll get better.
Edit. Whatever you do, whether it’s writing or drawing or taking pictures or making businesses better, etc., you can always edit what you do. For writers, this means going over your work and fixing awkward sentences or shortening stuff that’s unnecessary. It means getting your work down to just what is necessary, and making every sentence and every word count. For photography or drawing or design, you could apply the same concepts — remove elements and see if a simplified design works better. Minimalize. Make every element count. For others that are more process-driven, edit your process, making every step, every little thing you do, count.
Focus. Editing works best in combination with focus — finding what’s truly essential, and focusing on that. You can edit without discrimination, but you may be editing the important stuff out. Find out what is key to this particular work, and focus on it. Focus is also an important concept in any improvement — if you want to get better, you need to know what elements of your trade are most important, and focus on those.
Experiment. Don’t be afraid to be different! Be bold, be daring, break out of the mold. It’s good to emulate the best, but once you have that down, you should break away from them and try something new. Even if it isn’t completely new, you might find new combinations, or at least find stuff that’s not as common. Try things out, and see if they work. They will often not work. That’s OK. Keep experimenting. In fact, make this a critical part of your work, even when you do hit the top.
Reflect. All of this is useless without reflection. You should spend some of your time each day, each week, each month and each year reflecting on what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, what you’ve learned, what you need to improve on, what you should focus on, and how far you’ve come. And reflect on the process, and how it can be improved. And reflect on how fun it is to improve, and enjoy the process.