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Focus on Your Weakest Skills

April 30, 2017

Mychal Johnson, head brewer at Finkel and Gart Beers.

 

How do you know when you’ve found your calling? According to the brewer Mychal Johnson, it’s when you leave you high paying job to make eight dollars an hour working nights, and you know it’s exactly what you want to do. Mychal, who studied physics as an undergrad and worked as a submarine sonar technician for eight years, caught the beer making bug when living in Seattle Washington. He then quit his secure job and set out to learn everything he could about beer making, starting by working in the cellar at Seven Seas Brewing. He continued on to Tallgrass Brewing in Manhattan, Kansas, then headed out to Idaho Springs, Colorado, where he became the brewer at Tommyknocker Brewery, and helped with the startup Fate Brewing Company in Boulder. He met Dan and Eric Garfinkel, the owners of Finkle and Garf Beer, who signed on Mychal to head up their brewing program. From the onset, the owners gave Mychal free reign in making all brewing decisions. Their faith has paid off—the brewery has won a string of awards, most recently for a gold at the Denver International Beer Competition for their Dryhopped Amber.

From the beginning, Mychal realized that beermaking is a process of continual learning. His approach to beermaking was influenced by a time he visited Rogue Ales and Spirits and saw the brewer, John Mair—who had already been working there for over twenty years at the time—out on the floor in his rubber boots dragging around hoses. Mychal sees this an example of a fundamental truth of craftmanship: every day you’ve got to earn your way. Lots of people, he says, have a “I paid my dues” attitude and think they can coast on what they’ve already accomplished. But in beermaking, there’s never a point where you can sit back and hold still. The market is constantly evolving, and you’ve got to keep innovating and improving. As an example of this, his brewery recently had to pull one of their staples—the pale ale—because customer preferences had shifted towards bolder flavors.

Being a craftsman means you’ve never paid your dues: you’ve got to earn your way each day, by improving, innovating and delivering your best work.    


One of the things Mychal loves about his job is interacting with the enthusiastic brewing community. Homebrewers will often come in and ask him why their beer isn’t turning out right, or how they can deal with a brewing problem. Mychal always responds with the same questions: “What is the most important thing in the brewing process?” People will reply with a range of answers, such as adding hops at the right time, correctly setting the temperature, or monitoring yeast health. In Mychal’s view, to make great beer you’ve got to be a fanatic for all the details, and attend to everything as if it’s your number one priority. So he’ll tell people, “OK, every single thing you do with brewing, treat it as if it’s that important…that will make your beer better, regardless of what you’re making.”

Mycal’s meticulous attention to quality is reflected throughout his brewing process. When making bold beers like IPAs, imperial reds, or stouts, it’s possible to get away with fudging things, because the stronger flavors can mask your missteps. But Mychal brews every beer with the same procedures he uses on his American lager, a light, crisp beer that leaves no room for flaws. By designing his brewing program around the beer that’s hardest to get right, he ensures that he’s always doing things to the highest standard—even when it would be easy to cheat. And this is what makes it possible for him to consistently produce fantastic beers.

Strategically Improve Your Areas of Weakness

The educational psychologist Barry Zimmer has for the last three decades studied “self regulated” learning—or how people develop expertise on their own (which, by the way, is how most everything of importance is learned in our lives—not in school). <BZ><HE> In diverse studies, ranging from how volley ball players perfect the overhand serve to how high school students develop competence in mathematics, he has found that optimal learning entails a three-phase process:

Plan it: you review your abilities, and develop targeted learning tasks to help you improve.
Practice it: you implement your learning tasks and observing their outcome.
Evaluate it: you reflect upon your learning plan and performance, and adapt your strategy as needed. (Then go back to step 1).

For example, if a basketball player wishes to improve her free throwing technique, she should break the action into component tasks (position feet, cock wrist, hold the follow through); practice and observe her performance (do 10-12-14 drills: shoot 2 shots each from 10’, 12’, and 14’, then shoot 5 free throws); and evaluate her performance and make adjustments (ball release is inconsistent, so work on hand positioning and knee bend). <BF>

Although most people understand the importance of practice in improving their abilities, they often don’t spend sufficient time planning and evaluating how they practice. This is limiting in two ways:

  • Insufficient planning: you don’t identify the skills you need to improve, and subsequently do not develop learning tasks targeted to address those needs. The result: you practice the wrong things and improve slowly (if at all).
  • Insufficient evaluation: you don’t reflect upon your learning performance and adapt your strategy as needed. The result: you keep practicing the same things, even though your learning needs have changed, causing your performance to plateau.

The root of these problems is that people tend to focus on developing skills that they are already good at and enjoy, while ignoring abilities at which they are less competent and comfortable. It’s only human nature to want to work on the things that we find rewarding. The problem is that your performance is often only as good as your weakest link—the area that you’re least skilled at. Do any of the following examples sound familiar?

  • Accomplished artists who spend decades developing their creative voice and technique, yet who never learn to promote and sell their work.
  • Nonprofit executives who are excellent project managers, but are terrible at fund raising.
  • Brilliant technologists whose career advancement halts because they are unable to work in teams.
  • Small business owners who develop a unique product or service, yet whose businesses falters because they are unskilled at marketing their services.
  • Product designers who have top notch aesthetics and ideation, but who create unsatisfactory designs because of their limited consumer research skills
  • Scientist who possess brilliant theoretical insights, yet whose rudimentary quantitative skills result in mundane research
  • Organizational managers who spend decades building valuable expertise, yet who fail to motivate and lead because of their poor communication skills.

We all have our Achilles heel: that important skill that we hate to work on (whether we find it boring, distasteful, unpleasant, awkward, or we think we’re bad at it).  If you want to master your craft, you can’t pick and choose what skills to perfect. You’ve got to care about everything. (In fact, one of the joys of mastery is in getting to care passionately about every nook and cranny of your work). This brings us back to the advice Mychal Johnson gives to novice brewers: treat every aspect of your work as if it’s the most important thing. Find the techniques and skills that you think are most crucial, then focus on every other work process with the same passion and intensity—especially those areas that you tend to overlook or fudge.

What’s Your Achilles Heel?

It’s common for creators to focus on techniques and process that they’re good at and enjoy. But your overall performance is often limited by what you’re least skilled at. For example, a potter may have exceptional centering technique, but will still be inconsistent in his work if he is not competent at preparing clay for throwing on the wheel.

If you have an Achilles heel—an important skill that you habitually ignore—then you should devote yourself to improving it. Here are the steps:

  • Identify the areas you have overlooked and need to improve. As a photographer, I love working on photo composition, but I’m still not great at optimizing my camera’s aperture, shutter and ISO settings.
  • Break it into learning tasks and practice. I’m going to experiment with taking photographs under different conditions (high speed, low light) and with different exposure goals (motion blur, subject isolated from the background).   
  • Evaluate your performance and come up with new areas to improve. I’ve now got a handle on my camera settings, but I need to get better at working with curves and levels in post production.

 

 

References:

<GS> “Finkel & Garf Brewing, Boulder, CO.” Growlers and Stickers. http://growlersandstickers.com/blogs---brewery-stories/finkel-garf-brewing-co-boulder-co5305352

<BZ> Barry Zimmerman. “The Hidden Dimension of Personal Competence: Self-Regulated Learning and Practice”. In Handbook of Competence and Motivation, 2005.

<HE> Howard Everson. “Learning and the Adolescent Mind.” http://learningandtheadolescentmind.org/people_04.html

<BF> Bob Foley. “Free Throw Shooting.” Bob Foley’s Next Level Basketball. http://bobfoleybasketball.net/tips/free-throw-shooting/

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