An Engineer’s guide to optimising self

Optimising Self

This time I thought I’d have a go at sharing some thoughts that might be of practical help to folks who have questions around what they should be doing with their lives and careers.

Don’t worry though, I’m not going to get all evangelical on you, this isn’t that type of blog.


I’m in my late forties. Along the way I left school at sixteen, worked in factories, picked litter (and worse) off the side of roads, went back to education in my twenties, studied at postgrad level and for the last twenty years I worked continuously at two very successful tech companies. As you might imagine I have encountered my share of interesting characters and also been fortunate enough to have met a few brilliantly successful people. These are people who are by luck or judgement highly skilled in their fields and driven by what they are doing. They will do in a day what takes most people weeks and they will do it well. They are amazing people who will achieve great things in their careers and everyone wants these guys and gals on their team. This post is not for them.

I think we know that most people aren’t like that. By far and away the bulk of people that I have met tend to either be drifting through, or more usually being blown about by, life. Somewhat rudderless, not really knowing what it is they should be doing or where it is they should be going with their lives. Some want to fix it and if you are one of them, then this post is for.

Three Circles

About a year ago I was trying to figure things out for myself and was fortunate enough to come across this article “ The Personal Hedgehog Concept 2.0: Discover What You’re Meant to Do” by Tony Khuon. I don’t know where the “Hedgehog” bit comes in, but it really clicked with me and got me thinking.

It makes the obvious (so obvious it is in fact very easy to overlook) observation, that highly successful people tend to have three things in common. Namely, most of the time their careers involve them simultaneously doing things that they:

  1. Care deeply about it.
  2. Are brilliant at.
  3. Get paid enough to meet or exceed their needs.

Tony’s article makes the premise that if we want to be highly successful, or at least to do a lot better, then we might do well to copy this arrangement.


I’ve shown the situation in my version of the set diagram, with the Heart representing the set of things that an individual could “Care about”, the “Top 10%” the set for which they are brilliant at and the “$$$”’s those which would meet their financial or sustenance needs.

This article is about what I’ve found works for figuring out what these sets look like and hence where the intersection is. I refer to this process as finding your Sweet Spot. As with a tennis racquet’s Sweet Spot and a tennis ball, finding your career Sweet Spot can help you maximise how far you go.

Caveats and Questions

Before we start let’s cover some informative caveats and questions early so that they do not get in the way later.

Not magic happy medicine

From what I’ve seen so far I think finding your Sweet Spot gives you the greatest chance of being happy, but because of external circumstances cannot guarantee it. Ultimately attempting to live a meaningful life does not necessarily always equate to a happy one, sorry 🙁

Just the Start

What you’ll get out of the process is an understanding of what your Sweet Spot looks like. You have then got to put into action a plan for how to get from where you are now to your Sweet Spot. This might seem a bit daunting, but hopefully, your analysis will have prepared you well for the journey ahead.

no career guarantees

Aiming for your Sweet Spot does not guarantee a successful career. Even if we ignore the important part luck plays in the equation, motivation can be distinctly subject to factors outside of your control e.g. team changes, macroeconomics etc. What it does guarantee though is that you will be in the best place to cope with them when you encounter them.

You NeeD to Routinely Repeat the process

What we care about, find interesting, or are the best at will change with the passage of time. So, inevitably does your Sweet Spot. However, once you know how to find it, finding it again should be easier. To a great degree this repeating the process should be part of your own ongoing active Personal Development process. (You do practice some form of routine Personal Development right?)

How does it work?

People who are highly motivated are better at getting things done. Indeed, so important is it that there is a staggering amount of academic and industry research on its effects and how to create it. As an example I Googled “the effect of motivation on employee performance”. This gave me over seventeen million results, I’ve not tried every combination, but I’d wager that slightly different wording will yield similar numbers of results.

The actual figures bandied around for its impact vary enormously. One training course I attended mentioned that someone who was motivated, versus someone who was only turning up for the money, was typically about a third more productive. I think this might be a bit low, but as a ballpark figure it’s worth considering. What it is saying is that being highly motivated is a bit like having a productivity super power. Every three days you will accomplish a fourth day’s work for free. No surprises employers are keen on it!!!

One of the pertinent properties of motivation is that it is a by-product, a bit like happiness. We can’t just be happy, or motivated, it’s always somewhat dynamic, something that our circumstances and actions indirectly create. I think the Sweet Spot works because it creates the circumstances where self-motivation can thrive, in turn, whatever the actual figures are, this enables you to get more stuff done with less perceived effort.

Should I bother?

I’ve seen this technique work for a number of people but in the end, only you can decide what is right for you. If you are happy with your life and find it easy to get up to go to work in the morning, then probably not. Saying that you might surprise yourself and even if you do not, may end up understanding what’s special about what you are currently doing and valuing it accordingly.

A Process for Finding Your Sweet Spot

The process is conceptually straightforward; start by determining the set of things that you Care About, populate that set and move on to Getting Paid, then on to Top 10%. By the end of the process what is common between them, what is your Sweet Spot, will become obvious to you and voilà, job done. Next step get yourself into a job that allows you to operate there.

In practice though it will tend to be an iterative process where thinking about items in one set will get you thinking about, and filtering, things in others. So for this reason, I recommend the use of a Mind Mapping tool for the defining and working with the lists. Another good tip is that you shouldn’t be afraid to share your thinking with others, it’s likely that the end result will be a lot stronger with more eyes on it.

Time-wise, I’d probably allow at least three days spread over several weeks. You ideally want it spread out a bit as it’s helpful to allow a bit of reflection and more concretely, the talking through and collection of feedback from any third parties you can engage will take time.

Care ABout

Of the three sets, this is the one I have seen give people the most problems. It is the set of things that you care deeply about.

For most people the problem is twofold. They have not, and are not currently, doing something that they care about doing deeply. Secondly, the spectrum of things that these people could be doing is so vast and unconstrained that the choice is totally overwhelming.

I think the key here is to realise that our lives will have previously contained at least a little bit of what we care deeply about. Maybe not enough, but definitely some. So, to work out this list a good approach is to look at our current lives, list what we’ve enjoyed and to then extract from that what it is that we really Care About at a deeper level.

As a process this might look something like this:

  1. List all that you have done, or still do, that would cause you to spend hours searching and reading about, to miss meals,  to generally forget about time. You get the drift. It doesn’t matter how trivial, sybaritic or childlike they may appear to be to anyone, just get them, and everything else down, keep doing this until you are bored. Go away and come back and try to add some more. Quantity not quality at this stage.
  2. From that jumbo list, look at each item in turn and try to understand at a deeper level why they are so absorbing to you and create a new list of these underlying root causes. You can use what you like to get at the root cause, I recommend using the Five Whys technique. Whatever you use, you absolutely must know what the underlying things are that cause you to get so absorbed that you forget about time, these are the things you need to have as active parts of your career.

$$$ Getting Paid

Next on the list is the set of things that you could do that will, or could, give you enough recompense to exceed your likely physical needs.

At a simple level unless you are very lucky, eventually whatever it is that you are proposing to do is going to have to meet your physical needs, or performance will suffer because you will be distracted in order to meet them. Beyond that, most people are motivated by money and the lifestyle that it can buy to at least some degree. Both are important and should be considered carefully.

So the process here is:

  1. Determine realistically how much money, or its equivalent, you need and actually want.
  2. Find yourself at least three sources of careers listing information, such as Internet job boards, industry publications and salary surveys These are great, especially if they contain salary information alongside.
  3. Go through those listings and create your own jumbo list of careers and activities that you might vaguely be interested in doing that will pay you what you need and want. It’s important to note when doing this that:
    1. You should look at other activities and industry sectors outside of where you are now. Where you are now isn’t working for you, so you may need to look elsewhere to find something that fits you better.
    2. Don’t worry about the intangible, non-physical side of things here, those are implicitly covered by the “Care About” set.

TOP 10%

Finally we come to the list of items that you are brilliant at, or could be if you put enough time into them.

Anything that is in this set will likely offer you long term job security and better promotion prospects.

Again, with this list initially don’t worry too much about quality. Hopefully looking at what jobs are out there previously will have given you a good spectrum of ideas, just try to capture as many of these things that you think, or anyone else thinks you might be good at. Then filter down with a critical eye afterwards.

The filtering in this case can be tricky, particularly if you have not done anything similar before and are to a certain extent trying to predict the future.  Additional complicating factors include that they are relative to your direct competition and on an accurate self-assessment of your own capabilities from which you may have to build.

Because of this the process this time should be something like:

  1. Try to get some form of a realistic appraisal of personality type and strengths and weaknesses. To do this undertake at least two of the following:
    1. Ask your family and friends what they think your strengths and weaknesses are, be careful to discount opinions where necessary and to also listen out for what is not being said as much as what is.
    2. Undertake a recognised personality self-assessment test, such as Myers-Briggs or similar. If you are working for a forward thinking company your HR department may well be able to help out with this, failing that there are versions online such as here
    3. Arrange for someone else to undertake a 360 review with people who know you well and provide feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.  Again this could be something that your HR department might be able to help out with.
  2. Generate your initial big unfiltered list of things that you think you might be good at.
  3. Go through the unfiltered list from 2) and remove from it everything where you are not going to be in the Top 10%, or where the risk of getting there is too great for you. To do this think about:
    1. Your assessments and feedback from 1)
    2. How much risk, time and money you are willing to take to get to be in the Top 10% for your target field?
    3. If you have done something similar before, how did you compare to the best in the market then and now?
    4. If you’ve not done anything directly comparable before then is there any external validation of your plan.  For example, do you have a fantastic academic record from a recognised good university in that field? Do you have any work or publications in the field that have picked up a reasonable usage or readership? Whatever it is you are considering, try to look at it from an external point of view and ask yourself “Why would anyone think I am in, or could be the top ten percent for this?”

What next?

Once you’ve figured out where your Sweet Spot lies that’s only the start of the story. You then have then to decide whether to stay put or to make the changes that’ll move you into your Sweet Spot.

Good luck.

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