Ep 133: What Is My Zone of Genius?
According to Gay Hendricks’ book, The Big Leap, there are four zones – incompetence, competence, excellence, and genius. In this episode, Adam Quiney focuses on the zone of excellence and the zone of genius. He gives an example and explains how it relates to and how he recommends you relate to your zone of genius and your zone of excellence. He also relates this to leadership, energy, and communication. Have you found your zone of genius yet?
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What Is My Zone of Genius?
On this show, we’re looking at how do we have you show up as a leader in the moment versus how you show up with more information in your brain about the topic of leadership? We’re also often taking a look at common pitfalls in the field of leadership, assumptions, wisdom and knowledge that’s shared out as though it will enhance leadership while often doing the opposite, being quite counter-intuitive. That is part of the nature of leadership is that leadership is always in the face of our safety and our familiarity. It’s towards the unknown. The ego’s job is to fool you into not doing that. The best way you can do that is through fooling you by convincing you that the thing that you are driven to go to words, which will be the familiar, your ego’s jobs convinced, “No. You’re doing the work of a leader.”
We’re in a bit of an arms race with our ego because our ego always co-opts whatever we’ve learned. Yesterday’s breakthrough becomes this day’s tool for your ego to hold you in check. Having said all of that, one of the things we’re going to be talking about is this notion of your zone of genius. What is my zone of genius? Have you heard people talk about this? Have you seen people write about their zone of genius? Have you perhaps asked yourself this question? Maybe with a clenched fist and a frowned forehead and looking up to the sky and like, “What is my zone of genius,” or maybe by a waterfall. I don’t know where you do these things. That’s your business.
The Four Zones
We’re going to start by talking about what is this notion and the zone of genius. We’ll break out not just the zone of genius, but some of the other zones that Gay Hendricks, that creator of this distinction talks about and we’re going to talk about how it’s counterintuitive and why many people get this inquiry wrong. Even to some extent, gay, which is quite a broad claim. I better back that up. We’ll start with what is this idea. What is our zone of genius? Our zone of genius is a concept created by Gay Hendricks in his book The Big Leap. He distinguishes four zones in this book. The first is the zone of incompetence. This would be like me doing cross country skiing. I don’t even know anything about it. I don’t know at all about it.
The second zone is your zone of competence. This would be me playing basketball. I can do it enough to do it, but I’m far from great at it or anything. It’s the last two that we are going to talk about that are the most interesting. The zone of excellence is that zone in which it’s often what we get paid to do in our lives. It’s stuff that we’re proficient at, but it’s not quite a reflection of who we truly are. That is speaking towards our zone of genius. Our zone of genius is this natural place where we thrive. When we’re operating in our zone of genius, we are in a state of flow. It’s one of the ways Gay describes is it’s that thing only you can bring into the world, that’s uniquely you in this world. We’ll spend most of our time talking about these last two.
The Zone Of Excellence And The Zone Of Genius
Let’s go a little deeper into these last two zones. The zone of excellence is the zone where you were doing something you were tremendously skilled at. The zone of excellence is often cultivated, practiced and established over time. You did not necessarily start with this as your zone of excellence. It wasn’t like you were born with this. This is something you developed. Meanwhile, your zone of genius, this is the zone in which you capitalized on your natural abilities, which are innate rather than learned. It’s a state where you find yourself in flow, find seasonless inspiration and seem to not only come up with work that is distinguished and unique, but also do in a way that excels far beyond what anyone else is doing.
The question people then ask themselves from here and those they’re trying to coach, and lead is often, “What’s your zone of genius dummy?” Why is this a challenge? It seems fairly sensible like, “I got to think about this.” Let’s look at some of the examples of questions people ask to try and help them get at this. These are questions Gaye asks in his book. If you Google search for zone of genius, you’re going to see a lot of these questions. Some of those questions would be, “What work do you do that doesn’t seem like work?” That’d be one. Another one would be, in your work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to the amount of time you spent? These seem like great questions and yet there is a problem. The problem is that this conversation has not distinguished who we are being from what we are doing. Therefore, these questions direct your attention towards what you were doing. What is the work I do that doesn’t seem like work? In my work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to the amount of time spent? It puts a focus on what we were doing. My assertion here is that your zone of genius is never about what you were doing. It is about who you are being as you do whatever you were doing.
We’re going to get further into this, but the issue then here is that all of these questions without having distinguished or doing from our being are going to lead you naturally back towards looking at what you were doing and make that the place where you distinguish these zones, rather than a function of who you’re being. You’ll hear this when people will tell you, “Part of my zone of genius is doing logistics. Part of my zone of genius is arranging and putting books together. Part of my zone of genius is doing accounts.” These are all things you do or are all doing. We’re going to work with an example that explains how this relates and how I recommend you relate to your zone of genius and your zone of excellence.
Innate Ways Of Being
First, I’m going to assert that your zone of genius is pointing towards your innate ways of being. If part of who you are on this planet is connection, then the times when you are simply being, connection are going to be the most abundant and seem as though you’re not doing any work at all. You’re in the flow. Look at you go. If you want a primer on the quality of being that is connection, check out episode 124. You can go and read that. I’ll give you a sense of what we’re talking about when we describe this quality of being that is connection.
Having said that, we know that there are going to be places in your life where you’ve learned to turn your connection, the quality of being that is innately yours. You’ve learned to turn the volume up on it, way up, or you’ve learned to turn the volume down on it, way down. The times when you turn your innate way of being and something over or under expressed is going to be a function of your circumstances. If you’re around people you’re worried won’t like you and this was part of the childhood training you got, then you’re probably going to turn your connection way up. Like you and me might get super charming.
You might fill all of the moments in the conversation, all the pauses with more conversation to make sure you remain interesting and are a good conversationalist. Around people like this, you’re going to find that it’s draining to be around them because you were doing something that isn’t natural. You’re turning yourself up to eleven when what is natural is simply be connection rather than you could say over be connection rather than turning it way up. That’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to try to overexert ourselves.
Let’s imagine there are other situations where you’re simply meeting friends for drinks. You don’t have any need to prove yourself. You don’t have any story or training from your past that tells you who you are innately is not enough. You need to connect here. You’re with your friends. It’s all good. In these situations, your innate connection, the quality of being you are naturally is not turned way up, nor is it turned way down. You’re simply being who you be already. You’re being yourself. Time flows by. There’s nothing draining because you were simply being. You were not exerting effort or energy to be something different than who you are innately.
Now, you’re going to be presented with this odd conundrum. When you’re trying to answer these questions we mentioned above, you’re going to look at these two situations and you’re going to reach a conclusion based on your doing. You’re going to say to yourself, “When I’m around my friends, it feels abundant and the same when I’m around people like my friends, but when I’m around those people where I feel the need to be impressive, that’s draining.” You’ll conclude, “I guess my zone of genius is connecting with people that are my friends. I guess my zone of excellence is networking with people that are businessy–type people. Got it. I feel relieved. I know it’s true because when I’m with people that are like my friends, I feel the most expressed. Time flies by. I have the most abundance. Things feel the most effortless. While I can do that networky kind of thing, when I’m around those people, it doesn’t feel effortless. I’m good at it, but it’s not effortless. That’s my zone of excellence.”
What you’ve done is you go from there, you start and you’re like, “This zone is super helpful. I feel empowered in this.” You arrange your life so as to avoid doing work that involves those businessy-you take people and you lean in heavily to situations that involve people like your friends because that’s where your zone of genius is, “I’ve done it.” Except you haven’t. What you’ve done is mistaken what you do and the surrounding situations and circumstances with your being. You’ve made this mistake of assuming that it’s these people, the particular shape or feel or energetic way that these people show up, that is your zone of genius, rather than something about the way you show up with them. This is the trap. This is where we get caught. Our zone of genius is the way of being that is innate to us.
Consequently, it’s always available regardless of your circumstances. What I’m saying here is you have access to your zone of genius regardless of what you’re doing, who is around you and the circumstances you’re in. Instead of showing up as our zone of genius though, we tend towards our zone of excellence. This is the set of strategies that you’ve created when you’re around people, situations and circumstances that are edgy for you so that you can be whatever you feel you need to be. It’s not that those businessy–type people are my zone of excellence, it’s that when I’m around those people, I’ve learned to show up being the way I’ve learned to be as my zone of excellence. I’ve learned to show up super glib and charming. I talk a lot. I feel there’s never a pause. I’m likable and charming, but you never get to know me.
The opportunity is always there for me to drop down below that, to drop the act, which would have to start by me recognizing the act, but to drop below that act into the deeper self that I am, the simple being of connection and be with them. That’s going to be edgy at first, because growing up, I learned not to do that. I learned it was dangerous to show up that way around these particular kinds of people, but in doing so, I’m going to be able to claim more and more of my zone of genius and that’s going to transform that situation. The sad part here is then that what people end up doing is they start arranging their lives under this mistaken belief that it’s the circumstances, situations and things they’re doing in particular people, that dictates whether or not this is their zone of genius and their zone of excellence.
What that ends up doing is the same thing we do everywhere in our life, which is contract from the stuff we cannot yet be with, which is contract from the stuff that is in our current zone of excellence and only hang out with the stuff that we are currently willing to show up as our zone of genius around. Where this goes is that you create this life that’s smaller and smaller. You can track away from the stuff in life that you cannot yet be with. You feel like, “I’m getting life sorted out. My life is great.” What you’re doing is the only way you’re making your life great is by minimizing the amounts of life that can show up at your door. You’re filtering. That’s not what transformation is about. Transformation is in the opposite direction.
The Zone Of Genius In Leadership
Transformation is about expanding our capacity to be with more of life rather than less. Why does this matter as a leader? The biggest issue with this is that it has us turn towards what we are already comfortable with. If working with people like your friends is the place where you are comfortable expressing your zone of genius, you end up seeking out more of the situations that are already like this, and/or having your leader direct you towards these things, “Boss, send me towards these things. This is where I’m good. This is my zone of genius.” Your leader, because they haven’t read this blog, colludes with that. It was like, “That makes total sense.” Sends you towards the same stuff you’re comfortable with. The result of this is that you get to work more and more with what you are already comfortable with, which is nice, but there’s no expansion for you.
Instead, you continue operating inside the range you already have available. As a result, you seize to grow. Your capacity to explore beyond that range and to be with the discomfort that causes reduces over time. You become less comfortable with that and more comfortable being inside what’s comfortable for you, what’s familiar and what’s known. Here’s the deeper truth to this is that this is what almost everyone is doing. This is the human condition, arranging our lives so as to avoid being with what we are not able to be with and then calling it stepping into our zone of genius, calling it growth, calling it leadership or transformation.
In fact, it’s shying away from all of those things. The real tragedy here is that while this is a beautiful distinction that Gay Hendricks has created from people’s misunderstanding of it or put differently from the misappropriation of it by our ego, this distinction is used to keep us safe and to minimize the amount of time we spend in our zone of genius. With your teams, you’ll end up with teams that seem efficient and maybe even content, but they will seize to grow and develop.
You’re putting them into like, “That’s this person’s starting genius is accounts. That’s this person’s zone of genius is not talking to people but dealing with computers.” They will not grow as leaders. You’ll have an efficient, content team, but you will not create the impossible. The range as leaders on your teams will be limited to what they’re already comfortable with, and this simply isn’t leadership. On the personal level, like your teams you will seize to grow. Protecting yourself from growth ends up masquerading as growth. You end up as the leader that talks about leadership, boasts about the leadership they’re creating, points to all the areas like, “Look at all the flow I’ve created. I’ve stopped talking to these people because they were energy drainers for me.”
No, the way you learn to show up around those people is what drains your energy. You’ve gotten better and better and hanging out in the range you’re already comfortable. These people boast, talk, express the ideas of leadership, but innocently, ignorantly and inadvertently get in the way of it. They block their leadership and that of others. Sadly, this is where most of the leadership conversations in the world reside. What do we do about it? One is you can take these kinds of questions deeper.
When you asked yourself, where do you find there’s an abundance of time or an experience of flow? Make that list. For each of these things, ask yourself who are you being in these situations. Forget entirely about the circumstances. “Adam, I know it, it matters because these people allow me to be who I am.” Forget about those people. Who do you get to be? Who do you show up as? It can also be helpful to ask people, “What qualities do I bring into a room?”
Without any other qualifiers that question, this will help people start to reflect your zone of genius to you by describing the qualities of being you exude. That is your game is to notice, “What are the ways of being that I feel effortless in, that feel flowlike to me?” Let’s go to the next part, which is to notice the places where you feel drained or tired. In these situations or around these people, rather than assuming that the problem is with the situation or with the people, consider the possibilities that you are resisting something. What are you resisting? How are you showing up in this situation leaves you feeling drained?
What part of your qualities of being that are most innate and natural for you that feel like flow? How is it you were hiding those in these situations that feel draining? How are you holding those back? What are you afraid of might happen if you showed up that way? This will bring you into an inquiry that will open up the possibility of you taking on your own work, rather than assuming the problem lies externally and to doing a bunch of work in your life to remove all of those external things you cannot yet be with. If you approach your zone of genius from this angle, you’re going to discover that it opens up the door to a lot more possibility, a lot more of your leadership. The beauty down this particular pathway is that you become less and less insistent on how life needs to show up. You feel less and less of a need to control the way life shows up in front of you because you can be with more of it.
Life becomes more effortless on the whole because you don’t need to control anything. You already know, “I get to show up and be me. When I do that, I feel amazing.” It doesn’t mean it’s not scary. In fact, this path has much more discomfort, much more fear because it means confronting the fears that had you put together your zone of excellence in the first place. Finally, I want to be clear here that this is not to vilify your zone of excellence, this is not to make that wrong. That’s an incredible skill. The thing that’s problematic about our zone of excellence is it’s an unconscious for us and it’s automatic. The moment we’re presented, your zone of excellence might be that glib chatty conversationalist that fills up every piece of the conversation with more conversation while simultaneously never connects with people.
That might be an automatic when you get to an event and you’re like, “I’m supposed to create a result here.” You lose sight of connecting because you’re fixated on the result. There are times when being glib and networking and chatty can be a value. We want you to be conscious of it, able to choose it in the moment, “I’m scared.” From my fear, I’m wanting to do that and talk a whole bunch. Is that what’s going to serve me right now? “I think it is.” “I’m going to do it.” As opposed to having it happen, feeling drained, concluding this isn’t your zone of genius.
That’s everything that we’ve got for you in this episode. I think this is a great conversation because I’m the one having it with you. Of many leadership distinctions, I hear leadership misplaced, gotten wrong a lot and the zone of genius and your zone of excellence are the one. The Big Leap is such a popular book and that particular distinction landed with people in a particular way, it’s one of the distinctions I hear misused the most.
Take it on in your life and see what you can come up with. If you feel courageous, share it with me, send me an email to PR@AdamQuiney.com and let me know, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s what I took on.” I love it when we hear from you. That’s everything that we’ve got for you. Next, we’re going to be talking about the question, “Can leadership be taught?” Is it possible? Is that even a thing we can do? I hope you enjoyed this episode. As always, I love hearing from you. I love it when you write reviews or recommend this show to someone.
This is fledgling. I do this in my closet because this conversation matters. This is not a big scale thing. Everything you do to support us makes a difference. It goes much further than writing a review for a show that has the weight of NPR or of Joe Rogan behind it. Those people don’t need your support the same way I do. Thank you in advance for anything you care to do to support this effort. I love you. Have a great rest of your week.
About Adam Quiney
I’m an obsessive perfectionist, high-performer, former lawyer, and now an Executive Mentor. I know what it’s like to succeed easily and quickly. To blindly put my happiness in the hands of achievement.
All the success, money and possessions in the world couldn’t cure my boredom. Couldn’t produce a loving, intimate relationship with my wife…and definitely couldn’t fulfill me.