You're an introspective person. How do I know? Well, you're reading a column whose title implies that you're willing to do something that many people won't or can't do, ask tough questions about themselves. Take pride in that. Honest introspection is hard. It requires that you come up with some not so nice answers. But it's also the only way any of us grow and evolve.  

Real introspection, the kind that reveals our light as well as our darkness, is typically not something we bring on casually. Instead, it's most often triggered by something that shakes us from our daily slumber into seeing ourselves raw, unfiltered, and vulnerable. 

However, you don't have to wait for a crisis to be introspective. You can come close to simulating that sort of state of mind. But I'll warn you that it may be a bit uncomfortable. If you're perfectly happy with where you are in your life and see no reason to grow beyond where you are right now then carry on and ignore what I'm about to suggest. On the other hand, if you're ready for some tough love, read on.

I want you to stop and imagine the unthinkable; you've just found out that you only have 24 hours to live. There are no second opinions needed. In 24 hours you'll cease to exist in this mortal plane. Let that sink in for a minute.

Now, imagine that you are going to write your own eulogy and in it is the following closing sentence, "Of all the things [your name] did, the one thing that s/he was absolutely more committed to than any one else was __________." 

What would you fill in the blank with? 

One caveat, for the purpose of this exercise you cannot include being a parent, spouse, son, daughter, etc. Each of those is absolutely important to have at the top of your list. But, for the sake of this exercise, let's agree that you are all of those things. What I'm looking for is something even deeper, something on which even the success of your most personal relationships was built upon.

Did you come up with an answer, any answer? Don't be discouraged if it's not coming easily. I've found that relatively few people have this answer at the ready. In fact, when I ask audiences if they know the answer less than 5% of hands go up.

What I find just as interesting as the answer, perhaps even more so, is that most people don't ever think to ask themselves that question. But, here's the most fascinating part of this exercise. When I ask the same question of successful entrepreneurs I rarely fail to get an answer.

Not Me

My sense is that most people are afraid to even ask that question because they've bought into the belief that there really is nothing that they could possibly be more committed to than anyone else.

Sure there are people in various domain who are the absolutely best at what they do, such as Olympic medalists, grand chess masters, world renowned chefs, performers and entertainers with Oscar or Emmy nominations. But the rest of us mere mortals get a pass, right? Wrong. By avoiding or sidestepping this question you dramatically diminish your potential, value, self worth, and likelihood of success.  

What's worse is that we not only sidestep the question as individuals but also as organizations. When I ask people what their company's core competency is--the one that differentiates them from every other competitor--the answer I always get is their people or a product. Guess what? No organization has a monopoly on talent and no product lasts long enough to be a core competency. It's actually just the opposite; your core competency is what gives you the ability to attract and retain great talent and to come up with innovative products, time and time again.

"..successful people [have] been forced into the discomfort of having to answer it. Only by doing that have they been able to pull away from the complacency of the crowd."

One of my favorite examples of a core competency comes from former CEO, Andy Grove, who once said, "Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive"  Grove's description of Intel's core competency was, "The guts of modern computing." Now, if anyone other than an icon like Grove had said that it would be easily dismissed.  

Intel was not, and is not, just a manufacturer of semiconductors. If you visit their labs you'll see that they are deeply committed to understanding the markets and industries that they serve in a way that gives them insight, which far surpasses any other semiconductor manufacturer. To be the "guts" of the devices that power the information age you need to not only understand the science and engineering of manufacturing semiconductors, you have to understand intimately the markets you serve and how to drive the creation of new value in those markets.

Success Demands An Answer

The same applies to your core competency as an individual. It needs to be based on your unique set of life experiences and your own personal pathology, while also being specific enough to measure success and broad enough to allow you to pivot, maneuver, evolve, and grow.  Core competencies are formed from the chemistry of culture, experience, values, and lessons learned, all of which are unique to every person and organization.

Coming up with a good answer to the question is tall order, isn't it? Again, I said at the outset that this would be uncomfortable.

I can tell that you want to push back. Well, if you're doubtful of ever coming up with an answer then you either aren't trying hard enough or you've already let yourself off the hook. If it's the latter then there's little I can do to get you to buy into your unique core competency; welcome to the mass of mediocrity, which far too many people are comfortably inhabiting. 

That's exactly why successful people often have an answer; they've been forced into the discomfort of having to answer it. Only by doing that have they been able to pull away from the complacency of the crowd. Success demands an answer.

What I can tell you, unequivocally, is that one of the greatest sources of personal growth comes from answering that question and identifying what it is that your unique past and pathology have prepared you for, and then dedicating yourself to being the absolute best at whatever that is. 

Will that guarantee that you'll end up being the best at it? Of course not. But what it does guarantee is that you'll be better off than the overwhelming majority of people who have never thought to even ask.