April 11, 2023

Super-charge your skills

In today’s knowledge economy, success is knowing how to grow.

By Sergio Zanotti, MD 

Once, we were hunters and gatherers, in search of food for survival. That was the job. And the stakes were high. Today, we’re hunters and gatherers of a different sort — primarily of ideas and knowledge. Just as humans once had to be good with stealthiness and a spear, today we’re required to possess a certain set of skills not just to survive but to thrive. 

With the wildcard of artificial intelligence (AI), some of us may feel the creeping concern that AI is coming for our jobs. As you may have heard, the AI chatbot ChatGPT recently passed the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam. Naturally, as a physician— or anyone working in a complex field of practice — this gives me pause. It also encourages me to keep talking about how we further develop our skills — and which of those we choose to focus on. While AI developments show no signs of slowing, there’s still plenty of things for us humans to learn that bring real and distinct value to the workforce. 

As a longtime critical care physician, I can tell you that skills are foundational, but how you choose to grow professionally and personally in hospital-based medicine — or any industry — is about your ability to develop super skills and ultra skills.

‘Excellence is never an accident.’

Many of us strive to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others something that doesn’t occur by default, but rather by design. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher and polymath, reminds us that “excellence is never an accident.” In today’s knowledge economy where information and ideas are our greatest currency, it takes intentionality and humility to grow.  

Cultivating the right skills

Historically, people talk about hard and soft skills. In this framework, hard skills are considered teachable, job-specific, and measurable. Soft skills refer to your ability to interact with and relate to people. This dichotomy, however, undermines the value of soft skills — the most important skills for us to develop, and a set of skills that AI won’t soon keep pace with humans on. Also, it’s simply not true that only some skills are teachable. Every skill can be learned, and every skill can be improved. 

The skills framework I like to work from — I call it the Z-Skills Framework, with Z for Zanotti, of course — seeks to make the most of our human potential: 

Z-Skills Framework

Skills (job skills): Job-focused; these are skills required to be a physician, or another profession, and are formally obtained through training. They open the door and establish the foundation for our professional success.  

Super skills (intra-skills): Self-focused; these skills are all about improving yourself — fostering professional and personal growth. Super skills will push you forward in your professional journey. 

Ultra skills (extra skills): Other-focused; these skills are focused on other people’s growth and are required to help others perform at their highest level. These are also transferable skills that determine your ceiling and impact. Ultra skills are the most valuable, as they create the greatest impact.

More on super skills

Skills are what you learn in your training as a physician. But you don’t learn everything you need to practice in medical school, or during your residency and fellowship. Super skills are those skills we need to continue to meet challenges — to grow and develop. Some examples of super skills include: 

Focusing on the task. Our world today is full of distraction, and it’s easy to mistake being busy for being productive. Multitasking is something we herald, but it reinforces the notion that busy is better. When you focus on what you’re doing, you have the opportunity to go deep, learn and grow, and produce something meaningful. 

Thinking laterally. Known as horizontal thinking, this creative form of problem-solving uses indirect and unexpected means to figure things out. This kind of innovation or creativity can help us grow. And while many of us subscribe to the idea that we’re born creative, I believe creativity is a skill that can be developed through repetition. 

Communicating ideas. Writing this blog. Creating a webinar. These are ways of communicating ideas that benefit others. And while I may understand all the components that feed into this article, putting them down here is a way to help crystallize my thinking and understanding. It helps me be a better communicator.  

Establishing priorities. This works in tandem with focusing on the task. You can’t focus if you say yes to everything. As clinicians, we understand what it means to be spread thin. And yet we’re more inclined to say yes, thinking that’s how we add value, which is why saying no is a super skill. Next time you want to go deep on a priority, try subtracting instead. Don’t work by default. Work by design— be deliberate. This is the undisciplined pursuit of more vs. the disciplined pursuit of less. 

More on ultra skills 

If super skills are the skills that help you grow personally and professionally, then ultra skills are skills you learn in service to helping others flourish. Some important ultra skills to consider: 

Team building. Cultivating a group of people who trust each other, who feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable around one another, is a skill that takes intentionality and practice. A team is more than the sum of its parts, and focusing on dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact can bring cohesion and raise the bar on your overall performance. 

Developing others. Similar to team building, developing others is a way to help someone better trust themselves to grow and lead.  

Setting and sharing a vision. Getting aligned around what your vision is — what better care and outcomes, for example, look like for patients — can help your leaders and your teams move in unison toward positive change. 

Change management. For as expected as change is in our day-to-day lives, we’re very poor at dealing with it. Learning how to prepare people for change and help them move through it is an essential ultra skill.  

Putting it all into action 

I’ve shared my framework for skills, super skills, and ultra skills. So, how do you put it all into action? Here’s a checklist to help you develop and improve any of these skills in your everyday work and life.

  1. Develop a growth mindset. This could be summed up as getting out of your comfort zone. If you subscribe to the belief that you’re good or bad at something, I recommend you work at letting go of that belief. Self-worth isn’t about your ability to succeed; it’s about your ability to grow. As I’ve shared, we all can learn new skills. And we learn from making mistakes and failing, too. It’s all growth.  
  2. Take time to reflect. Recently, we lost a young patient to cardiac arrest. After doing all we could to save the patient, our team paused to reflect: on the patient’s life with a moment of silence, on how we cared for the patient, and what we could do differently in the future. Without reflection, you’re unlikely to improve. 
  3. Identify your scales and practice them. Piano players understand that mastering scales is a way to improve their technical performance. What is the equivalent of scales in your line of work? And how can it help you master your performance? Practice is key to getting better. 
  4. Seek coaching and mentorship. Take Rafael Nadal, a world-class, professional tennis player. Here’s someone at the top of his game, and he has a coach. Why? Coaching helps us get better, as does mentorship. While coaching is task-oriented and performance-driven, mentorship is more of a long-term, development-driven relationship. Both can help you become better at what you do.  
  5. Expand your horizons. For me, reading is the way I expand mine. Innovation isn’t necessarily driven by brand-new ideas, but instead comes from adopting an idea outside of your area of expertise and making it your own. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for inspiration and insight outside my immediate world of medicine. Here are some books I’ve read that have informed my thinking about skills, super skills, and ultra skills: 

Check out more on this subject in my podcast here. 


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