Geek Job Guru: How To Be Terrible At The Skills You’re Good At

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Recently, someone commented on an email I had sent that was a poor bit of communication. Not wrong, not inaccurate, but simply inappropriate – overly wordy, not addressing the point, too much detail, etc. They were frustrated.

As this person put it, to paraphrase, “You write, how did you get this wrong?”

Of course I write. I’ve written fiction and science papers, technical documents and chatty career columns, books and guides. I mean I can write all sorts of things . . .

And then, in that conversation, I realized that was the problem. My mouth literally hung open as it came to me – I had chosen the wrong mode of writing as I had so many modes at my disposal.

That experience stuck with me, and it’s something I wanted to explore for the sake of our careers – and as sometimes we geeks can be very talented and people wonder how we screw stuff up.

It’s not about being bad. Many of us can be so good at something we screw it up.

I’m In The Mode For Screwing Up

Consider my experience (and one, upon reflection, I’ve had a few times) – how can I write and publish and at times send an email or write a column that seems to just do things wrong for the intended goal? How do you get things that wrong?

In my case, it’s that I’ve literally had so many different writing experiences (and evolved or experimented with a few) that I chose the wrong mode of writing. Sure I consciously figured “I must say this” and then promptly whiffed the entire task by choosing the exact wrong style. Right tool, wrong time, and completely convinced how right I was.

A lot of us have different modes of working, different styles we can apply. We can be artists who can use many media, coders with many languages at our disposal, speakers who can juggle personas. Some of us even crave developing more modes and styles (yours truly, in fact, is one).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good at choosing the right mode or style for the right situation. In fact, I’ve begun to think a lot of us may be quite poor at this considering my past experiences.

You may have many ways to apply a skill, but developing the ability to know when it’s appropriate is an entirely different set of skills. It doesn’t matter if you know seven different Project Management techniques or can format books in three different tools if you choose the wrong methods a lot.

Chosen Mode

I think the problem here comes from the fact that, when it gets down to it, a lot of people who have many ways to do something have a chosen or default methods. We have that one program, that one writing style, that one speaking routine, that we call upon because it’s become the default. Maybe because it works, maybe because it’s habit, maybe because we’re just not thinking.

(I’ll leave it to you to judge which you do).

This is probably not unusual -all of us have default, preferred, and habitual ways of doing anything. It may not be a problem most of the time. But when you have to diagnose a situation properly, when you have to do work that’s important to people, then you have to learn to say “this is the specific style or skillset I must bring to bear.”

And my take is, as I review this concept, a lot of people are pretty terrible at it. This is probably because:

  1. Default mode often works.
  2. A lot of us have skills and abilities that have only one or two modes or styles so we don’t have to shift a lot.
  3. We don’t think about it because no one tells us.
  4. If they do tell us we don’t listen.
  5. What we do maybe so esoteric or complex most people couldn’t tell s we made the wrong decision.

In fact, I think this may be worse for we geeks.

Consider The Geek Issue

We geeks have a few traits, inclinations, and preferences that I think make us vulnerable to this problem:

  1. We’re very dedicated to what we do. We might not see that a shift of modes is needed or desirable.
  2. Some of us diversify like crazy. We pile on the modes – the writing styles, the languages, the art tools, the materials we work with. We may not even know how many options we have.
  3. Some of what we do is esoteric and most people are happy to let us do it.
  4. People may not always know how to communicate with us.
  5. People may often assume we know what we’re doing (always dangerous).

I got most of my writing experience via exposure to hobbies and my love of technology, along with my love of diverse experiences. I never thought of how this could lead me down the wrong path.

Any wrong paths you might be going down?

The Solution – Awareness And Asking

So having had this experience, I’m adding a few new toolset to my Geek Career Toolbox. You may want to do so as well.

  1. Catch this “inappropriate mode” when it happens. Now I’m on alert to catch this when I do it – or when others do.
  2. Take better inventory of your abilities. If, like me, you regularly take training and/or update a resume, inventory your skills and modes of work. It’ll help you stay aware of what you can do – which means you’ll have a better chance to know when not to do it.
  3. More focused training. For vital things I do I want to consciously fill in gaps with training and study. Yes this may add more “modes” but at least I’m aware of them while improving.
  4. Listen. We need to really listen to people to find what they want from us – we’re often the experts, so they may defer to us unwisely.
  5. Challenge. I want to push myself more to switch modes in my skills and try different things – professionally and personally.

So let’s remember – we all have talents and skills. But you have to think of the right ways and “mode” to apply those skills. If we don’t, we’re not doing our best – or can even do a terrible job.

But being aware of it? We can prevent problems and leverage ourselves more effectively.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at