Know What You Suck At

Before I call it quits on the damp Sunday night in Colorado, I thought I’d leave you with a thought that came up in a conversation last week: “Know What You Suck At.”

While my We Suck Less meme has had its day in the sun, I don’t hear people talk enough about what they aren’t good at.  First meetings are peppered with “I’ve done this”, “I’ve done that”, “I’m good at this”, “I’m experienced at that.”  However, rarely does someone volunteer that they suck at something.  I’m often amused by the pregnant pause that comes after I ask “so – tell me something that you are lousy at.”

I have a long list.  They include things like:

  • Investing in specific public companies
  • Any contact sport
  • Dealing with dirt
  • Ice skating
  • Tolerating liars and incompetent people
  • Reading classics and philosophy written before 1950
  • Real academia (e.g. finishing a Ph.D. program)
  • Talking to small children without making them cry
  • Driving a car
  • Yelling at people
  • Reading maps and understanding architectural plans
  • Not buying new books on Amazon
  • Knowing my left from my right, especially when I’m tired
  • Homonyms and other tricky grammar (then/than, heals/heels)
  • Parties that last longer than two hours and one minute

I’ve also applied this to my venture capital investing.  There’s a wide swath of categories of companies that I’ve failed at, including ones that require significant capex investment or are fundamentally telecom oriented, pure services companies, retail oriented companies (e.g. dotcom spinoffs), and things that play only into vertical markets.  This doesn’t mean that these aren’t good investments or don’t have the potential to be successful – they are just things that I should stay away from.

Oh – and restaurants.  I’ve never been very good at investing in restaurants.  After a couple of lousy experiences, I have no aspiration to be good at it.  I’m excellent at eating at restaurants, but terrible at investing in them.

I use my “what do I suck at” filter to guide a lot of my behavior.  Rather than try to get better at some of these things (like public market investing), I’ve just accepted that I’m not good at it and I should figure out a way to have other people do it for me (e.g. I do broad market allocations but then have individual managers handle specific public market investing for me – and I happily pay them to do what they love to do – and what I suck at.)  This applies at a macro level and helps shape my investing themes, how I spend my time, and where I travel on vacation.

Like the adage that you only really learn when you fail, I think knowing what you suck at is more useful than knowing what you are great at.  You have two choices when you identify what you aren’t any good at – you can either work on it and get better, or you can avoid it / structure around it.  Either is valid, but unless you know what it is, it’ll limit your experience on the planet.

  • http://zerologic.com Michael Sitarzewski

    I’m so guilty of sucking at “Knowing my left from my right, especially when I

  • http://sabet.typepad.com bijan sabet

    great post brad.

    good for all of us to rmemeber. entpreneurs and vcs

    (i suck at spelling. it’s just one thing on my very long list.)

  • Barry C

    I try to make the same point by quoting one of America’s all time great men, Dirty Harry:
    “A man’s got to know his limitations”
    You can replace “man” with “company” and really make a point for what NOT TO DO within your business.

  • david

    Great post Brad. I’m finding myself increasingly sensitive to the Liars and dishonest people point.

    Can you elaborate on this point please? I’m working on a stealth startup and researching which VCs to approach and your note raised a question as to how an investor (VC or other) can affect an otherwise good company.

    “This doesn

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    @David – look for a post on that on AsktheVC at some point.

  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    I say the following: surround yourself with people who can compensate for your weaknesses, and focus on making your strengths unstoppable. If you can be really, really good at a couple things, you’re in good shape. Most people — at least in my case — can’t at once get really, really good at a couple things while also trying to become decent in lots of others. That’s why the “avoid / structure around it” approach is the better one, for me.

  • http://me.dium.com David Mandell

    I completely agree with Ben here. I’ve got a pretty complete list of things I know I suck at (and always seem to be adding to it…lol) and constantly use it to drive my hiring and partnership strategies.