If the tasks we face were easy, then anyone could deal with them, and our skills wouldn’t be needed.

I’ll never forget the day when a new employer told me that one of my references said I was the best person he knew at process optimization. This reference was a widely respected leader in the electronics industry, as well as a friend, but was somewhat feared because of his disdain for what he saw as everyone’s general lack of ability. Praise from this guy was like getting an endorsement from a vengeful God.

He had just validated everything I’d done in my career up to that point, but the "I’m not worthy" feeling was hard to shake. Reflecting on how I earned this accolade led me to a couple of insights about all of our work lives.

The first is that nothing is ever easy. If the tasks we face were easy, then anyone could deal with them, and our skills wouldn’t be needed to do them. This applies at whatever level of ability we’ve achieved in life; I’m not leaving anyone out. The simple fact that the tasks have been assigned to us should make them important.

So, are things always going to be hard? Yes, but what’s important is how we respond to the challenge. I didn’t earn the expert’s respect as the best at process optimization just by taking a few classes, or having some natural ability at it. It snuck up on me over the years as I dealt with solving all those not-so-easy problems. Simply stated, it took a lot of hard work, which leads us to the next insight.

What really earned my reputation as the best at optimizing processes was intuition bred from experience. Combining that intuition with the technical skills I’d picked up over the years is what had set me apart in the expert’s eyes. The ability to face something totally new and immediately see right to the heart of the problem was seen as unique and valuable.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, I like to think that intuition is the grandchild of necessity. All those inventive solutions over time create an experience base that we draw upon under the guise of intuition.

Why then should my "friend" have so much cause to tyrannize everyone? Shouldn’t everyone be given an opportunity to work up to his or her potential? Unfortunately, he saw that many people had allowed themselves to stagnate. I’m sure there were as many reasons as there were people for him to judge, but let’s consider just a couple of them.

In some cases there were those who, early on, found a successful recipe to follow, and blindly applied it to everything. Lacking the understanding to know what really made it work, and not looking to learn more about it, they routinely misapplied it.

In other cases they never got past looking for the silver bullet that would magically make things easy. The business pundits reinforced this fallacy whenever they pushed their latest flavor of the month as being the ultimate answer to everything. The search for a cheap shortcut was an illusion. At best, chasing this illusion only wasted the time they should have spent really working hard and getting things done. At worst, pursuing fads du jour can destroy a career or a company.

Take heart. Don’t be afraid to be more than you can be. Accept the hard tasks with a view toward optimizing yourself. If we always try to learn something from what we’re doing, rather than just hoping to get through it, we can develop each of ourselves into someone that is truly worthy.