Exceptional Performance

In an old interview at Tesla, Elon Musk shared some insights into his highering practices:

“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all or even high school. I mean if someone graduated from a great university, that maybe an indication that they will be capable of great things, but it is not necessarily the case… we are looking just for evidence of exceptional ability, and if there’s a track record of exceptional achievement then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.”

Elon Musk

So, what is exceptional?

1, Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare
2, Better than the average; superior due to exception or rarity.


When searching for ‘Exceptional performance’, I found this interesting appraisal quote from the University of California, Davis’s HR pages:

“Exceptional Performance: Performance consistently or far exceeded expectations.” UC Davis

And ability and achievement?

Ability: possession of the means or skill to do something.

Oxford Languages

Achievement: A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

Oxford Languages

Can you define what exceptional ability and achievement look like in your field? If not, the Global skills and competency framework for the digital world (SFIA) is a good place to start.

How would you go about becoming an expert at designing online learning?

I read a tweet this morning that asked; if you could be in the 1% of experts for any skill, what would that be? I have been building my skills in the design of online learning for several years, so it got me thinking about what expertise looks like in my field. I wrote the following question at the top of a page and started to make a list. 

How would you go about becoming an expert at designing online learning? 

Here are my steps to developing expertise in the design of online and blended learning courses. If you have questions or what to add to the list, message me on Twitter.

  1. Follow a documented set of learning and design principles
  2. Develop a model for estimating effort and costs
  3. Follow a repeatable development process
  4. Know the fundamentals of project management and follow them religiously
  5. Treat the course creator like the hero of the story, support them and collaborate.
  6. Have a Quality Assurance process linked to the design principles
  7. Set clear expectations for students, create metrics to monitor against these, and have interventions in place when they are not met.
  8. Collect and analyse lots of data and user feedback
  9. Iterate, iterate, iterate
  10. Frequently update your learning and design principles, costing model, and development process

Notes: Firstly, I have explicitly focused on the design of courses and separated this from the very different development and delivery skills. Secondly, I have taken some liberties by putting all the learning and design principles into a single step. These two areas are vast and cover everything from accessibility and user experience to psychology and learning and teaching models. Thirdly, within the third step of following the development process, I currently prefer to use the rapid prototyping model that follows the Design thinking steps, including the creation of student personas, and UCL’s ABC workshop for mapping out the course. Finally, this is the first attempt at a list, and I might wake up tomorrow and realise I have missed a whole section of the field and need to update this list. If you are in the area already or are interested in developing your expertise, then I hope this list is useful.

If you have questions or want to add to the list, message me on Twitter. I would love to see other peoples lists for building expertise in the design of online courses too.

You should write a book

If you have original ideas that have value or are an expert in a field, you should write a book no matter how niche. There will be at least one person out of the almost eight billion people in the world that needs your ideas or could benefit from your advice to develop the skills that you have earned. If you are not yet an expert or feel you have something to share, but you don’t feel you are ready, the act of writing a book might be the thing you need. Start by writing a book proposal and commit to the process of two to four hours a day for the next two years, working on your ideas, skills, and expertise. 

Why write a book?

Seth Gobin, in a February 2007 blog post, suggests that everyone should write a book. He describes how he wrote his ebook ‘Unleashing the Ideavirus‘ to give away free to spread the idea (about how free ideas spread faster than expensive ones). The book was downloaded over two million times, and a Google search for the term brought up over two hundred thousand results at the time of his post. Godin writes that on top of the opportunity to share your ideas across the globe, writing helps to organise and clarify the ideas making them better. 

Smart people with good ideas worth sharing can get a lot out of this exercise.

Seth Godin

Andress Erikson, in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, wrote that experts form better mental representations about their specialist subject through deliberate practice. Mental representations “in essence… are preexisting patterns of information – facts, images, rules, relationships, and so on – that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations.” The deliberate practice of writing a book will allow you to solidify your understanding of your specialist area and build mental representations.

In Daniel Priestley’s book ‘Key Person of Influence‘, he writes that being an author in your area of expertise provides validation and trust in your skills and allows people an opportunity to learn more and share your ideas. Having a published book is also a great way to attract like-minded people.

Very few people create a significant volume of published content. If you have articles, blogs, reports, case studies and a book, you are much more likely to be perceived as a Key Person of Influence in your industry.

Daniel Priestley

Writing and publishing a book can cost nothing, and there are no barriers beyond effort and time. Your book can be launched using your website and social media platform and via amazon self-publishing. You can treat your book as a channel of your portfolio business, as the output of deliberate practice while developing expertise, or as an opportunity to share your ideas with people who will find value in them. Now I have convinced you that you need to write a book, we need to look at what to write. 

What to write

Non-fiction books are traditionally between 50000 to 80,000 words; it takes around 500 words to fill an A4 page, so that is just 100-150 pages. To fill those 100 pages, you need to start with two things;

  1. A big idea
  2. A target audience

Your book needs to solve a problem and should be written as a transition from confusion to clarity. Start with the audience and how you can help them. The total addressable market, the number of people who make up your target audience, should be quite targeted if you intend to self-publish, and you will need to address a specific problem. If you are unsure, think of a younger version of yourself or a beginner in your field. Next, think about the one big idea that you would like to share with them to solve a problem they will experience, and you could help them solve it. 

A great example of a big idea and a specific target audience is Cal Newport and his big idea around deep work. Cal has written five books since becoming an academic; So Good, They Can’t Ignore YouDeep WorkDigital MinimalismThe Time-Block Planner, and A World Without Email. Cal’s big idea is that to create the life you want; you need to develop your ‘…ability to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks.’ Cal’s target audience is millennial knowledge workers that are easily distracted by social media.  

Geoffrey Moore’s Value proposition framework from his book Crossing the Chasm will let you know if you are ready to start writing or if you need to explore your ideas further.

Moore’s Value Proposition Framework

For (target reader)Who (statement of need or opportunity)

The  (working book title) is a book

That  (key benefit, reason to buy)

Unlike  (primary competitive alternative)

My book  (statement of primary differentiation)

You should treat writing your book as a software app or new business idea and use your value proposition as a business plan idea. Talk to people, specifically your target read and test out the ‘statement of need or opportunity to see if it accurately represents a problem you could fix and check that the ‘key benefit’ will be a solution. Finally, have a look at similar books on the market and make sure that you have something unique to say. Tech start-ups are advised to get feedback from at least fifty people before committing to a business model, so use this as a guide and be systematic in collecting feedback on your big idea to help write your book proposal.

Start with a book proposal

Traditionally, a book proposal is a document written for publishes to convince them to publish your book. The publishing industry is at least as old as the Gutenberg printing press (1440), and the process of writing has been developed over the last six hundred years, so it is worth paying attention to. Even if you intend to self-publish, the book proposal is an ideal place to start to help you structure your ideas. 

The book proposal summarises the book’s big idea, lays out the chapters with a summary for each, and proposes a marketing plan to create awareness of the book with your target audience. You will want to use your value proposition and the notes from your interviews to brainstorm critical questions, concepts, and facts that you want to use and start to arrange this into a structured narrative.  

MasterClass suggested a book proposal should include:

  1. Title page
  2. Overview
  3. Author bio
  4. Chapter outline and table of contents
  5. Sample chapter
  6. Competitive titles analysis
  7. Target audience
  8. Marketing plan
  9. Additional information

Now Do the Work.