The Technium

What You Don’t Have to Do

Another good book to recommend: End Malaria.

This book is not about malaria. It is an anthology of advice about working smarter. The book’s official name is End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life. $20 from every sale (including the Kindle version) will go to Malaria No More, whose mission is to end malaria in Africa by 2015.

In other words, buy a book and save a life. Your $20 portion of the proceeds go towards eradicating a horrible cascading disease than CAN be eradicated for the most part. The disease cascades because when someone is infected with malaria they lose energy and ambition and tend not to do the things that would prevent others from getting the disease, so the harm spirals on. The good news is that inexpensive things like mosquito bed nets can help prevent malaria, supplying energy to keep improving conditions and thus saving many lives over time. So ending malaria even for one person amplifies a virtuous circle. And if you buy a copy of this book you’ll buy a bed net and help save some lives. Simple as that. Getting rid of malaria is something we have to do.

I contributed an essay for the book called “What you don’t have to do.” It’s a bit of advice that I’ve gained over the years about finding my role in the world. Maybe you’ll find it useful too. There’s scores of other essays by a lot of other interesting people and advice givers, from Dan Pink to Tom Peters.

The book is only part of a campaign to end malaria. Many of the contributors, including me, made an audio recording, available for listening here.

But what about the actual book, published by the Domino Project, working for free? It’s pretty good, full of hard-earned wisdom. My piece follows. If you like you’ll like the book.



When you start your first job, all your attention is focused on not screwing up. Your chief goal as a newbie is to simply do a good job. Working smart means doing what is required.

As you gain confidence in your ability to complete a job, your task is to learn new things, to take on additional chores. At this stage, working smart meant doing more than is required.

The next level is exploration. The greater number of additional tasks you try, the faster you begin to see what you are better at. Working smart means trying as many roles as you can in order to discover what you are smart at.

As you educate yourself about your own talent and ambitions, you graduate from doing a task right to doing the right task. It takes some experience to realize that a lot of work is better left undone. It might be busy work that is performed out of habit, or it may work heading in the wrong direction. Working smart means making sure you are spending your time on jobs that are effective or that need to be done at all.

But the smart journey doesn’t end there. If you really pay attention to the feedback of those around you, and constantly strive to improve, you may eventually be able to discover your own best talents. At this stage you can begin to do only jobs (that really need to be done) that you are good at doing. And what a joy that is! For many years I thought this was the pinnacle of working wisdom. What could be more heavenly than to spend your energies only on those tasks you were both good at AND loved?

But recently it began to dawn on me that there is yet another stage beyond doing things well and with love.

It began with my experience as an editor of magazines. A large part of the editor’s job is getting other people to complete stories based on ideas the editor (me) had. So I got used to handing over good ideas. But while I could assign most good ideas, every once in a while I’d get a great idea that I simply could not sell. So I’d let it die. But a few of those left to die would resurrect themselves so I would try again to give it away. Some got picked up but a few would simply get no assignment and retreat. A number of these ideas might go through this cycle a dozen times, until at the end I would face it: Here was an idea so good that I could not kill it, yet no one else wanted it.

It took me several times to realize that this was a signal. It said, “This is the one you have to do.” These stories woud become the best ones I ever wrote.

That’s because they were the stories no one else could write. What I had been inadvertently doing was weeding out good ideas that I could do (but others could do as well) from those few great ideas that only I could do. I had discovered that it was not enough to be able to do something well, and want to do it, and to get paid for doing it. Work at its smartest means doing that work that no one else could do.

That’s a pretty high bar. Becoming aware of what one can do well that others cannot is an immense challenge. In most cases, it takes our whole lives to discover this. This awareness arrives only through deliberate practice and with the help of others, but the payoff is equally immense. When you are doing something well that others want, and you are the only one who can do it, you will be uncommonly rewarded.

This is true of the famously successful, but also of small-scale success as well. You can do bookkeeping, pizza delivery, pet grooming, goat dairy farming, chemistry research, and high school teaching with unique excellence. And yes, there is plenty of room in the world for everyone’s job to be a little different. The hardest part of this discovery is steering yourself away from imitating those who have already succeeded, in order to discover what your own excellence.

I think my experience may offer one useful tip in this process. When others are doing something like you are, let that activity go because that means you don’t have to do it! If they are stealing your ideas, ripping off your moves, knocking off your style, and they are doing it well, thank them. You’ve just learned that that assignment is something you don’t need to do because someone else can do it. This is scary because you are giving up things you do well, and you might think that after surrendering all the good stuff, there won’t be anything excellent left for you. Trust me, there is more to you than that.

But it will take all you life to find it. All, as in all your days. And all, as in all your ceasless effort. Your greatest job is shedding what you don’t have to do.


You can buy the book on Amazon.

  • Karl

    Hi Kevin, just went ahead and purchased a copy for my Kindle. Looking forward to giving it a read! :-)

  • Erik

    I was resisting buying this book.

    There is an endless series of good causes out there, and I’ve read a lot of inspirational books. It’s like the third boyscout who comes to your door after you just bought popcorn from two other boyscouts. Sometimes you feel like you’re just done helping for today.

    Your story about ‘What You Don’t Need to Do’ was so good, I’m going directly from here to buy the book and make my donation.

    Thanks for that.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Someone in Africa will thank you silently.

  • I second Erik’s comment. You described a project that I let sit in my desk for 7 years because I thought of all the people more qualified to do it than I. But, no one else did. So, now I’m doing it. Thanks for the reminder about how work picks us.

  • Just finished the book. Fantastic advice from great authors all throughout the book. Though your essay and Sir Ken Robinson’s essay on Finding your Element were my two favorite. Thanks for contributing to the book.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Glad you liked it!

  • There is also a great joy in learning that you can give away ideas. I’m just the media prod teacher at an American school–but to see the kids light up on an assignment without regard for grades or immediate accolades is a truly, truly, beautiful thing. 

    Not unlike stopping the deeper, more spiritual cycle of disease and despair. 

    Thanks for lightening my Tues morning. 

  • Kevin defines a capability maturity model for working smart:
    1.Doing what is required.2.Doing more than is required.3.Trying as many roles as you can in order to discover what you are smart at.4.Making sure you are spending your time on jobs that are effective or that need to be done at all.5.Do only jobs that really need to be done and that you are good at doing.6.Doing work that no one else can do.

    I think Kevin can add another point:
    7. Do everything according your plan.

  • Guest

    Small typo in the first sentence of the final paragraph.