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This Is What It Takes to Be the Best at Anything

Beating the competition and conquering any field requires mastery of two things: form and function.

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We used to debate whether form should follow function or the other way around. Those were the good old days. To say that business is far more competitive today would be a gross understatement. Today, we no longer have the luxury of prioritizing one over the other. Today's products and services have to nail both.

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We're not just talking about products and services offered by corporations and small businesses, mind you. The social Web being what it is, we're all products now. We're always selling. That means everyone from a corporate CEO down to a gig worker has to nail this form and function thing. That means you.

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Before we go any further, I should probably tell you that there is one exception. If you don't mind being a slacker who skates by living paycheck to paycheck, you can ignore all this and get back to whatever it is that you do for fun. Hope I didn't waste too much of your precious leisure time.

If, on the other hand, you really want to make something of yourself, build a fulfilling career or business you can be proud of, and maybe, just maybe, become financially independent someday, read on.

Not only are form and function both critical to long-term success, both terms have taken on broader definitions than before.

"Form" used to be synonymous with product design, but I would also add the form of communication used to position and market the product, service or person, as the case may be. Form typically provokes an emotional response associated with perception.

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Put yourself in the customer's shoes and consider what you'd like her to feel on initial contact with whatever it is you're selling: a physical device, description in the Apple store, "about" page on a service website, LinkedIn profile or personal appearance during an interview. All are examples of form.

Function includes features, operation, performance and execution. Again, that's regardless of whether you're marketing a product, service or individual. Function tends to produce more of a thinking or logical response based on experience.

When a customer actually uses a product or service or interacts with a person over an extended period, it leaves a lasting impression of the kind of performance he can expect from future interactions. All that falls under the heading of function.

If you think about the most successful companies and people on Earth, you'll find that they all have one thing in common: what you see is what you get, and both dramatically exceed expectations. There are usually one or two companies in each industry that have mastered both form and function in terms of customer satisfaction.

In tech, that company is unquestionably Apple. The Silicon Valley giant focuses on making just a few products, being the best, and owning the entire customer experience, end-to-end. That includes the nearly flawless integration between hardware and software of an iPhone, the simple and effortless use of Apple Pay, and the sales and service experience at its iconic stores.

I'm not sure that a single mainstream car company can claim the same kind of mastery over form and function as Apple, but certainly Mercedes, BMW and Lexus come to mind as companies that strive for that level of achievement. Perhaps Tesla can end up in that category, if it continues to perform consistently over time.

In retail, it's Amazon. In food markets, Trader Joe's and Wegmans. In clothing, Nordstrom. In motorcycles, Harley Davidson. In industries where you can't think of a single company that excels in terms of both form and function, then that's a golden opportunity for an innovator to come along and disrupt the competitive landscape.

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If you've ever met or, better still, gotten to know a great CEO or business leader, a brilliant scientist or surgeon, or a master craftsman or artist, then you understand what it takes for an individual to conquer both form and function. They tend to be as impressive in person as their work. They are a rare breed.

If you intend to be the best at what you do and kill the competition, now you know what it takes: mastery of form and function. Better get going; you have your work cut out for you.

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