Accepted wisdom says that to have an exceptional career, you need exceptional skills – or perhaps luck, connections or other unfair things.
I have good news for you: neither part is true. Luck and connections help, but as long as you’re not the world’s most cursed or unpopular person, there’s nothing standing in your way.
As for exceptional skill or talent, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be in the top 1% at anything to get into the top 1% of good results.
There’s a system that Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) describes. It’s this: instead of trying to become world’s best at one narrow thing, you learn an unique combination of skills that work well together and meld into an unique value proposition. Then you only need to be good enough at each.
This helps, because learning a skill often obeys the law of diminishing returns. You can get 50% of the skill for 10% of the effort.
It’s also accessible to more people. Not everyone has the talent, discipline, or even time and opportunity to become one of the best at something, but most people can become reasonably good at a bunch of different things that work well together.
So if you choose a clever combination, you can create tremendous value while putting in far less effort than a world-class specialist.
Don’t get me wrong, we need specialists who are the best at their thing – neurosurgeons, astrophysicists, pastry chefs. But it’s not for everyone, and if you’re looking to differentiate yourself and gain a competitive edge in any area of your life, this is it. Anyone can do it.
And I think a great neurosurgeon who’s also good with people, an astrophysicist who’s good at chemistry, and a pastry chef who’s also good at interior decoration will do better than their one-dimensional peers.
By his own admission, Scott Adams is a merely competent writer, cartoonist and humorist, and has okay business experience. He’s not great at any of those things, but the combination is Dilbert.
If you’re wondering, Adams is worth about $ 75 million. Not bad for a guy who doesn’t really excel at anything.
Cooking is a good analogy. It’s easier to make great soup from good enough ingredients than to grow the world’s best carrots.
As in cooking, not all combinations work equally well. There’s probably not much promise in the combination of basket weaving, Inuit poetry and lymphatic massage.
Make sure your mix works.
Let me give you another example, which might sound like bragging, but it’s for your benefit:
I’m an okay writer (in my signature way of oscillating between genius and rubbish, while trying to spend more time near the former pole). I’m naturally good at punchy, colourful, memorable phrasings. I have a gargantuan active vocabulary, understand complicated systems at a glance, can be funny, and I’m charismatic in person and persuasive in writing. l also have a better than average bullshit filter, and an eidetic memory that basically never forgets anything (except important things like work appointments and people’s names). That helps me quickly see context, relationships and the big picture.
My thing is that I get things, quickly, and can phrase them well. I’m also reasonably good with people. You can see how that works together. There’s a ton of ways that’s useful in life. You’re reading one.
Other uses for the same talent stack would be stuff like copywriting, being a “public intellectual” (shudder), real journalism, business consulting, politics – though many of those options would require more faking than I’m willing to tolerate.
I could also be a cult leader, life coach or guru, a path I have actively rejected in favour of helping people instead of brainwashing them for my own benefit.
I’m not saying these things to make myself look extra impressive – I could just as easily write a longer list of my shortcomings, and find synergies of suckiness there, which does actually sound like another useful thing to do – but to illustrate the point.
The point is that these skills and talents clearly work together to become more than the sum of their parts. “Epi-qualification”. The unique stuff is an emergent property of the individual components. And you can engineer your own.
Here’a series of concrete steps you can take right now:
- List your skills and talents. Be generous with yourself – see what a hole I patted in my own back up there. However, also be honest.
- Are there any obvious overlaps? How about less obvious ones? Give yourself time to think about it. Is there a non-obvious one that you just noticed now and are like “holy shit that’s awesome”?
- Do any obvious useful additions immediately come to mind? It’s best if you ruminate over this for a few days. Look for disproportionate “AHA!” lightbulb moments.
- There are necessary skills that you simply must have, like good manners, and universal skills which are not strictly necessary, but improve every mix – like public speaking, speaking an extra language, and basic knowledge of psychology. Plug any gaps and look for common-denominator “Tabasco” skills you can pick up that work with everything.
- Identify obvious flaws, weak spots and Achilles’ heels. Fix them. Sometimes, you just need to disengage the parking brake.
- If you can’t think of anything, ask good friends or colleagues. Preferably smart ones who want good things for you.
By the way, the fact that it’s easier to get good results with the “talent stack” approach as opposed to narrow specialisation doesn’t make it some sort of compensatory strategy for inadequates who couldn’t quite cut it at anything. It’s even more useful when you have a world-class talent or skill. Then you just build complementary skills that amplify it, and give you an unique edge.
If a well designed talent stack can help an average person achieve great results, what then can it do for a gifted person?
In any scenario, paying attention to this stuff really helps.