Do you deliberately grow your skills? Will you?..
I was reviewing my old notes when I stumbled on something shocking. It was a link I’d saved 10 years ago, when my life was drastically different. It was a piece of advice about improving your skills, and it might have been the foundation for everything that followed in my life.
Long before 2016, before we entered our current age of bizarre news, before he became an unhinged self-proclaimed political commentator, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was a damn fine blogger. His advice on life, business, and success was spot on. This blog post from 2007 changed my life.
When I first saw it, I was 26, working in the most junior analyst position imaginable, and constantly trying to find some way to get ahead, some hack, some secret knowledge. I devoured Paul Graham’s lectures and essays. (They are quite good: you should read them. Head over yonder.) I took long Greyhound road trips to Omaha to listen to Warren Buffett’s shareholder Q&A sessions. (You didn’t need to own shares: each year, he flooded the market with $5 passes so anyone could attend.) I checked out library books on strategy, on business, on unorthodox thinking. I was making $14 an hour in a hot sweltering building with no air conditioning, and I lived in the ghetto of North Vegas, but my ambition was boundless.
That blog post shook me. It described a very simple truth about the universe, the kind that many other, objectively smarter people have failed to recognize or embrace. And the truth was this: build overlapping skills. As Adams writes, you can succeed by being either the absolute best expert in your field (think Olympic medalists, or Nobel Prize winners), or you can be merely in the top 25% in three or so different skills.
It’s probably fair to say that all of us are good at several things, though it might be a stretch to call them marketable skills. If you have a buddy that knows a lot about beer, trucks, and hunting rifles, that would make him an expert of sorts, yes, but that wouldn’t be very marketable. Unless, of course, he starts a “Beer & Deer” truck safari company to put those skills to good use. (If you do, in fact, start a “Beer & Deer” truck safari company, I’d like a small cut of the profits, please and thank you.)
Other, far more marketable skills, include becoming good at public speaking, or getting a business degree in addition to the one you already have. Incidentally, Warren Buffett might not have attracted his initial investors decades ago if he hadn’t taken the famous Carnegie course on public speaking and persuasion. He spent decades praising that course, that one-time investment, that changed his life. Without it, he might have remained just a geeky math guy who wouldn’t have convinced anyone to invest with him.
How did I apply that to my own life? Well, I kind of regret not having taken a public speaking course, or beefing up my knowledge of psychology, or getting an MBA. (I detest MBA degrees for purely ideological reasons. That is a bit of a flaw in my character.) Instead, I doubled down on the purely geeky side of things: I learned better analytical techniques, I made myself fall in love with Excel (that most irrationally hated of all programs), and I learned just enough low-end coding (SQL, to be precise) to be useful – or dangerous, depending on my luck that day.
I found things that others hated doing, and by applying just a little bit of effort, I boosted my skills, became a rather in-demand analyst, and managed to transfer around the country, from one warehouse to another, meeting new people, enjoying new surroundings, and being paid for it all. In the end, that journey led me to Amazon’s HQ in Seattle – and, eventually, to Canada.
By then, my skillset and my knowledge of warehouse operations got me so far ahead that I received a peculiar job offer: they wanted me to become a financial analyst. I’d never taken a single accounting course in my life (my degree is in political science, of all things), but I met and exceeded all the other requirements, so off I went.
At the very end of my 11.5-year journey with Amazon, I was the financial analyst for their largest legacy sortable warehouse in North America, YYZ7. I was balancing the books and resolving crises (so many, many crises) and mentoring actual CPAs that worked in other warehouses, and all of that was because years ago, I’d stumbled on a single blog post, on a precious idea that burrowed its way into my brain and changed my life.
A word of caution, though: becoming highly specialized will get you a nice job, but it might not result in a lot of promotions if your field of expertise is limited. For example, there was only so much room for analysts at a typical warehouse: one or two was considered more than enough. You’d have one boss above you, and no opportunities to climb ye olde career ladder.
Conversely, if you were just a hard-working junior manager with nerves of steel, patience of a saint, and above-average aptitude, you could expect to be promoted every couple of years. (Side effects include getting burned out, drug/alcohol abuse, and working 16 hours a day.)
It was even worse if you worked in loss prevention: there’d be just one LP specialist in each warehouse. They’d almost never get promoted (unless something happened to their regional boss), and they’d be the first to get fired if some clever employee orchestrated a warehouse heist.
The upside, of course, is that you’ll always be able to reroll those dice, to reinvent yourself, to put a few more skills in your mental shopping basket and try again. Another field, another city, another state, another life…
At this point, you might be wondering where to get said skills, how much money would that take, and will you have to go back to school? Those are reasonable concerns, and the answers are anywhere, zero, and no. I used to read so much back then that everything blurs together but I think this next piece advice came from Tim Ferriss’s bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek. (Full disclosure: that’s an affiliate link that pays for my blog’s upkeep.) Incidentally, that was another influential book that absolutely blew my mind back in 2009. It introduced me to the concept of geographic arbitrage, among many others.
Ferriss’s advice was quite simple: if you want to know more than most people about any given topic, go get your hands on 5-10 most popular books on that topic, read them, and take copious notes. You can find the most popular books by checking Amazon’s top ranked books, and you can get those popular books from any library. You won’t get a PhD equivalent that way, but you’ll be far, far more knowledgeable than your average schmuck.
He wrote that in 2009, back when YouTube was still new and the internet as we know it was still under construction. These days, you can also get marketable skills for free: if you’re not averse to the idea of coding, there are thousands of free manuals, guidebooks, online coding academies, etc. If you don’t think coding is something you’d learn to love, you can always level up your Excel skills – see my earlier post about using YouTube videos to learn Excel and get an entry-level tech job.
One interesting caveat: Ferriss’s advice was less for career growth and more for entrepreneurship. He used the same skill overlap logic that Adams did, but his end result is different: find the intersection of knowledge where you’re already skilled (i.e., beer/trucks/rifles), then see what kind of business you can set up in that niche.
Whatever path you choose – career growth or entrepreneurship – the only real barriers are time and motivation. Very few people have zero free time – typically, they’re single parents who work full-time, and they have my utmost respect. For everyone else, it’s always possible to compromise, to sneak 30 or 60 minutes per day to read, to learn, to practice, to improve. Listen to audiobooks while commuting, read during your lunch hour and breaks, read before bed, prioritize education over entertainment.
As for motivation, nobody will force you to learn, and not all of that learning will be fun. Barring a Tyler Durden Fight Club scenario, no one will give you an ultimatum to go back to school or start hitting the books. All of this is up to you. Always has been, always will be.
I don’t know what path you’ll take or where you will end up if you do this. Maybe your new knowledge of marketing and psychology will get you a cushy sales jobs. Perhaps your new obsession with urban ecology and public speaking will make you first a tour guide, then a politician. Or maybe it’ll be something even stranger, and wilder, and unpredictable.
If you’ve ever done something like this, share your experiences in the comments – I always love hearing back from my readers. How did that work out for you in the end? Sound off and share your thoughts!