Scott H Young

What Matters More: Your Network or Skills?


I love questions like this one because they’re the kind people get upset about for no reason.

When you try to say that your network of professional friends is important to your career, you get tons of angry socially maladroit engineer-types ranting about it. Technical competence, and points on an IQ test are what matters most, and any suggestion that social fluency or relationships matter too is inherently unmeritocratic.

I’ve also heard plenty of entrepreneurs who believe that everything is outsourceable. Why bother learning something like programming or design when you can pay someone else?

Why does it have to be a dichotomy? There’s no reason they both don’t matter. Which matters more absolutely is actually irrelevant, the difference is whether more skills or more people matter more marginally to your situation.

Where Would You Get More Marginal Benefit?

Marginal benefit is a very useful concept from economics. The idea is that many activities have diminishing return. The 80/20 rule is essentially a more specific restatement of diminishing return, with the first twenty percent of opportunities generating eighty percent of the total results.

Advice giving is hard because it needs to make an assumption not just about the absolute worth of an activity, but where you are on the marginal benefit curve. What might be good advice for someone in the state of high marginal benefit may be lousy for someone further down it.

The networking/skill-development trade-off is a clear example. If you never cultivate connections and your network consists only of people you met by happenstance, there’s a good chance that each extra hour you invest in networking might benefit you more than an extra hour improving your craft.

However, the opposite is true if you’re a socialite with no job skills. Knowing a lot of people is useless if you’re useless. If you can’t do the things people will pay for, it doesn’t matter who you know.

This is why I find the debates people have over these issues silly. If you are just comparing absolute benefit, then you’re arguing an irrelevant point. The only thing that matters is where there is more marginal benefit, and that will vary case-by-case.

Skills and Relationships Form a Self-Reinforcing Cycle

The situation gets more complicated because people and skills form a positive feedback loop. The better people you know, the faster your skills can improve. The better your skills, the more important people you can meet.

Consider the first point: that a better network drives better skills. This is because many opportunities for rapid skill growth are not available to everyone. They are in limited supply, and like all opportunities, they flow through relationships.

This can have an impact in subtle ways. When I started this blog, my writing was predictably lousy. It’s nearly impossible to be a good writer when you’ve never written before, and I was no exception. The question is, how do you become a better writer?

Feedback is a big part of improving as a writer. If you don’t have feedback on what people like and don’t like about your writing, you’ll improve much more slowly. How do you get feedback? From readers. How do you get readers? From traffic. How do you get traffic? Generally from other websites linking to you. How do you get other websites to link to you? It helps to befriend people who run other websites.

In most cases it’s even more direct. My friends have helped me become a better entrepreneur, often by giving me insights into my business it would have taken years to uncover. You might have growth opportunities in your career that can only come through other people. In many cases you can’t separate your skills from relationships.

Now consider the opposite direction of causality: that better skills help you meet more important people. Here the reasoning is a little easier to follow. People like people who are high-value. If you have built valuable skills that people want, then more people will want to meet you.

The best freelancers I know for a particular skill charge exorbitant rates and turn down most their work. They’re so good that people can’t ignore them.

Cycling Introversion and Extroversion for Career Growth

The problem is that the habits and behaviors that help you build your skills are often contradictory with the ones that help build relationships. I just spent almost a week meeting people and having drinks at SxSW, but I certainly wasn’t getting any work done. Similarly, meeting with new people while hard at work is a major distraction.

I think the conflict between these two behavior types is a major reason for the debate surrounding which is better to focus on. Most people can agree that both are necessary to some extent, but integrating them into one personality can feel almost impossible.

My solution has been to cycle between modes of introversion and extroversion. By flipping between the two, I can continue to work on both parts which are important for my career, but not sabotage my progress by holding conflicting habits.

When I’m in introversion mode—I like to get work done. I prefer to meet with fewer people, work in isolation most of the day, wake up early and generally implement as fully as possible all the productivity advice I recommend on this blog.

When I’m in extroversion mode, I’m quite different. I stay out later. I drink and party. I meet people, and generally don’t worry about being too productive. In fact, “being productive” in the domain of relationships can even be detrimental, as you look like you’re trying to use people instead of building trust and connections.

These two modes often have incompatible habits, so there is a certain amount of work transitioning between them. When I’m coming off an introversion period, I sometimes have to force myself to socialize more than I want. When I’m switching back to it, I sometimes need a few weeks to readjust to the quieter pace.

How Often Should You Cycle?

For me, I feel the ratio of introverted to extroverted behaviors that maximize my benefits is around 70/30. However, this ratio itself is highly dependent on your career and where you sit along those marginal benefit curves. An engineer working at a corporate job may be closer to 90/10. A start-up entrepreneur in a marketing position may be 30/70.

The length of time in each phase depends on your schedule. When I was doing the MIT Challenge, I was in introversion mode for almost the entire year straight. Other times I’ll switch back and forth every week or month.

Cycles don’t need to be polar opposites either. This month is mostly extroverted for me, travelling to conferences, meeting people and speaking. But I’m still getting my regular work done and trying to make moderate progress on my projects.

What defines the cycle is simply a temporary shift of your priorities. When you’re in an extroverted mode, you’ll sacrifice a little productivity for your relationships. When in introverted mode, you’ll sacrifice a little of your connectedness for getting work done.

Done properly, I think cycling the introverted and extroverted behaviors we all possess is a better solution than to try to perpetually maintain balance. It also helps resolve the inner conflict many of us feel in our careers over whether we need to spend more time making connections or working hard.


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27 Responses to “What Matters More: Your Network or Skills?”

  1. Michael says:

    Scott,

    You are right on the money. I definitely cycle between introversion and extroversion. I do find myself falling towards introversion most of the time, but I have learned to be extroverted to not shut myself to prevent myself from making new like minded friends. I think from a 1 (extremely introverted) to 10 (extremely extroverted) scale I sit at around 3.

    Where do you think you fall alone this scale Scott?

  2. Khuyen Bui says:

    I definitely agree that people have been debating too much about network vs skill without taking into account the context, like job differences and where they are at now in their career. In the end, both are intricately connected and needed: skills are what persuade your network to pay attention to you, but you must have a network.

    Anyway, about Marginal thinking, have you read the book How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen? There’s a part about the danger of marginal thinking (ie we think of the benefit of an act in short term – that’s how humans are naturally wired to be, without taking into account the long term). It gives an example of Blockbuster (an existing giant in the movie rental about 20 years ago) and Netflix (a startup at that time) and their decisions about what to invest in. Highly recommended the book.

    Cheers,

  3. Tia says:

    Can you give some advice on networking? I always struggled between being an introvert and an extrovert and I find it very hard to switch. Being an introvert comes more natural to me, however. What I struggle most is getting into the extrovert mode – fastly. Do you have some advice or this kind of switch?

  4. Sam says:

    Great article as usual Scott. I really enjoyed your insights on networking and building skills. I agree with the fact that the only thing that matters is where there is more marginal benefit, and that will vary case-by-case (and from time to time).

    I wish I had known, back when I was an undergrad, the value of switching from an “introvert” mode to an “extrovert” one. Back when I look at it, I feel like I should’ve spent more time networking with people.

    How is your French going, by the way? Ever planning to learn a third language? Keep up the good work!

  5. Jim Stone says:

    This is a very important idea, Scott.

    It’s very difficult to wear both hats at the same time.

    Creative work requires deep focus and work sessions that don’t butt up too close to scheduled appointments. If we try to do creative work while fearing that we will miss an appointment or break a social promise if we get lost in thought, those worries will keep us from “going deep”

    Socializing works best when we are open to interruption and willing to schedule and re-schedule our time.

    Switching hats, and “cycling” is a very sensible solution.

    I also like the fact that you think of the ratio in terms of marginal utility. And I like the fact that your cycles are fairly lengthy — accounting for switching costs that are larger that most people realize.

    Of course, people can gravitate more towards the poles of these ratios 90/10 or 10/90 when they are members of teams rather than solo-acts. Solo entrepreneurs pay a higher price in “switching costs” than do members of teams (though this might be offset by higher “coordination costs” that come with teams.)

  6. Scott Young says:

    Michael,

    I try not to think of it as a spectrum, because that’s not useful for most purposes. Instead I like to look at my introspective and social dimensions as skills that can both be improved. That meaning I can both become a better introvert and extrovert at the same time, which is nonsensical if you model it as a scale between opposites.

    Khuyen,

    I think we may be mixing concepts here. Marginal utility is a robust concept from economics that has nothing to do with long-term/short-term tradeoffs. It simply reflects the fact that the decisions about whether to invest more time into a domain shouldn’t be based on the value you received in the past, but the value you will receive for more effort in the future. Since most marginal utility curves are concave, using average utility results in being overly optimistic about the returns of future investments.

    -Scott

  7. untersucher says:

    Khuyen and Scott,

    thanks for your insights and hints on marginal utility. It took quick dig into Clayton Christensen’s work to come up with what may converge things you both are writing about.

    When assessing marginal utility, it is usually implemented with regard to a particular project or set of goals (i.e., getting better at something). Hence, in a context.
    This sets a framework for a person to measure a success. That is “pursuit of achievement” as Christensen puts it.

    What a person will pursue firsthand to get better at something? It is getting accepted by his or her network he got better at that something. This kind of predefines the direction for any achievement from current state.

    Here a short-term thing comes as the framework limits the view of progress to a set of ‘must have’ achievements. To create what seems to be marginal utility.
    Yet, while building a broader web of knowledge in a long-run, where goals lead to a node, marginal utility of any could be seen quite different.

    Maybe cycling (or spiralling) is the appropriate solution here. ‘You need to mater rules before you can reinvent them’, isn’t it?

  8. Nick Goodall says:

    I’d never thought about the two like this before, in fact over a 1 year period I’ve switched from extroversion to introversion, and even though I enjoy producing and being productive, I need to get out. I think applying the 80/20 or something similar to this will help…

    In regards to the outsourcing, to an extent I’m for that argument. I’d definitely avoid being a jack of all trades and wouldn’t want my network to be either, by all means have knowledge here and there, but major in your passion. People can then find you when they need that skill, and you can outsource to others with skills that you don’t have.

    Thanks for the ideas, and have a great day!

  9. dag says:

    What Scott proposes is very interesting and even healthy. When I say healthy I mean it is so not just for bussiness but for life itself. However, I find cycling very difficult. I do, though my main attitude is introversion and when I cycle to extroversion I’m not really aware, so it depends on the situation and my mood instead of being a desired change. I’d really like to take more control over it, though it’s someting really difficult to attain!

  10. Will B says:

    This is a great topic and hot debate among almost all recent grads I know. There is much written on importance of skills and networking but analysis is rare on how these two activities both potentially reinforce or destabilize the other.

  11. Brett Warner says:

    I think you’re dead on. The introvert me and the extrovert me are two completely separate people. What I’ve found though is that the more extroverted I try to be the more unfocused and undisciplined I am afterwards. I think it’s because as an introvert being extroverted just burns me out.

    So my best bet is to work on outreach after I’ve finished anything that requires my focus. Often I’ll spend the mornings engrossed in anything that requires that mindset and then around lunch I’ll start making calls, dealing with client requests, etc. However I can see how it would be extremely useful to dedicate separate days to each.

  12. Hi Scott,
    Love your column as always. You have such an ability to see to the heart of matters and analyze things in an original way. I just wanted to add a point about writing that I feel has wider application. That I think there is something about the act of publishing, itself, about “putting oneself out there,” that leads to better writing; and this is true in most areas of life. It is not just getting feedback that improves performance (though feedback if terrific), but having the courage to do something publicly leads to better self-feedback (?) Or to more personal strength, which leads to better performance? You can probably analyze it better than I can!

  13. Smythe says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thank, a thought-provoking post. I have been self-critical at times doing introverted activity and thinking I should be meeting people. I was thinking I should be more balanced. The idea of cycling introvert to extrovert 70%/30% is novel to me, and very freeing!

    I do struggle with relationships, that is, doing the things that are necessary to maintain and perpetuate friendships. I realize after reading your post and several other blogs today this: My 2nd biggest challenge to having a chance at doing something entrepreneurial, whether it’s blogging or on-line business, will require that I get a lot better at establishing and building friendships. My biggest challenge is today is learning how to consistently produce content for my blog. As of December I jumped into blogging and having to learn everything. Take a pointer from your post, I’m have decided to approach some of my friends to “coach” me on my writing.

    Great post! I’ve been doing the introvert thing all day today. I have decided I will go out tonight, perhaps a book store or pub, and strike up a conversation for the heck of it.

    Take care!
    Smythe

  14. Nate says:

    I laughed a little, I was thinking when I was reading the first paragraph or two about how strong your writing’s become- then you mentioned it. hah!

    Keep up the great work

  15. Ana says:

    Thanks. I always wondered if it was okay to being introverted after people have noted my metamorphosis from the shy, quiet one to “a social butterfly.” Now I feel more righteous in going back to pretending to be the quiet one to increase my productivity. Hopefully my shift from pretending to mostly being introverted will be smooth.

  16. Vinícius Albuquerque says:

    Hi Scott,

    I agree with most of the article. I’m in introversion mode now, getting my degree and trying to finish it as soon as possible. In middle time, I’m improving my english (I’m brazilian), learning mandarin and finishing some courses at EdX.org.

    Greetings from Brazil

  17. Edison says:

    Hi Scott,

    I definitely agree with you on the introversion and extroversion switch, that just makes so much sense to me! I do not consider myself too bad at either side, however, it takes me time to switch from one mode to another, and I have always wondered why I am not as good at meeting people while I am in the introversion mode (as I still have the extrovert hang over).

    Thanks for the experience and great insight!

    Cheers!

  18. Jinling says:

    Hey Scott,
    Thanks for your suggestion. It is a great help.I am an reporter. Constantly I need to go out to do interview and come back writing. It is like I have to shift from introversion and extroversion every work days to get my work donn. I am quite ok with this. But somehow I found I am terrible with my relationship. I need to shift back to my introversion mode to get my work done which made my boyfriend think we were not close enough. It actually bothered my a lot and I never get along well with those men I really like. Do you also have any suggestion for that as well? If it is not the topic you feel comfortable to talk about, it is fine with me. And thank you very much for sharing your idea with me.

    Warm regards from China,
    Jinling

  19. Renzo says:

    Scott,

    Incidentally, I am an engineer, I have a good set of technical skills, educated to doctoral level, industry experience, and I don’t think social skills are important…

    They are critical.

    Keep up the good job.

    Renzo

  20. Avi says:

    Typo: “skills for a positive feedback” should be “form”

  21. I always appreciate a deft slice through the BS with strategic, non-reactive thinking. I appreciate that, Scott.

    We get stuck trying to label things, and paint people with one color that we can miss the opportunity to integrate a rich portfolio of abilities, according to the situation.

    Thumbs up.

  22. Greg says:

    Wise words.

  23. Eric Nyikwagh says:

    What a shocker article.d part of marginal productivity was most inspiring.keep it up

  24. […] What Matters More: Your Network or Skills? (Scott Young) […]

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  27. […] H. Young recently wrote a good post entitled “What Matters More: Your Network or Skills?” In the post, Scott introduces the concept of marginal benefit, also known as marginal […]

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