Which Skills Should You Master?

There’s enough time in life to become mediocre at a lot of things. But there isn’t enough time to get really good at more than a couple. Most people don’t even get really good at one.

How do you figure out which skills are worth mastering?

It’s a difficult question, and one I’ve often struggled with. But I’ve found a handy rule of thumb which can help make the decision clearer: which skill, if you were truly exceptional only at that one, would still be enough to have an interesting and successful career?

Say you wanted to be a writer. There’s plenty of skills that could help you be successful: deep expertise in a subject, perfect grammar or marketing skills. But for writing, there’s only one that could stand alone: writing compelling content. If you can do that well, you’ll have a great career. The others, alone, won’t be enough.

Or consider being an entrepreneur. Again, there are many skills which could be useful. Understanding finance, networking and recruiting could all qualify. But without deeply understanding what people want, none of that matters.

What is Your One Skill?

Actually, I lied earlier. You could have a very successful career, if your only exceptional skill was great marketing, recruiting or understanding finance. It just might not be the same career as one where you’re focused on creating compelling content or understanding what people want.

With economic specialization, nearly any useful skill will become the core skill of at least some jobs.

The difficulty arises because although specialization exists, it’s never perfect. We often have to perform many tasks that aren’t the core skill of our job. Sometimes we’re even misled, believing our core skill is one thing when it’s actually another.

Blogging is an excellent example. When you get started, it’s easy to believe that the key to success is mastering a bewildering array of technologies, social media hacks and networking gimmicks. But the core skill of any successful blogger is the same as the writer: delivering compelling content.

If the thing you’re becoming exceptional at isn’t the core skill for your job, you need to either switch jobs or switch skills.

Hunt for Counterexamples

How do you figure out what is the core skill for your career? For that, I’d test it. Look for examples of successful people who all have the same career and test them on various attributes. It’s a core skill if almost every person who is successful is excellent at it. It’s not a core skill if you can find plenty of successful people who are lousy at it.

If you were investigating blogging, it’s very hard to find successful blogs without compelling content. However there are plenty that have no social media or lousy designs.

The core skill should be something all or almost all successful people in that role have. Auxiliary skills may be present more often in successful people (especially once they’ve reached a level of success where delegating and outsourcing are possible), but finding counterexamples should be easy.

Now Focus on that One Skill

Whenever I find myself learning something for my career, I ask myself: how is this helping me create more compelling content? If it’s not, I try to find some way to avoid or outsource it. If I can’t, I focus on getting minimal proficiency and then moving on.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. I’ve done learning projects, picking up skills quite unrelated to writing that have helped me make more compelling content. So, in a sense, the MIT Challenge and the Year Without English have helped me improve that one skill. But they also created new distractions, so I’m less confident that they would have been better than, say, focusing exclusively on writing for a year instead.

What’s your one skill? What one skill do all successful people in your career share? What are the distraction skills that feel important but aren’t decisive? Special thanks to Cal Newport for inspiring this post.


Be Bold, Presumptuous and Stop Caring About What Others Think

A reader recently referred me to this project to break into the top 250 table tennis players in the UK in one year.

What happened? He failed. In his own words:

“The challenge ended a week ago and I am still nowhere near the top 250. I wasn’t even good enough to get an official ranking. Worse it was the most public failure ever – I told everyone I met what I was doing and posted it all over the internet. And now everyone has seen me fail!”

As someone who does ambitious, and some would say, arrogant, projects, I sympathize. Any learning goal suffers under the problem that you also lack meta-knowledge about the goal before you start. The only way to get that knowledge is to try.

But then I got this tweet from a reader when I mentioned the project:

Is it presumptuous to think you can get into an elite level for a sport in only a year’s worth of training? Of course. Is it arrogant to think you can outdo people who have been training for decades? Definitely.

But who cares?

I hate the attitude that we’re not allowed to set ambitious goals, just because they might be unrealistic or “offend” people that worked very hard.

Sam, our table-tennis-expert attemptee, says he was “naive” and failed to realize how difficult the goal would be. Doing an ambitious, public challenge has a lot of risks. That’s one of the reasons I usually spend almost as much time researching my year-long projects as I spend actually doing them.

But even if you plan excessively and try to account for every variable, you’re still going to make mistakes. I would say my challenges were both largely successful, but even with the intense planning I did there were still things I wish I had done differently:

  • I wish I had hired official graders instead of self-grading for the MIT Challenge. The relatively objective nature of the content along with solution sets and grading rubricks made me dismiss this idea as too costly/timely in the research phase. But now I realize that it would have added greater legitimacy to the project.
  • During the year without English, I did do one standardized exam: the HSK for Chinese. However, I wish I had done them in all four languages, since it would have been easier to specify exactly what level was reached in the period of time.

But such problems, obvious in hindsight, weren’t clear ahead of time. Perhaps the audacity of trying to break into the top 250 for an Olympic sport should have been clear from the beginning. But then what about Joshua Foer, who didn’t just enter the elite, but got the first place in the US Memory Championship with only a year of training?

In fact, its just as easy to suffer under the opposite problem: setting goals which are too easy. I shied away from making any specific claims as to what level of fluency Vat and I would reach during our stay in each country. But that also meant we didn’t prepare for any formalized assessment other than my HSK test. Here the problem wasn’t too much boldness, but too little.

When the only thing at stake is your pride and a little bit of time, I say it’s better to make errors of boldness than of caution. I’d rather try a bit too hard and fail, than wonder about what I might have been able to do if I had really tried.