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.


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  • Absolutely Tara

    I like how you phrased this. It really does leave me with a more specified idea of what to focus on in my skill building, and helps me to let go of not being an expert at everything. Thanks for sharing.

    -Tara

    http://absolutelytara.com

  • Philip

    Leaving aside how well or otherwise you integrate into your life what you have learnt in the Challenge and the Year, what they have taught you about logic and grammar (for example) will be invaluable to your writing – and, indeed, to your spirit.

  • Tyler

    Many skills that are worth being good at are composed of other, smaller skills. The reason it can sometimes feel overwhelming trying to learn a certain skill is because it’s not actually a single skill—it’s built up of, or dependent on, other skills that, while not ultimately as important, are necessary for mastery of the skill you’re *actually* interested in. For that reason, it’s important to Build Small Skills in the Right Order:

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/58m/bu

    Also, I’m not really convinced that most fields *can* be reduced to a single skill such that excellence in that skill means excellence in your role or field. Sure, *some* professions exist that boil down to a single skill, but what one skill, if you mastered it, would make you a master doctor? Even the given example, that understanding what people want leads to successful entrepreneurship, seems incomplete. The mantra of Silicon Valley venture capitalists is that “good ideas are a dime a dozen”. While I don’t agree with their blatant dismissal of ideas having inherent worth, the real skill an entrepreneur needs is the ability to successfully *execute* on an idea. Can that really be considered a single skill?

  • Ben

    Hey Scott,

    that’s an amazing question that I have put quite a lot of thought into over the last weeks and months.

    What are the skills you are focusing on and why?

    Cheers for keeping this up and I look forward to our interview.

    Ben

  • Alex

    Hey thanks for this, Scott. I frequently have trouble with spreading myself too thin, because I try to do so many things at once. As a result, I’m mediocre at a lot of things, but I’m not really *master* at anything. I can never figure out what to dedicate my energy to, so I just try to do it all. (Which doesn’t work well, haha)

  • Ilham

    Hey Scott,

    I wanted to bring up a point regarding entrepreneurship. I understand that being able to identify people’s problems or their wants before they even know them is important, but I don’t believe that is the most important entrepreneurial trait, especially since your article asks what skill to master. I do think that it is the most important trait for a serial entrepreneur, but for someone interested in starting a business where they will build their career then the skill is different.

    I think it (identifying people’ wants) has become an important trait because of an online focus on social tech startups or tech startups in general that try to get huge numbers of users while worrying about cash flow in the manner of “we’ll figure it out later.”

    If you’re a person who wants to build one company and grow in that company then the question you should be asking is: “Does this help my revenue?”, positive cash flow is the only thing that matters in this case.

    Applying that question to every skill you’re interested in acquiring in both a short-term and long-term time line increases your chances of success I think. At least from my observations of such entrepreneurs.

  • Ashley Andrews

    It’s a tricky question, that’s for sure. I agree with Alex, I’m guilty of trying to do far too many things at the same time, even though I *know* I shouldn’t. The counterexample method sounds really good, though – I’ll definitely use it in the future. Great post!

  • Lesedi

    @Alex, I’m having the same problem as you of spreading myself too thin because I’m interested in a lot of things. But I have now deciding to focus on Programming for a career and Music Production as my core hobby. Thanks Scott for the article, it reminded me that I needed to focus my energy rather than dissipating it in a lot of things and ending up being mediocre of all trades.

  • Scott Young

    Tyler,

    You’re right. I avoided that complication, but skills almost invariably have finer-graded subdivisions. The key here is picking the right lumping of skills so that the one skill becomes more apparent. Being a doctor is obviously lots of skills, but being a great doctor is dependent on only a subset of the skills a doctor would use in any given day. Finding that subset, and indeed, creating a label to categorize those skills should provide a handy rule of thumb.

    My own example of creating compelling content fits this. Compelling content depends on hundreds of sub skills, but in each, you can ask, “How is this helping me create more compelling content?” if it isn’t, you know it’s probably not as important to master.

    -Scott

  • Jay

    Scott,

    Keep up the good work you are doing.

    I split it into thirds.
    1/3 of the time make sure I remain good at what I have mastered otherwise it is easy to get rusty

    1/3 of the time on a skill that I am good at but have not mastered.

    1/3 of time on developing new skill that I am interested in but may not pursue it for whatever reason, so this one is in flux. Currently I am focusing on Google+ Hangout to see how this can help me with my business. If it looks like I need it but not a core competency, then I will get help so I at least know how to do it, though not well.

    -Jay

  • Scott Young

    Jay,

    That’s a really interesting split. What system do you use for managing it? Is it just an informal rule of thumb, or do you deliberately allocate those thirds every week?

    -Scott

  • Mike W

    “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. “

    Sounds reasonable, but there may be a problem. Survivorship bias. What if lots of people who left the career also excelled at that skill, meaning it wasn’t a factor in becoming a success?

  • Scott Young

    Mike,

    Worth examining near-successes, or people who have stayed in the career for a long time but haven’t reached much success. Do they have the skill well-developed, or not?

    I’d be pretty confident saying that for blogging. There aren’t too many long-time bloggers who have truly compelling content with low readership (although part of that depends on how you measure what’s compelling).

    -Scott

  • Parvinder

    Looks like really interesting. I will try and get back to you

  • Mark

    The benefits of specialization are pretty apparent and for the most part, that’s what this post encourages. I generally like to divide things into two categories: things that can be outsourced to other specialists and things that can’t. If something can be outsourced to another specialist, then it can be safely ignored.

    For example, I’m an engineer and my mother is a doctor. It would be a mistake for me to divert resources away from my valued engineering and towards medicine or for her to do the opposite. The market rewards us for what we can do above a certain threshold, not for our ability to do a lot of things reasonably well. I can write software and she can run a small town hospital and we’re both contributing and rewarded for our unique talents. As a result, shoring up “weaknesses” such as musical skills, historical knowledge, etc have a lower ROI than making strengths into greater strengths.

    On the other hand there are some things that just can’t be outsourced, such as one’s health, ability to manage one’s finances or social skills. And these are the skills where it is worth it to work on improving weaknesses. No matter how good your career is, your life will still suck if you don’t take care of your health (or your relationships or your finances, etc…)

  • Phoebe

    Hi Scott,
    Thank you for this blog. It makes me think in terms of the core skills that I want to hone, instead of what “kind” of person I want to be. For instance, instead of aspiring to be a great hacker, aspire to build great codes. I also believe that it is the one-liner focus that keeps us from all the distractions toward improving ourselves to reach our goal.

  • Aihui Guan

    scott,

    thank you for your excellent idea ahout how to find the core skill of you career. Before now , i learnd loads of skills about my career, but i am not very good at the core skills and waste too much time to master un-core skills, which time should be spent in mastering the core skills.That’s must be the reason i have not got a good salary.
    From now ,i reckon i shoud more focus on the core skills.
    Thand you very much.

  • Josh

    I agree so much with that last statement mate –

    It’s tough to practice skills (a language for example) when you’re studying something else ‘full time’ –

    I have to be really honest with yourself on whether I’m just procrastinating the most immediately important (and usually slightly mundane) ‘main’ study

  • Yukie

    Hi Scott,

    This is a good content that should have been read by high school students. They normally study a lot of subjects, but haven’t seriously thought about what the most important skill they require to succeed will be, after entering the world of work and business. Truthfully, I personally have experienced that having one core skill and sticking to maintaining and honing it is fundamental if we want to attain high reward from the society. That’s why it is imperative to find one core skill that our career requires and that almost every person who is successful in our field is excellent at, as you suggest to us.

    I agree with Tyler that not all fields can be reduced to a single skill such that excellence in that skill means excellence in our role or field. At the same time, I understand if you mean that a core skill can also signifies a set of most essential skills needed to be a master in a field. Additionally, having supporting or auxiliary skills is crucial, since otherwise we will only become a specialist, not a leader who has generalist side – that is, being good at some skills or interdisciplinary. Therefore managing our time well to learn the skills we have selected, as said by Jay, is so essential.

    Thank you for writing an article that has motivated me to keep learning more the core skills for the field I have chosen. Congratulations too as MIT Challenge and Year Without English have helped you improve your ‘one’ skill. Keep up the compelling writing!

  • Zdenek Otcenasek

    Hello Scott,

    once I visited a conference of traders and of them had a talk about this topic. If I can summarise in short:

    Learning something takes effort. We like it, we are excited, but then we may reach a level where it seems to be not so much fun anymore – there is a wall in front of us… Climbing the wall costs a lot of energy and still no “cheddar” is flowing back. We may be working hard but no money still is being generated. It is similar as to digging a water well. We put effort, sometime really big effort and after some time water starts to flowing and we start to get the benefits of our work.

    We also have to spend money usually to start a business, investment.

    Sitting on “many chairs” means dissipating energy (however someone can actually do that and loves that).. exactly my case. I studied something like Czech MIT, but then after graduation I began to work as flight attendant. Visited and travelled through 50 countries in total and this experience totally broadened my life. After 7 years I quit and wanted back into engineering but then family agriculture business needed help and I spent there 2.5 years doing reconstruction and modernisation with father and trade guys. Then I left to Canada and started to work in oil construction in Fort Mac to fill up my pocket again little bit..

    I love technology, I love traveling, I would love to help my parents and would love to see them once in life by the sea – they didn’t have holiday for more then 25 years and think… do I spent fucking 30k for school in Canada (refresher) cause my 10 years old degree does not exist basically, especially in Canada which doesnt acknowledge anything, or should I start cheese and yogurt company and became entrepreneur, or should I be pilot? I like technology, electronics, nuclear staff, even petroleum and being now 35… I need to make final decision. Luckily, being gay means no worries about family and staf like that.. Yeah, and I love business and dealing with people too 🙂

    All that shaped my life

  • Zdenek Otcenasek

    Hello Scott,

    once I visited a conference of traders and of them had a talk about this topic. If I can summarise in short:

    Learning something takes effort. We like it, we are excited, but then we may reach a level where it seems to be not so much fun anymore – there is a wall in front of us… Climbing the wall costs a lot of energy and still no “cheddar” is flowing back. We may be working hard but no money still is being generated. It is similar as to digging a water well. We put effort, sometime really big effort and after some time water starts to flowing and we start to get the benefits of our work.

    We also have to spend money usually to start a business, investment.

    Sitting on “many chairs” means dissipating energy (however someone can actually do that and loves that).. exactly my case. I studied something like Czech MIT, but then after graduation I began to work as flight attendant. Visited and travelled through 50 countries in total and this experience totally broadened my life. After 7 years I quit and wanted back into engineering but then family agriculture business needed help and I spent there 2.5 years doing reconstruction and modernisation with father and trade guys. Then I left to Canada and started to work in oil construction in Fort Mac to fill up my pocket again little bit..

    I love technology, I love traveling, I would love to help my parents and would love to see them once in life by the sea – they didn’t have holiday for more then 25 years and think… do I spent fucking 30k for school in Canada (refresher) cause my 10 years old degree does not exist basically, especially in Canada which doesnt acknowledge anything, or should I start cheese and yogurt company and became entrepreneur, or should I be pilot? I like technology, electronics, nuclear staff, even petroleum and being now 35… I need to make final decision. Luckily, being gay means no worries about family and staf like that.. Yeah, and I love business and dealing with people too 🙂

    All that shaped my life

  • Josh Mathis

    I disagree with you. Your weakness is your musical talent, and you gave up on it by not practicing. You now justify your failure by telling yourself that you are building on your strengths, when in reality, that musical failure has left a yearning in your being of which you never recovered from.

  • Josh Mathis

    I disagree with you. Your weakness is your musical talent, and you gave up on it by not practicing. You now justify your failure by telling yourself that you are building on your strengths, when in reality, that musical failure has left a yearning in your being of which you never recovered from.

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