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.