There’s two main ways to think about becoming really good at something.
The first I call the knife model. This is where you get better and better at a very narrow range of skills, movements and patterns. Olympic sprinters, archers and many artisans master like a knife—getting extremely good at one thing.
The second I call the wedge model. This is where getting better requires learning an increasingly broad array of subskills. Programmers, composers and entrepreneurs master like a wedge—getting better overall, by having a huge library of patterns and skills.
I’d like to argue that the wedge model matters more for most of us. To get better at our work, we need to pick up more and and more adjacent skills to flesh out and support the work that we do.
Why Wedges Beat Knives
At first glance, this may sound like an argument against specialization. Wedges fan out, knives sharpen in. But this isn’t the case: both wedges and knives are a kind of mastery of a single domain, they just represent different ways of going about it.
Consider learning a language, a clear instance of a wedge. You must learn vocabulary, but to increase your overall proficiency in the language, you need to go broader. Learn less frequent words. Master less frequent grammar. Spreading out in knowledge, yes, but always constrained to the overall goal of communicating better.
Or consider programming, another wedge. Good programmers aren’t those who know one way to solve a problem. Good programmers are those who know a dozen ways to solve a problem, all with their own trade-offs and design implications for larger code. Breadth of knowledge, but still about coding.
Even artistic mastery often looks like a wedge. Van Gogh, in his training as a painter, experimented voluminously with different styles, theories and techniques. His breadth of knowledge about art allowed him to hone the specific style which would later make him famous.
What to Learn to Improve Your Career
I like the wedge model because it says that the way to improve your professional skills is through looking at neglected adjacent skills and improving them. It also says that, as you get better, you’ll need more and more to continue to go upward.
In my course I teach with Cal Newport, Top Performer , I often get questions from students about what kind of skills they should master. They’re often looking for the singular “big” skill that if they learned it, they would immediately advance to the next level.
While sometimes those big skills do exist, for anyone who has been working in their career for awhile, those have likely already been learned. To go further, therefore, requires mastering increasingly specific adjacent skills. Otherwise, you just end up with vague answers like, “improve soft skills” or “communication” when trying to figure out what will advance your career.
Consider my writing. I’ve been writing for thirteen years, and I’ve published probably close to two million words. My ability to write likely isn’t going to improve much by repeatedly practicing writing articles.
Yet, I’m also aware that there’s still a lot better I could get. I read other writers and recognize that they do a much better job than I do, some of whom haven’t even written as much as I have.
What’s the solution?
The response here is to recognize that my writing is a wedge. I need to pick up skills adjacent to my core writing. Research and domain knowledge on the subjects I write about. Humor, storytelling, vocabulary, design and illustration. All of these little skills I can actually work on and get better at. While none of them will likely make an overwhelming difference to my writing quality, if I keep working on all of them I will eventually get better. After years, the wedge grows and I get better.
Think about your own career. What skills and actions do you perform every day? Which ones, if you could be better at them, would make a difference in your career? How could you build the supporting structure around those skills so that you can get better at the things that matter? Share your thoughts in the comments!