Cartoonist Scott Adams coined the term skill stacking, and it’s about developing the best combination of traits and skills for your particular purpose. A skill stack is something you likely already possess. It’s based on the concept that you can’t rely on one skill or proficiency to stand out in whatever you are trying to accomplish. Only 1 percent of us can be in the top 1 percent of a skill, and that likely won’t be you. Thus, we should create a skill stack that is composed of three or four interrelated skills that you have reached the top 10– 15 percent of. It’s a realistic goal and will set you apart from your competition.
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Thanks to online resources and the interconnectedness of our modern world, learning and becoming polymathic to some degree is easier than ever before.
Because of that, even if you master a certain skill, there’s a very good chance someone else has also mastered it.
The sword cuts both ways because competition has only increased over the years.
If someone were to assess your skills in a particular area with someone else possessing the same skills, they might not see why they should pick you to work with over the other person (and vice versa).
Let’s consider this a chapter on what you should focus your efforts on.
It’s not smart to establish your value or merit on the basis of just one skill.
By definition, only 1 percent of everybody is in the top 1 percent of anything.
(Yes, I double-checked the math.) The top 1 percent of players in the National Basketball Association is an extremely select fraction of everybody in the league and a very small fraction of the world’s population.
It’s almost impossible to get into that 1 percent.
99 percent of the NBA comprises players who aren’t LeBron James or Stephen Curry and aren’t doing too badly for themselves.
But they are still not the highest paid or most famous players.
In other words, you aren’t going to be in the top 1 percent, so now what? How do you differentiate yourself from someone with roughly equal amounts of skill and make yourself stand out? Instead of seeking to distinguish yourself based on a statistical improbability, one solution is the concept of skill stacking, and believe it or not, it at least partially originated in the comics section of your daily newspaper.
Skill stacking was popularized by Scott Adams, creator of the workplace-themed Dilbert, one of the most successful and quotable comic strips in publishing history.
The idea behind skill stacking is that, while extreme proficiency in one skill is admirable, it’s unlikely; thus it’s much more effective to have high abilities in multiple areas which work well together.
Instead of relying on being in the top 1 percent of a certain skill, shoot instead to be in the top 5–15 percent in three talents, or even four.
It’s the difference between imagining you are Mozart, versus being a studio musician who can play four instruments in a pinch.
Not everyone can be Mozart, but it’s far more likely to be able to play four instruments.
Adams uses himself as a prime example of skill stacking in a career.
He realizes that he is not in the top 1 percent of any skill in particular.
Dilbert—a comic strip set in an office with amusing “truisms” about the business world—appears in the newspapers in sixty-five different countries.
Adams reportedly has a net worth of $75 million, the lion’s share of it from Dilbert, including syndication and merchandise.
For a while, almost every office in America had a Dilbert-ism on display at somebody’s desk just to prove they comprehended workplace irony.
So despite Adams not being an extreme outlier in anything in particular, how did his level of success happen? He’s not the most talented comic artist; his characters are largely stick figures with different hairstyles and noses.
They may not be artistic per se, but they are pleasant to look at and it’s clear that he has more ability than he lets on.
Let’s put him in the top percent of artistic abilities.
He’s not a high-level expert in business and making money.
But he did go to business school at the University of California, Berkeley, so let’s give him a top 5 percent here.
He’s not necessarily one of the funniest people alive, and has never attempted to be a comedian or anything similar.
However, his comic strip is amusing and witty enough to be syndicated and has been running for years, so let’s give him another top 5 percent mark on this one.
“When you add in my ordinary business skills,” Adams said, “my strong work ethic, my risk tolerance, and my reasonably good sense of humor, I’m fairly unique.
And in this case, that uniqueness has commercial value.” If you don’t believe in Adams as an example, you don’t have to look much farther than a Boston Consulting Group study that found that companies with more diverse skill sets and backgrounds produced 19 percent more revenue overall.
That’s the essence of skill stacking.
You simply readjust your goals.
Forget relying on being in the top 1 percent, and instead shoot for getting in the uppermost percentile (5-15 percent) of a few skills, preferably those that can be used to enhance each other.
You leverage the good- to-high skills and traits that you have and combine them in a way to give yourself an advantage over everyone else.
Adams blended his above-average business understanding, sense of humor, and artistic abilities, to make a financially viable character that was unique on the comic page.
(And Dilbert doesn’t even appear to have eyes.) Success is usually considered to be the result of high proficiency in one skill, and in certain cases an opportunity cost or sacrifice is necessary.
Most medical students have to pick one field to specialize in—you won’t find a lot of dentists who are also podiatrists.
It’s the same with sports, where you try to become the top athlete in a specific field like basketball, football, golf, or track at the exclusion of all other sports.
Except for extremely rare cases like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, you don’t find a lot of people who are superstars in two different sports.
(Even Michael Jordan couldn’t quite hack professional baseball.) But for almost all other pursuits, high proficiency in a number of skills is much more possible and thus desirable.
Skill stacking encourages arranging and using your multiple skills in ways that make you absolutely unique—that set you apart from the others.
By combining your ordinary individual talent and learning additional “gap” skills, you become a singular person that nobody else can really duplicate.
This makes you incredibly valuable in the job market and irreplaceable on a social and personal level.
Skill stacking forces you to look at reality and what really makes an impact.
For example, you might be in the top 5 percent in a certain skill—what will that garner you? You might get a couple of accolades, but otherwise, you won’t turn that many heads.
At the top of every field resides everyone in the top 5 percent, so you won’t stand out by definition.
You could try and push yourself into the top 1 percent, but if there was a real chance of that you probably wouldn’t be reading this book (unless you just can’t get enough of my exquisite prose).
This means you have to find more ways to be competitive than relying on developing a single skill.
Getting into the top 1 percent of a certain skill is nearly unobtainable (though always worth trying).
Being in the top 5 percent of one ability is great, but once you get into higher levels of a certain skilled population it’s not actually that remarkable, and you’ll be surrounded by similar people.
Therefore, we come again to the conclusion that more distinctive is someone who’s in the top 10–15 percent of three or four different skills.
Having a great specialized talent is one thing—but being very good in a broad spectrum of skills that nobody else quite has? Now you’ve got their attention.
The sweet bonus is that getting into the top 10–15 percent in a few different areas isn’t nearly as hard as getting into the top 1 percent of just one area.
The top 1 percent can take years or even decades of practice—that’s playing a solo at Carnegie Hall level of skill.
However, getting into the top 10–15 percent doesn’t take too much more than achieving goals of learning, practicing, executing, and repeating.
You can probably read a couple of books on the topic and instantly be better informed than 95 percent of the general population.
If you were to read five books on one subject, it is highly doubtful you would learn anything new by the time you hit the fourth book, even.
Let’s take what’s for obvious reasons my favorite example: writing.
There are many talented writers.
The top 1 percent will get published no matter what; it’s inevitable because of the quality of their work.
Now let’s consider the top 5 percent—they are still flat-out amazing writers, but they’ll never become popular because they’re not quite as good as the top 1 percent, and they have no other ways to get discovered.
But what if someone in that 5 percent can also code just a little HTML and knows their way around social media? Not only can this person write flowery phrases, but they can also build themselves a blog featuring their own work, crafting a brand that is personal and unique.
Furthermore, with their knowledge about how to publicize something on social media, this person can actually create interest and a global market for their work.
And then, viola, they actually get read.
Add into this a certain amount of business savvy, and they will be able to replicate this process to nab more readers, produce more writing, and ultimately skyrocket their revenue from books.
So that writer might only be in the top 5 percent of all writers, but because they have specialized skills that they’ve learned in the service of publicizing their work, they’ve managed to get themselves published and in position to earn readers who become fans—and, theoretically, income.
To be perfectly honest, there are probably writers out there who are only in the top 25 percent of all writers who are making a good living because they can diversify and build a skill stack.
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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