“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” — Mark Twain
Which is the better path – a relentless pursuit of excellence in one one extraordinary skill – or combining your talents in a unique, value add way?
For many people, they find the one thing that they can be the best at, and they use that edge for world-class results.
For the rest of us, many more people find extraordinary success by combining ordinary talents in a unique way.
In the book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, Scott Adams shares his personal success formula and how you can improve your market value by learning more than one skill.
The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success
Combining mediocre skills can be your force multiplier to amplify your impact and raise your market value.
“Notice I didn’t say anything about the level of proficiency you need to achieve for each skill. I didn’t’ mention anything about excellence or being world-class. The idea is that you can raise your market value by being merely good — not extraordinary — at more than one skill.”
Good + Good > Excellent
Combining multiple mediocre skills trumps being great at just one.
“Successwise, you’re better off being good at two complementary skills than being excellent at one. I’m ignoring the outlier possibility that you might be one of the best performers in the world at some skill or another. That can obviously be valuable too. But realistically, you wouldn’t be reading this book if you could throw a baseball a hundred miles per hour or compose hit songs in your head.”
The Success Formula is a Useful Simplification
It’s not perfect. It’s not even accurate. But it is simple. And simple trumps accurate in this case.
“When I say each skill you acquire will double your odds of success, that’s a useful simplification. Obviously some skills are more valuable than others, and the twelfth skill you acquire might have less value than each of the first eleven. But if you think of each skill in terms of doubling your chances of success, it will steer your actions more effectively than if you assume the benefit of learning a new skill will get lost in the rounding. Logically, you might think it would make more sense to have either an accurate formula for success or none at all. But that’s not how our brains are wired. Sometimes an entirely inaccurate formula is a handy way to move you in the right direction if it offers the benefit of simplicity.”
Extraordinary Talent + A Maniacal Pursuit of Excellence is Just One Approach
Growing an extraordinary talent into world-class is just one approach. An easier approach is to combine multiple mediocre skills. And, when it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.
“My combined mediocre skills are worth far more than the sum of the parts. If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest. When it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.”
It Gets Easier to Learn New Concepts
The more you learn, the easier it gets to learn new things.
“Another huge advantage of learning as much as you can in different fields is that the more concepts you understand, the easier it is to learn new ones. Imagine explaining to an extraterrestrial visitor the concept of a horse. It would take some time. If the next thing you need to explain were the concept of a zebra, the conversation would be shorter. You would simply point out that a zebra is a lot like a horse but with black and white stripes. Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else.”
The Power of Leveraging Multiple Mediocre Skills
Scott Adams himself, author of Dilbert, is a great example of his Success Formula in action.
“I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well. At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In the early years of Dilbert my business experience served as the fodder for the comic. Eventually, I discovered that my business skills were essential in navigating Dilbert from a cult hit to a household name.”
Mediocre Skills Combined are a Powerful Market Force
When you find a way to combine your skills that adds value, it’s that difference that makes the difference.
“Recapping my skill set: I have poor art skills, mediocre business skills, good but not great writing talent, and an early knowledge of the Internet. And I have a good but not great sense of humor. I’m like one big mediocre soup. None of my skills are world-class, but when my mediocre skills are combined, they become a powerful market force.”
So both strategies work.
You can be great at one thing, or you can combine multiple skills to multiply your results.
The advantage of combining skills is that you don’t depend on one extraordinary talent, and your versatility can help you adapt to our ever-changing world.
Here are some inspiring words from Ralph Waldo Emerson that remind us to continue the journey of finding our own unique path in life:
“We have keys to all doors. We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart, of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.”
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Image by Nathan O’Nions.