The T-Shaped Strategy
by Tim Brown
"One thing I’ve noticed is that people can be held back by a lack of skills outside of their area of expertise. Careers aren’t just about rocketing upwards. Expanding horizontally gives you a stronger foundation to pursue vertical growth. I would argue that even if you want to go deep, there are horizontal skills you have to learn.” — Zainab Ghadiyali via First Round Review
A T-Shaped person is one that has a diverse base of abilities, but with depth in a certain narrow domain. The T-shaped individual is a specialist who is not too special and a generalist who is not too general. T-shaped individuals do have a specialisation, but appreciate that at the same time they have to keep enriching their broad foundations.
"The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and a thousand other things well." – Hugh Walpole
The 10-30-50 Strategy
This strategy suggests that in addition to strong foundations, we are not to become only specialists in a narrow domain(top 10%) but that we need to find our supplementary super-powers as well: something we are rather good at (top 30%) and a third skill in which we are above average (top 50%) compared to the average PM.
2+ x 25% Strategy
by Scott Adams
Scott Adams wrote this:
Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix. It sounds like generic advice, but you’d be hard pressed to find any successful person who didn’t have about three skills in the top 25%.
If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try. The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort […] Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix.
A similar strategy is suggested by Rory Sutherland and Tim Ferriss. Tim also proposes that combining two commodity skills would be less effective than combining two rare ones. So the ideal scenario would be 2+ skills that you are very good at and where at least one is quite rare to have at that skill level.
by Oliver Emberton
The 2x25% approach has the same strategy as Combined Mediocrity: Combine skills and the whole will be bigger than the sum of the parts.
While Scott Adams advices to combine two 'really goods', Oliver is suggesting that you don't even have to be pretty good; just combine things at which you're mediocre but that have a good match-ability and are hence able to amplify one another's effects.
3D Artist + Architecture (Zaha Hadid) would provide a better multiplier than 3D Artist + Astronomer. Or Outdoors Photographer + Mountaneer + Snowboarder (Jimmy Chin) would probably have a higher multiplier than the Outdoors Photographer + Online Marketer + Baker.
Some combinations are less obvious but still supplementary. John P. Weiss gives the example of the passionate poet who also loves nature hiking. The hikes in the woods clear her mind, leading to new poetic insights hence amplifying her work.
I see a few benefits of being good at more than one skill set:
- cumulative effects (1+1 =3) of combining skills
- can create unique skill combinations never seen before, making you as rare and as valuable at being the top 1% at something
- having depth in more than 2 disciplines allows you see interconnections between disciplines others cannot see.
- your more flexible balanced profile can provide you with a richer set of oppoertunities compared to if you were a specialist in one thing
Be the best | Greatness
by Kobe Bryant
If you have watched the Steve Jobs documentary, the Kobe Documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and the Miles Davis documentary, General Magic or Whiplash you can clearly see the correlation between obsession and greatness. These people reached the pinnacle of their field by having a single pursuit and focusing relentlessly on it.
These are people who are masters of one thing. They seek to be at the top 1% in the world in their fields. In my field (product management), these are people who devote their entire careers to learning either:
- a specific vertical, like say: airplane landing gear, dating apps, analytics dashboards, retail in the Japanese Market
- a specific business model, like: services marketplaces, boutique retail, burger restaurant, freemium mobile games
- a specific function: churn optimisation, growth in Asian markets, billing systems, premium services
- specific skill: behavioural economics, data analytics, ethics
I see some benefits of reaching the top at a single pursuit or discipline:
- you allow less for luck to determine your success
- If you're in the tiny, elite group of people who are the best at something, it's less crowded up there. There's something to being in that exclusive club, to being "one of the best."
- you have the ability to really push the boundaries of the discipline itself at that level of expertise
- this: "Go deep. Learn as much as you can about as much as you can — then find One Thing. Learn it better than anyone and your people will find you. — Justin Blackman"
But at the same time:
- the career possibilities out there that would take full advantage of your skill will be limited. You might need to follow the job.
- it could become monotonous, if you are a curious individual.
- it's hard to get to the top 1%. It takes tremendous dedication to specialize, and your ability might be limited by your natural talent.
Be the only
by Kevin Kelly
Most people aren’t failing because of their potential. They’re failing because their potential is spread in too many directions. Don’t be the best. Be the only. — Kevin Kelly
This approach is strangely similar to Kobe's approach of 'being the best' but it's not quite the same.
Kobe's approach claims that through obsession and work ethic, one can become the best by being at the top of their field. Kelly's approach puts aside the brute force and in addition encourages us to also choose a unique hyper-specialization to begin with—so unique that can make you the only one that has it.
While Kobe's approach is one of being the big fish in a big pond, this is a classic example of being the 'big fish in a small pond'. It's about finding your niche.
Here's an example of decreasing the pond size:
being an illustrator
vs being an illustrator who focuses on background art
vs being an illustrator who focuses on background forest art
vs being an illustrator who focuses on background forest art for gaming
vs being the only illustrator who focuses on background forest art for gaming with a Japanese inspired style
Be the only: fitness influencer that focuses on lower abdominal exercises
Be the only: artist who does kinetic ferrofluid sculptures
Be the only: barista that can work with vegan milks in Madrid
Specific knowledge is the activities that feel like play to you but looks like work to others. It’s found by pursuing your innate talents and genuine curiosity.
Figure out what it is that you were doing as a kid, or as a teenager, almost effortlessly, that you didn’t even consider a skill, but people around you noticed – something your mother or best friend would notice.
It could be sales skills, it could be that you were musically talented, it could be that you had an obsessive personality, that you would dive into things and learn them very quickly, it could be your love for science fiction, you were into reading which means you can absorb knowledge very quickly, it could be that you played a lot of games, so you actually understand game theory very well.
Specific knowledge is a sort of a weird combination of unique traits in your DNA combined with your unique upbringing and your response to it – and it’s almost baked into your personality and your identity. And then you can hone it. — Naval Ravikant
Specific knowledge appreciates that when you find something that you are naturally really good at, there is much less resistance in your way. Momentum will build much faster. You will work harder than the rest without even realising it, because the combination of ability and enjoyment will make the work feel effortless, while for others it will feel like work. And since it is a natural ability, it also implies that your ceiling is higher than most. Simply put: developing your specific knowledge happens faster and has a higher ceiling than most other activities one can do. This is a leverage on its own. A multiplier of sorts to all the efforts.
“The way to retire is actually to find the thing that you know how to do better than anybody, and you know how to do it better than anybody because you love to do it. No one can compete with you if you love to do it. Be authentic and then figure out how to map that to what society actually wants, apply some leverage, put your name on it so you take risks, but you gain the rewards, have ownership and equity in what you do, and then just crank it out.” — Naval Ravikant
"I bet it would help a lot of people to ask themselves about this explicitly. What seems like work to other people that doesn’t seem like work to you?” — Paul Graham
Specific knowledge is not dry. It is not encyclopedic knowledge, but instead it is a very sensitive approach that builds around one's unique past (upbringing), present (personality, values, priorities, character, talents) and future (aspirations, ambition, ideals, purpose).
The explore & exploit strategy
Early specialisation is NOT a prerequisite for success. David is an advocate of having a sampling/experimentation/exploration period early on. A sampling period is one in which instead of committing to one discipline or career or domain, one seeks to get breadth of experience. This trial & error might sound inefficient but it is actually a necessary process that pays off in the long run, he says, because:
- We learn best when we are in practice, not in theory.
- You find what you enjoy much earlier in life.
- You find your talents much earlier in life.
- You create a solid problem-solving foundation. The more diverse the problems you solve, the more able you are to apply them creatively in diverse settings.
- You can take skills that are ordinary in a domain and transfer them to another domain that they are -traditionally- extraordinary.
One just has to tolerate:
- Not being special or expert at any given discipline, even though the market rewards specialists
- Uncertainty (not having a plan)
- The potential for failure and a resulting change in trajectory
Sachin Reichi also mentions these cycles of exploration & exploitation. This approach appreciates that we are constantly evolving. Our priorities, values, preferences, and environments change faster than we might think. Hence we should always keep our eyes open for the next opportunity.
The approach is that early on in your career you should find as many opportunities as possible to explore potential roles and careers to start to learn information about what you might be passionate about, skilled at, and has ample market opportunity. As you progress in your career, you should continue to balance exploration of new roles, careers, and opportunities, with exploitation: spending the time to develop depth, skills, and expertise in a specific career. Yet you should never give up exploration even as you focus more and more of your energy building depth and expertise in your chosen career path.
So Good They Can't Ignore You
by Cal Newport
Cal Newport takes a 90-degree turn and claims that passion is not found; it is cultivated.
Instead of exploring until you find your passion, or your specific knowledge (Naval's approach) you should instead commit to something and just become great at it. With greatness will come passion and meaning, he says.
Cal's approach is the shift from the passion mindset to the craftsmanship mindset. It is a praise of deliberate practice and a disciplined, focused, committed mindset.
Instead of thinking that we should automatically follow "passion," Cal suggests that creativity, control & impact are really what keep you satisfied with your work and so we can choose our passion first and as long as we ensure that those 3 factors are satisfied we will have shaped it into something fulfilling.
by Peter Thiel
Similarly to Kobe's and Cal's approaches, Thiel is an advocate of specialisation. He supports picking one thing early and committing to it while being fueled by a belief that this bet is going to pay off big in the future. In other words, he recommends making a big bet on one horse.
Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today.
In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready—for nothing in particular.
A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one.
This is not what young people do today, because everyone around them has long since lost faith in a definite world.
80% jack of all trades
The pareto principle is a rule of thumb that states that 80% of the results come with 20% of the effort. Tobias suggests that a good practice would be to take advantage of this and invest in a discipling until that 80% mark at which you are already way above average but with relatively little investment. Then you jump onto the next thing, learn it at 80% and repeat. Your time spent building up your skillset/knowledge is thus maximised while you keep changing it up and keeping it interesting.
Some of these approaches probably resonate more with you.
Remember you don't have to have all answers right now. Some of these decisions about skill combinations or skill specialization come with time. You start with one discipline and then decide if it is time to dive deeper or jump in an adjacent field.
Let curiosity lead the way.