Invest in Yourself at the Low End and High End

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Suppose you categorize your existing skills and knowledge into three buckets: low, medium, and high. There are things you have no expertise in or knowledge of (low), there are things you know a little bit (medium), and there are things you are already quite good at or knowledgeable of (high).

If you want to invest in yourself, where should you focus your time? At the low end, medium end, or high end of your existing abilities and knowledge?

Let’s consider the impact of improving yourself in each scenario.

Going from Illiterate to Literate: You do not know how to surf, but then you become an elementary surfer after 20 hours of effort. You know nothing about Islam, but then you become literate with the basic names and facts. You’re totally lost when you hear the word “Twitter,” but then you have a basic understanding of Twitter’s role in the social media ecosystem.

When your understanding of X goes from nothing to something — when your understanding crosses a minimal threshold — that knowledge or skill area becomes associative. Humans are creative by being able to see the associations between what we know and between the memories we hold. When you know a topic just well enough, you can come up with metaphors related to the idea. (And metaphors are the best transportation for ideas). For example, I’m not at all an expert in Italian politics, but I know enough about the country’s past and present political situation to know that volatility is the norm, and so I can credibly refer to Italy when discussing another topic I know a little, which is volatility and risk more generally.

It can be transformative to go from knowing nothing and to knowing a little. Sure, it’s hard to get started. As Josh Kaufman notes in his forthcoming book The First 20 Hours, you feel foolish or lost in the early hours of any new pursuit. But it’s critical to undertake. For me in this category, I’m considering investing in my knowledge of corporate finance, basic European history, and certain kinds of dancing, to offer just three examples.

Going from Literate to Good: It’s safer and easier to get slightly better at something you’re already good at. For example, I’m a decent chess player. I could spend a bunch of time and become slightly better, but it would take a long time to get to great. I’m already good enough that I can connect my knowledge of chess to other parts of my life; I use chess as a metaphor for other things. So short term improvement isn’t as exciting.

Going from Good to Great: Getting better at things you’re already good at is a popular business idea thanks to thinkers like Marcus Buckingham who preach the importance of building on “strengths.” But it’s an unintuitive idea for many people. In school, you’re told to focus on shoring up weaknesses. Parents and teachers pay special attention to the C’s and B’s on the report card, not A’s. This attitude sticks. So if you can switch to the strengths religion in adulthood, you’re ahead of many. Building on natural or existing strengths puts you on the fast track to craftsmanship. Craftsmanship that involves rare and valuable skills is the stuff of remarkable careers. For me, example existing strengths or deep knowledge areas include communication, online media, Spanish, networks. I’m excited by the prospect of going from 95% proficient to 99% proficient in a few key areas.

Bottom Line: It’s valuable to be world class or an expert in something the market desires. It’s valuable to be informed just enough in something to see the connections across disparate fields or experiences. But it’s not especially valuable to be pretty good but not great at something, or reasonably familiar but not a domain expert in a knowledge area. Thus: invest in yourself at the low end and the high end of your existing skill set and knowledge base.

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