Invest in Yourself at the Low End and High End


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.

15 comments on “Invest in Yourself at the Low End and High End
  • “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.”

    I agree with this part of your conclusion, but feel like you should add the caveat that in order to cross the treshhold from good to great, you first need to get from literate to good. As such, one shouldn’t neglect compounding upon skills they’re only mediocre at if they are eventually interested in deepening it to becoming a highly developed skill.

    “For me, example existing strengths or deep knowledge areas include communication, online media, Spanish, networks.”

    I’d be curious to hear more about your existing strengths in (a) communication and (b) networks. What do you mean when you say you are skilled at communicating? What tasks do you have in mind?

    And in networks, do you mean to say networking? Networks themselves seem more like an asset that is possessed, rather than a skill.

    • I’ll address the questions re: communication soon!

      And by networks, I mean more network thinking, how networks work, how people self-organize, network psychology. Not just a rolodex.

  • Implicit in this but worthy of elaboration is the idea that there is a funnel of areas in which you are literate and at which you attempt to eventually become great. You select a small set of areas in which you think you may want to go deep, and as you reduce them you continue to go deeper on the remainder.

    Of course, there is also the possibility that you will just know where you should go deep. In that case you can just be a dilettante in everything else.

  • Have you read Antifragile? This is a fantastic application of Taleb’s barbell strategy.
    The importance of just getting enough to form metaphors has helped me restructure my reading a bit. Thanks!

  • Great post. The tragic part is that you can only pick maybe a few things over the course of a lifetime to get truly great at. I’d love to have been a journalist, a baseball player, and the next Warren Buffett. I’ve only got a shot at one of those.

    PS Happy to be your tutor for the corporate finance section.

  • Is that Marcus Buckingham’s client list or a wall of shame?

    I read him and think, “This is thinking in the future perfect tense: I will have become a success by the time I’m dead.”

    Most of humanity is pretty good but not great at whatever they do to win a livelihood, like computer programming, and pretty good but not great at whatever they do to relax from the effort, like golf or sailing.

    Passion is what distinguishes the artist from the soulless competition.

    He is dedicated to his work to a degree some people might consider pathological, and indeed, there is a cost to that.

    Yet there is spiritual satisfaction to be derived from such monomania, like the dedication of a medieval woodcarver who spends years carving a few choir stalls, but finds his cheese has more zest and his wine more depth.

    Even the air he breathes smells sweeter and its oxygen has more sparkle.

    And that has its value.

    The artist has no patience for the preaching of Silicon Valley VCs and sermons that ring so hollow in an economy where millions are jobless.

    To paraphrase the Big Man in Onion style, “It ain’t the startups, stupid”.

    It’s functional psychology.

  • While I liked StrengthsFinder, I liked StandOut (also by Buckingham) even better. In a nutshell, it looks at your strengths in terms of archetypes. Examples: educator, advisor, persuader etc.

    My top two archetypes are creator and pioneer, which makes total sense given my career path. Now when looking at a new opportunity (which I’m doing a lot of these days) I ask myself: will this allow me to be creative and pioneer? If so I give it a closer look.

  • Too perfect:

    “With some pluck and drive, you can work your way up from the mail room! Oh, wait, those are the old notes. Checking. Ah! Just take the energy to teach yourself neurosurgery, high-tech manufacturing assembly, preparation of petri dish cultures, Python, persuasive analytic writing, and graphic design when you get home from working two different low-wage service jobs, and you’re sure to find an employer looking for those skills who will overlook you because there’s no real way on a resume to show that you’ve acquired those skills through self-study…

    And they don’t care where you got your skills from: they’ll be glad to undervalue and underpay you for those skills no matter where they’re from, and discard you like an old toilet paper roll once they’ve decided that they want some other skills.”

    Sorry, but this “invest in yourself” stuff reads like it was generated by the automatic Thomas-Friedman-column-making machine (thanks, Matt Taibbi).

    Try it today!

  • So true. It took me two years to realize I wouldn’t be a world-class programmer. I wish I would have spent 6 months learning the basics and 1.5 years learning how to locate, recognize and develop relationships with world-class programmers.

  • True. I too have realized this though inadvertently during the last two years. I focused on multiple low ends like history, geography, businesses outside my high end expertise etc. It gave me an immense edge in my overall day to day life. This is a great thought. Thanks Ben!

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