There’s a common thing repeated by people trying to tell people to diversify their skillsets: that being the best at one specific thing is functionally impossible. Take this bit from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic:
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:
- Become the best at one specific thing.
- 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. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.
Adams’s point about the second strategy is golden. It’s excellent advice with a personal example, and many people would do well to apply it. However, I would contest with him on the first point.
There are two types of examples people cite when they try to make the point that being the best in the world at one thing is impossible: fields that have very specific, unchangeable rulesets, and fields that are very broad. Adams references playing in the NBA and making a platinum album: these are examples of the first type.
Now, I’m not trying to say that Adams isn’t absolutely correct about both of these examples; he is. The problem is that neither of them actually apply to the majority of the people in the work world.
For a field that has specific, unchangeable rulesets, such as just about any sport, there is only one way to succeed in these fields: be in the top fraction of a fraction of a percent. As such, not only does success require the kind of absolute, relentless focus that means pursuit of it takes over your entire life, it also requires a non-negligible amount of birth lottery: no matter how hard you try, you can’t play in the NBA if you’re 5’3″. And yet, I have never seen or heard of a job that has such steadfast rules as a sport: the work world is much more malleable.
Now let’s look at the other type of example: exceedingly broad fields. Adams doesn’t give such an example, but it’s easy to find one: being the best writer in the world, being the best programmer, etc. Now, at first glance, these seem like they apply to the work world, and they also seem like they confirm the “you can’t be the best at one thing” wisdom. Except they don’t. Because these examples are all far too broad.
Setting out to be the best writer in the world would, yes, be inconceivably difficult, and likely impossible. But this isn’t because you particularly need to combine your writing skill with some other skill in order to succeed: it’s because you need to niche down. You may not be able to be the best writer in the world, but I’m sure you can become the go-to guy for famous people who want books ghostwritten for them. You may not be able to be the best programmer, but you can become something like a guy my mother knows.
My mother works in Navision (abbreviated Nav), a type of ERP software owned by Microsoft. Essentially, Nav is a UI that makes SQL easy for accountants to use. However, as with any UI with a complicated back-end, sometimes the back-end does something funky. And as with any time a program does something funky, there is a niche for a programmer who can fix it.
In this case, the man who occupies that niche is Ahmed Amini. Everybody who does Nav programming knows who he is, and if you have a strange SQL problem, he’s always your go-to. Over fifteen years while my mother has worked with Nav, he has been recommended or mentioned countless times. He didn’t diversify his skillset. He just became the Nav SQL guy.
I’ll give another example. I know a cardiac surgeon by the name of Dave Garber, and he specializes in a very specific procedure (I don’t recall the name) by which an artery in the thigh is transplanted and used to fix something with the heart. This is now nearly everything he does, because he is the best at it. He didn’t diversify his skillset either. He just became the surgeon for this procedure.
How did this happen? The first step is to find something you seem good at within your field, that most people aren’t. Next, specialize in it. Seek it out. Try to do more of the thing that you’re good at. Over time, other people in your field will realize that you are very good at the thing, and they’ll start recommending you as the go-to.
Once you’re here, you’re golden, because it creates a virtuous cycle: you’re good at the thing, so you do good work, so people see the good work and recommend you, so you do more of the thing, and you get the opportunity to get even better, so you do even better work, and so on.
This is how you become the best at a field. Pick a niche you’re good at, specialize in it, and then let the word-of-mouth about your excellent work take it from there. No skill diversification needed.
Why does this matter? Well, because it’s true. I’m a big believer in truth. I like it when people have accurate beliefs about what’s possible and what’s not. If “become the best at a thing” has been moved from your mental “not possible” bucket to your “possible” bucket, this post has done its job.
Skillset-diversifying is still an excellent option. It may be the best option for you. But if that’s the case, it’s still the best option if it’s not the only one out there. And if it’s not the best option, know that you do have others.