“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” — Robert A. Heinlein
Scott Adams, creator of the popular comic strip Dilbert, has a simple but useful strategy of personal success: You can either choose to hyper-specialize and become the best in the world (the top 1%) at doing one very specific thing, or you can try to become very good (the top 25%) in as many different areas as possible, which you then can use in combination. The latter strategy is far easier, and is often more effective: By improving your skills in a few different but related areas, you increase your versatility and rarity, making your particular combination of skills more uniquely valuable.
If you’re interested in improving the quality of your life and work, there are 12 primary areas of “Core Human Skill” you should focus on developing:
- Information Assimilation — how to find, consume, and comprehend information and identify what’s most important in the face of a problem or challenge. A person who is highly skilled in Information Assimilation is able to process information quickly and apply it to the situation at hand, with consistently high levels of comprehension and retention.
- Writing — how to communicate thoughts and ideas in written form clearly and concisely. A person who is highly skilled in Writing is able to convey information to others briefly and simply, as well as use writing to persuade and influence.
- Speaking — how to communicate thoughts and ideas to others clearly, concisely, and with confidence. A person who is highly skilled in Speaking is able to communicate individually or in front of a group of people in an engaging manner, with little visible evidence of tension or stress.
Mathematics — how to accurately use concepts from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics to analyze and solve common problems. A person who is highly skilled in Mathematics is able to use numbers, ratios, and equations to gain insight into present circumstances and potential future scenarios.
- Decision Making — how to identify critical issues, prioritize, focus energy/effort, recognize fallacies, avoid common errors, and handle ambiguity. A person who is highly skilled in Decision Making is able to weigh available information and come to a supportable conclusion, without falling prey to common reasoning mistakes and cognitive bias.
- Rapport — how to interact with other people in a way that encourages them to like, trust, and respect you. A person who is highly skilled in Rapport is able to build productive, mutually beneficial relationships with a wide variety of people in a way that influences their perceptions and opinions.
Conflict Resolution — how to anticipate potential sources of conflict and resolve disagreements when they occur. A person who is highly skilled in Conflict Resolution is able to anticipate potential sources of conflict and counteract unproductive emotions, both individually and in groups.
- Scenario Generation — how to create, clarify, evaluate, and communicate a possible future scenario that assists in decision making, either for yourself or another person. A person who is highly skilled in Scenario Generation is able to envision possible future events, identify likely tradeoffs, and suggest multiple options that will result in the achievement of an objective.
- Planning — how to identify the necessary next steps to achieve an objective, account for dependencies, and prepare for the unknown and inevitable change via the use of contingencies. A person who is highly skilled in Planning is able to examine available resources, anticipate potential issues and risks, and propose new/better paths as more information becomes known.
- Self-Awareness — how to accurately perceive and influence your own internal states and emotions, including effective management of limited energy, willpower, and focus. A person who is highly skilled in Self-Awareness is able to recognize what physical and emotional state he or she is currently experiencing, utilize or compensate for his or her current state, and intentionally elicit/reinforce preferred states.
- Interrelation — how to recognize, understand, and make use of key features of systems and relationships, including cause-and-effect, second- and third-order effects, constraints, and feedback loops. A person who is highly skilled in Interrelation is able to identify the most important factors in a system, explore how they affect each other, and improve systems without provoking undesired consequences.
Skill Acquisition — how to go about learning a desired skill in a way that results in competence by finding and utilizing available resources, deconstructing complex processes, and actively experimenting with potential approaches. A person who is highly skilled in Skill Acquisition is able to continually improve his or her skills in any field through deliberate practice, observation, and intentional experimentation.
Take a moment to imagine all of the things you’d be able to accomplish if you improved your skills to the point where you ranked in the top 25% of the human population in each of these areas. How developed are your skills now, and which of these areas could, if improved, help you accomplish what you’re trying to achieve?
Browsing through a few business history books this afternoon (The Age of Heretics, The Book of Business Wisdom, Brand New), I was struck by two related insights regarding why and how businesspeople become successful.
1. Fortune Favors the Bold
The boldness of business leaders has been a recurring theme in the business media for centuries. Think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin setting up shop in the garage with little more than an idea. Here’s the motif: A vision of the future compels the leader to take action, and nothing can deter him or her from achieving wealth and ultimate success.
Part of this business myth is true: You can’t get abnormal returns if you stick to normal behavior. Having an idea and exploring it in the face of uncertainty is the essence of business practice.
If you want to achieve great things, you must consistently take bold actions. Seeking complete security is the road to complete and lasting mediocrity.
2. Fortune Strikes Down the Bold When They Get Careless
Bold action alone is not enough — you must know what you’re doing for your actions to create the results you want. Boneheaded decisions don’t build businesses.
Imagine the courageous entrepreneur, armed with a business plan that proposes selling 20-plus- pound bags of dog food on the Internet. No amount of bold action is going to compensate for the fact that shipping heavy objects is expensive and customers hate paying for shipping when they buy online.
It happened — Julie Wainwright was the CEO of Pets.com, one of the most spectacular tech bubble collapses. She was bold but didn’t fully understand what makes businesses successful. She learned these lessons the hard way.
Donald Trump seems to be stress testing the bold/stupid line with each new venture, and he teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. It seems Trump’s bold statements are merely masking the stupidity — for the time being, at least.
One of the reasons I focus on teaching business mental models is that learning the essentials helps amplify the results of bold people. If you have the courage to test a business idea, a little know-how goes a very long way.
Be bold, but don’t be careless. Learn the rules and optimal strategies of the game you’re playing. Lady Luck (or is it Madam Probability?) won’t let you win every time, but you’ll win more often than most.
Accurate knowledge + bold action = a force to be reckoned with.
The Safest Investment You Can Make in Any Economic Conditions
The sky is (supposedly) falling! Banks are closing. Wall Street is panicking. Governments are inflating. 401(k)s are in free-fall. People are freaking out. Chances are good that your anxiety level is higher than normal.
What should you do in these troubled times? Here you go:
Three Simple Steps to Peace of Mind
- Turn off the news. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the 24-hour news cycle of reporters breathlessly expounding on the latest non-event. Turn it off — the media is rewarded for sensationalizing events to increase viewership, not for providing actionable information. Select a few low-volume trusted sources to stay informed about what’s happening, and ignore the rest of the noise and hand-wringing.
- Determine what you can and cannot control. You can control your own actions. You can’t control the next bank failure. Take what actions you can (like telling your representatives in Congress which way you’d like them to vote on proposed legislation, if you’re an informed US citizen); then consciously let go of the rest. The quickest path to constant anxiety is to focus on what you can’t control.
- Allay your fears with scenario planning. If you’re worried about your prospects in this market, a bit of strategic thinking is the best way to decide what to do next. Do a “mind dump” of everything you’re worried about, and then construct your worst-case scenario: What will happen if everything goes wrong? Chances are, it’s not nearly as bad as you fear, and there are a few simple things you can do to improve upon the worst case. There are positive resources out there to help you with this.
Invest in Intangibles: Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities
The safest investment you can make right now is an investment in your own knowledge, skills, and abilities. Knowing how to build and improve any type of business is one of the best general-purpose skill sets you can have: There have always been opportunities for people who understand how to create value for others, even in the midst of the Great Depression. (Which, for the record, I don’t think we’re even remotely close to repeating.)
The wonderful thing about investing in yourself is that your investment’s worth doesn’t fluctuate with the fickle market. If you focus on making yourself more valuable, you’ll be well prepared to improve your situation in even the worst of markets.