Want to do a fun exercise?
Pick three of your top 3 skills.
Maybe it's programming, understanding systems, and playing guitar.
Maybe it's writing, connecting with people, and throwing great parties.
Maybe it's throwing great events, making people feel fantastic, and having a great eye for aesthetics.
Or managing people, ensuring followthrough, and persisting until things get done.
Whatever they are, do you have 3 of them?
They don't have to be your very best 3. Any 3 will do.
Now, what would you rank yourself 1 to 10 on those skills?
Got it yet? 7, 8, 9? 10?
Most people, if they're not being excessively modest, will rank themselves pretty highly on their top skills.
Now instead, imagine there's a "1 to 10,000" scale, where "10,000" is everything you could possibly know about the topic.
Regardless of how good you are, you can always and easily pick up more points on a 1 to 10,000 scale...
...so, go back and rank yourself now, 1 to 10,000, on those top skills of yours.
It's different, huh?
It's very easily possible to rank yourself "8 out of 10" in a skill -- but then, upon reflection, notice you maybe only would have "1,500 out of a possible 10,000" in that area.
1 to 10 scales obsolete themselves pretty quickly once you get a basic proficiency. You can go from a "2" to an "8" in money management, negotiating, fitness, communication, throwing great meetings, getting organized, or any domain-specific or precise skill pretty quickly. A year or two, at most.
But that only means you went from "100 points out of 10,000" to maybe "1,000 points out of 10,000"... expertise opens up more and more, higher and higher levels, of more and more intriguing and interesting ways to develop your skills.
Once a person gets over, say, 5,000 out of 10,000 -- if that ever happens to you, because it'd reflect a huge amount of mastery -- it would become hard for the lay person to even differentiate between the skill and ability of anyone up there.
So you might have a "9.5 out of 10" or even a "10 out of 10" in the minds of the general public, but you could still pick up tons of interesting little ways to think about things, do things, new mental models, new historical references, and literally hundreds or thousands of other ways to improve.
Rankings have some usefulness, so you can chart progress and mentally size yourself up. We don't have infinite time, and most likely you want to get good at least a half-dozen different skilled areas to build the life you want.
But a "1 to 10" scale is incredibly limiting -- it stops catching fine-grained differences right as soon as the game gets really interesting.
So, on a scale of 1 to 10,000... where are you at in your best skills? Where do you want to get?
Knowing when to STOP developing a skill is vital if one's goal is to become a generalist. A decathlete can't afford working solely on his javelin throw all year long... he has 9 other sports to get good at!
Of course, for the 1-sport performer, obsession is the name of the game.
The 1-10 scale should be thought of as logarithmic, ie the gaps between numbers get bigger. Getting from 7 to 8 is way easier than going from 9 to 10.
But I agree that 10000 points leaves more granularity for visualizing it.
I would agree about diminishing returns the higher up you go, it can be especially noticeable if you have a monetary interest in improving the skill. Do you have to know everything there is to know about your skill? No, you just have to know more than the pack. Once you are a top level (your specialty here) then the highest and best use of your time may be to develop complementary skills instead of trying to go higher if you are already higher than most. Diversification would bring higher returns on your time an effort in most cases.
I refer to the classic bear joke:
Two hikers are enjoying a beautiful sunset in a national park. Suddenly they hear a crashing noise in the bushes and spot a huge brown bear just yards away from where they are standing. The first hiker panics, the bear is pissed, attack is imminent!
The second hiker calmly sits on a rock, takes some running shoes from his pack and starts lacing them up.
His partner laughs at him despite the seriousness of the situation.
"Man, you're crazy! You can't outrun that bear!"
The second hiker smiles as he gets back on his feet.
"I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU!"
Professional downhill mountain cyclist Steve Peat once said: "Sometimes, when you're at the top of your game, these little one percents make all the difference."
I have a friend who has two things in his life: mathematical physics and strongman competitions (lifting rocks, pressing huge logs overhead, that kind of thing). I am in awe at the subtleties in improvement he seeks out. He prepares meticulously for competition and optimizes everything. He studies the strengths and weaknesses of his competition so he knows exactly which events he needs to crush and which ones will be easy-peasy.
I don't have so much insight into his academic career but I do know he has a similar mindset there.
I am quite different from him: he is a surgeon holding a laser, I am more like a manager of a fleet of dumptrucks.
Don't you think the returns diminish at some point? Obviously it depends on the skill and how important it is to your goals, but I've often made the conscious decision to stop focusing on a particular skill so intensively at an 8/10 (even if that only represents a 500/10000) because the extra effort to make that jump from an 8 to 9 is about equal to the effort to build an entirely new skill up to an 8.
Yes, it diminishes. That's why specialists are so great at what they do - they can afford to spend all of their time eking out ever-smaller chunks of improvements.
For generalists in spe like myself, the name of the game is to determine how much to bite off in a certain domain, and then keep every other skill balanced at the same time. I may never be a 10 in fitness, business, social/sexual, art, personal development, and logistics, but I DO have a shot at getting to 9 in each if I manage my time well.
I haven't necessarily thought about this concept in terms of numbers, but I have felt this way about my foreign language skills.
In the two languages I've seriously pursued (Japanese and Korean), I've hit a point where it feels like I'm at the top of the kindergarten class. Where I'm better than most ex-pats I run into, but then there are those other guys who are like, actually really good at communicating in the language.
In both cases, I hit that wall for different reasons (which I won't bore you with here.) Though perhaps instead of a wall, it'd be better to call it a really steep hill. With Korean, my desire to ascend that slope is close to zero; with Japanese...well, I might get there some day. We shall see.
> In both cases, I hit that wall for different reasons (which I won't bore you with here.) Though perhaps instead of a wall, it'd be better to call it a really steep hill.
Actually, I'd love to hear why you hit the wall / steep hill. Would be interesting if you have a moment.
A "brief" overview:
Japanese - I took years of classes. They didn't help me. I sucked at Japanese. My grades were okay, but I was consistently the worst speaker in my classes. Then I went to Japan, where it finally struck me that the language was "real," and not just homework/tests. That opened my eyes. I made a lot of progress, even once I returned to the U.S. from Japan, mostly by watching lots of Japanese TV and reading manga. My studies were going well. I planned to go back to Japan. Then my plans to return fell through, and I stopped studying. End of story.
In short, my experience with Japanese was a lot of failure, followed by some promising success, until "life got in the way." Maybe I would've hit another wall (as I eventually did in Korean - see below), or maybe I'll pick the language up again later and continue on my journey.
In any case, in August 2009, I found myself in Korea.
Korean - I applied the lessons from Japanese experience to Korean. From day one, I watched TV shows, tried reading books, and soon started sending text messages in Korean. The texting was fun... difficult but fun. When I hardly knew anything, it felt like I was decoding a puzzle, and then somehow recombining the puzzle pieces to make my own message. In any case, I never took any classes, yet I was doing better than my friends who took classes. Things were going well.
Then, I discovered the "steep hill." I was doing okay with day to day stuff, but I realized that if I wanted to get serious about Korean, I'd have to start watching the news, reading "serious" books, and really throw myself into the culture.
Simply put, that didn't appeal to me. I didn't like the culture enough to keep up my studies, and I since I didn't plan to live in Korea forever, I didn't see much practical use in speaking Korean. So, I just gave up, sometime during my third (and final) year in Korea. Obviously I kept using what I knew, but I made no effort to expand my knowledge.
Also, most of the younger Koreans I associated with spoke English quite well. And if I wanted to find work as a bilingual English/Korean speaker, I realized I'd have a whole lot of competition from native Koreans. (Of note: This isn't the case in Japan. Many of my friends there didn't speak English well, and Japanese companies seem much more willing to "outsource" their English to native English speakers.)
I still think I could become a solid Korean speaker, but why climb that steep hill if I didn't like what I saw on the top? The value just isn't there, as far as I'm concerned.
(This isn't to stop anyone else from trying. If Korean is your thing, go for it. It can be done!)
So, Korean is essentially dead to me. Japanese has been "on hold" for years, and I can't say for sure if I'll ever get back to it.
Only time will tell.
(I wanted to keep this brief, but it kept growing longer and longer. I have plans to write about this topic on my blog; I'll make sure the narrative is more coherent when I do.)
Question from a reader --
"Hello, you don't know me of course, but I've been reading your posts for a while and it kinda makes me do greater things than I usually do (well mostly it makes me "wanna" do greater things but there has been noticeable improvement). But let me cut to the chase. I'm a relatively decent economics student from Croatia, but my problem is the college isn't really teaching me anything practical so when I leave the said institution in two years I'll be left with no definitive skill with real application in the current economic state, or any economic state I'm afraid. With this as my base http://sebastianmarshall.com/my-best-guess-as-to-what-an-aspiring-artist-should-do (as I'm also a photographer), and my usual voracious reading appetite, is there anything more you can recommend to someone who would like to one day start his own business, like books ,specific areas and skill sets to develop? The stuff I'm already working on is programming, social skills and developing a hard-working mindset (or maybe its smart-working) that my current social group/peers/family lack. Thanks, M"
Seems like you're on the right track with the learning. Here's two recommendations --
1. Accounting2. Sales
First, accounting is the most useful course to take at university if you want to run your own company.
I was talking with Ramit Sethi the other day, and he said something interesting. He told me that his obsession wasn't necessarily personal finance, but rather how to actually get people to take action and make changes. We talked about the similarities between pick up and personal finance. Telling someone that they can get better with girls is easy; getting them to do something about it is hard. Giving people tips to save money is easy; getting them to actually do it is a lot harder.
I like to explore different ways to do things and pick the best one, no matter where it falls on the normal - weird scale. The best way to do most things tends to be somewhere on the weird end. I have theories on why that is, but I'll get into that another time.
So, in the spirit of trying to get people to actually take action, I have a challenge for you. I'm going to share with you seven out of the box things to do that have had a positive influence on my life. Pick one (or more) and give it a shot. If you write about it publicly, I'll link to you.
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