Big Skills

Scott Adams, the Dilbert creator, says he doesn’t have any extraordinary skills. He’s a pretty good artist. He’s kind of funny, an OK writer, and decent at business.

But multiply those mediocre skills together and you get one of the most successful cartoonists of all time.

A lot of things work like that. A couple ordinary things you don’t notice on their own create something spectacular when they mix together at the right time.

One of the big leaps forward for humanity is when we mixed copper, which is soft, with tin, which is very soft, and made bronze, which is hard and made great tools and weapons. It was like two plus one equals ten.

Same with the weather. A little cool air from the north is no big deal. A little warm breeze from the south is pleasant. But when they mix together over Missouri you get a tornado.

Same with people. It’s tempting to want to find the one big skill that will set you apart. But most incredible things come from compounding, and compounding isn’t intuitive because the incremental inputs are never exciting on their own.

A few little things that are easy to ignore yet work wonders when combined together:

  • Curiosity across disciplines, most of which are outside your profession.

  • A well-calibrated sense of your future regret.

  • The ability to endure risk vs. assuming you can avoid it.

  • Respecting luck as much as you respect risk.

  • The willingness to adapt views you wish were permanent.

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