Skill Stacking: The Unexpected Truth About The Top 10%

Have you ever played a video game or watched an action movie and thought, “Man, I’d be much better at this if I could just combine these two skills and have one super-skill!”? Well, that may not be quite as far-fetched as you think.

The fourth industrial revolution is driving change and has ushered in a new era of work that’s more flexible, on demand, and dynamic. To thrive in the new world of work, you have to become good or great (but not necessarily the best) at a few relevant skills. That is where skill stacking comes in.

Building more flexibility into your work is the only way to become indispensable. Tomas Pueyo says, “trying to be the best at one thing isn’t the smartest path to success. Instead, you should put your effort into mastering a combination of skills.” I agree. I’ve come this far because of skill stacking.

I started as an entrepreneur ten years ago. Along the way, I learned how to design, market, write, build courses and sell digital products. Today I’m still learning how to become a good writer (the ultimate networking tool that opens doors to many opportunities). I’ve embraced the lifelong learning habit — it’s deeply fulfilling.

Skill-stacking is combining similar skills as a single portfolio to increase your value. This can include learning complementary skills that support your core skill, finding ways to use existing skills in new ways or learning relevant skills to prepare for the future of work.

The benefits go beyond just feeling good about yourself. When you can combine your skills in a meaningful way, it makes you more employable, gives you an edge, and can help you advance faster than your peers.

Proficiency in multiple skills is the ultimate career insurance

“Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains.” — David Epstein, Range

You need to become an expert in many technical fields to get a job. However, for most jobs, you don’t need to know everything about a subject to start. You can become good or great without hitting an expert level.

“It’s easier and more effective to be in the top 10% in several different skills — your “stack” — than it is to be in the top 1% in any one skill,” argues Pueyo.

Instead of becoming an expert as fast as possible, try developing foundational knowledge and skills that are useful in topics you are curious about or any subject that can easily complement your core strength.

These are the skills that will help you get almost any job and advance your career in the future. Expertise takes a lot of time and practice — you either become the best or you will be ignored. If you learn how to think like a great generalist — and learn accordingly, it will make your life much easier when you have to pivot.

Specialists tend to be very good at one specific thing but limited in other areas — e.g., an expert in digital marketing but has no experience in management or teamwork. Their expertise is also static; they can’t usually change their focus at any given moment without going back to school or doing extensive research on a new topic first.

The generalist advantage

“A smart generalist doesn’t have bias, so is free to survey the wide range of solutions and gravitate to the best one.” ― Eric Schmidt, How Google Works

Generalists are often seen as more successful than specialists because they can adapt to different situations better. In the world of work and business, generalists tend to be more successful than specialists. This is partly because with technological advances making so many things accessible, there is less need for specialists.

Generalists tend to be learners first, doers second. They have a breadth and depth of knowledge in many different subjects. Instead of sticking to one field or topic, they explore many subjects in-depth and understand how they connect.

Generalists have always had a natural advantage in the job market due to their ability to be successful in almost any industry they choose to enter. However, specialists also have great value, and it often depends on what field you want to enter as to whether you should lean towards becoming a specialist or generalist.

Think about your own career. Have you ever found yourself in a job where it felt like there was nothing left to do? You were good at your job, and you enjoyed it, but after a couple of years, you couldn’t see any way to progress or develop further. If that sounds like something you’ve experienced before, it’s probably because your primary skillset at that time was pretty one-dimensional.

There are many reasons why this can happen. Perhaps you had just finished school and landed your first role with limited transferable skills. Maybe the company you worked for only hired people with specific technical skill sets and rejected applicants who didn’t have them.

Or perhaps the niche you worked in had little scope for growth (like many entry-level roles). Whether the circumstances are external or internal doesn’t matter; what does matter is that stacking multiple complementary skills today will help open up new avenues of opportunity for your career in the future.

In today’s competitive world of work, a single skill set isn’t enough. In fact, many job seekers with only one or two skills have found it nearly impossible to land a job that utilizes their primary expertise.

Stacking multiple skills is the smartest way to increase your marketability. While having one or two areas of expertise may be all you need for a first job out of school, you’ll need to take your game to the next level if you want to stand out in the long run. Or, better still, become indispensable.

“Whatever your destinies are, you can’t step into them while stifling your multipotentiality. You must embrace it and use it,” writes Emilie Wapnick in How to Be Everything.

When thinking about how you could become a generalist, ask yourself what your curiosities are and which areas interest you the most. Once you know that, learn your skills one at a time.

Competency in multiple skills is the ultimate career insurance. The 21st century requires us all to become generalists to remain current on various fields of study, technology, and the changing world around us.

This article originally appeared in Medium.