Mastery: the path to success, one skill at a time?

It’s common wisdom that being good at something is valuable. Is it wise, then, to optimize for learning one skill compared to building some proficiency in multiple skills?

I am naturally interested in many things. During a typical week at work, I write and review articles, structure arguments, do analyses in excel, create graphs, code, and more. Add to that the reading, sports, music, and drawing I pursue in my free time, and you start to see the wide variety of my activity. I sometimes wonder: is it smarter to focus on becoming very good at a single skill, rather than doing a little bit of many things?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You Cal Newport suggests that focusing on a single skillset is more valuable than pursuing multiple interests.  Cal argues that, follow your passion” is poor advice. He suggests you increase your chances of success by building rare and valuable skills. Cal calls this the ‘craftsman mindset’, a relentless focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering, using deliberate practice to grow. He recommends that you stop asking yourself “am I doing what I love?” and start asking yourself “am I building a valuable skillset?”

After reading Cal’s book, I noticed myself thinking “Should I focus all my effort at mastering a single skill?” I hesitated to answer this question with “yes”. I can’t remember a time where I focused on mastering a single activity and I do not aspire to be a deep domain expert, spending decades working in one discipline.

Shortly after finishing the book, I listened to a podcast by Tim Ferriss, The Top 5 Reasons to be a Jack of All Trades. (Blog version here.) Tim Ferriss acknowledges that being very good at something is valuable, but he says it’s a false, commonly held assumption that you can only be very good at one thing. Tim suggests instead that you can become very good at anything after a few months of focused and smart learning, and because of that you can be very good at many things.

That idea—that mastery is valuable, but does not need to be limited to a single skill—was music to my ears. Upon reflection, I found this is only possible under two conditions: take one skill at a time, and use deliberate practice to improve.

Learn one skill at a time

Learn different skills in series, not in parallel. In a good week, I may create a drawing, play a bit of piano, and code for an hour or two. I focus on learning many things at the same time. As a result, I do not experience the intensity to get really good at any of them. The solution, I am finding, is to adopt one or two skills you want to learn this year, and commit to learning only those. Although this focus is difficult for me (I have not built the habit of doing so), I commit to spending two hours every day on one skill for the next three months, building websites, because I notice it’s a combination of design and engineering that I enjoy.

Practice deliberately

Learning skills in series is insufficient—you need to learn skills effectively too. Taking drawing as an example, I experience no peer pressure to produce a drawing every day, and there is no teacher who evaluates my sketches. Even when you focus on one or two skills at a time, you need deliberate practice (another concept from Cal Newport’s book) to grow. This stretching yourself to perform uncomfortable exercises. This means stretching yourself to uncomfortable exercise (for instance, drawing a portrait if you’ve never done so), and asking for direct feedback on your work.

The question is: can I stick to this framework to learn one to two skills each year. Do you agree? Was there a time where you learned to master many skills at the same time? What is the path you follow?

And, considering our changing world: how valuable is specialization in a world where more work is automated?


Thanks to Franziska Becker, Ted Gonder, Giles Holt, Philo van Kemenade, Marin Licina, Tobias Rijken, and Max Song for reviewing this blog.


2 thoughts on “Mastery: the path to success, one skill at a time?

  1. I often consider Newport talking about a skill in a way of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 hours, which is of a whole other level than the level of skills Tim Ferriss is pursuing.

    You could pick a skill as detailed as you want, but in the same way I feel there is a lot of value in looking at a skill set, combining multiple skills, and becoming really good at this. An engineer is a perfect example of this.

    Considering the skills at which you want to become ‘good enough’, I concur that focussing would help. On the other hand I would fear not maintaining it might lead to loosing it more quickly?

  2. Titiaan:

    This is a great post. I too have found that I want to be good at multiple skills, but at the same time really learn and develop a skill best when I fully devote myself to it.

    The last week of my winter vacation, I fully dedicated myself to learning how to unicycle. I would wake up, go to the park, unicycle for 3 hours, each lunch, and then practice until sundown. I did this for several days, and I finally learned how to unicycle; undoubtedly, had I tried to juggle (no pun intended) this practicing with learning other skills, I would have never succeeded.

    Tim Ferriss definitely preaches this accelerated skill development. Kinda like building up a portfolio of concentrated skills.

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