Learn rare and valuable skills

I don’t believe in silver bullets. But if you forced me to distill the most important career advice I’ve learned, I would tell you to commit one hour every day to learning and skill development.

Following this daily ritual has changed my life. It feels like I have installed a major software upgrade on my brain. The knowledge I have gained has not only upgraded my skills but has also transformed my values and beliefs.

High-performing athletes, musicians, writers, and artists have something important in common: daily, deliberate practice. What work skill do you practice daily that would be equivalent to an athlete running laps or a musician practicing scales?

Many people want to get ahead. Few push themselves mentally. Skill development requires consistent practice, feedback, and pushing through discomfort. You’ll need to learn dozens of useful skills to contribute value and reinvent yourself again and again over your career. Learning skills builds your self-confidence by closing the gap between who you are and who you think you should be.

To excel in your field, you need to solve complex problems and produce quality work. One way to reach that level is to adopt a craftsman mindset. Master rare and valuable skills to find fulfillment in your career and earn financial independence. You’ll become a magnet for opportunities and gain the freedom to choose exciting, attractive work.

Don’t wait until you need a new skill to start learning it. To seize opportunities, you need to master skills years before you need them. If you procrastinate or become complacent, you’ll not only miss opportunities but actually be in danger of getting left behind. And it’s getting harder and harder to catch up when that happens.

You can’t expect to rely on raw talent when new opportunities arise. Continuous learning and development are mandatory because the accelerating pace of innovation is allowing machines to take over repetitive tasks while requiring knowledge workers to master new technology and increasingly intelligent machines.

If that sounds like a nightmare scenario to you, don’t panic and don’t underestimate how much you can achieve in just six months of focused learning. Today, it’s all about the quality of your ideas and how to leverage the internet.

Two are better than one

Being good at two complementary skills is better than being excellent at one. Every time you add a new skill, your market value increases. Think strategically about the investment needed to develop useful skills.

It’s harder to be a top performer when you’re competing against a global talent pool, as we all are today. If you can build a rare combination of two complementary skills, you are more likely to stand out from the competition and advance quicker. You will be able to perform in the top 20% in two skills quicker and with less effort than you can get into the top 5% for one skill.

Imagine the advantage of a skilled computer programmer who also has excellent communication skills. A top salesperson with deep technical knowledge. Or a doctor in California who’s also fluent in Spanish. The rarer your skill combination, the more valuable you become.

Your unique skill combination should meet at the intersection of what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, and what the market values.

If you’re not sure what that combination looks like, use curiosity as your guide to explore your interests. Make a list of 15 things you’re curious about. Be specific. Then identify where your curiosities intersect.

For example, maybe you’re interested in artificial intelligence and writing. Explore the advantages and disadvantages of using artificial intelligence to help authors write books, journalists publish articles, or knowledge workers create content (reports, articles, website copy, emails, customer communications.)

Keep exploring and feed your curiosities a little at a time until you find something you’re deeply interested in. Search for a topic that interests you so much that you look forward to investing time on the weekends to learn more about it. You’ll be unstoppable if you can find something you enjoy that looks like less-than-pleasant work to other people.

Master meta-skills

It’s essential to learn specialty skills such as computer programming, digital marketing, project management, accounting, law, operations, and sales. But those skills won’t help you stand out from the herd.

To gain an unfair advantage and accelerate your career, master the following meta-skills.

  • Learn faster. To solve challenging problems quickly, create a learning process to cut through information overwhelm, evaluate opposing viewpoints, develop hypotheses, test ideas quickly, and get feedback. The faster you learn, the more you earn.
  • Think critically. Learn strategies and mental models to help you deconstruct ideas, test your beliefs, and insulate yourself from forces that want to influence, control, or manipulate you. Overcome the fears and desires that cloud your judgment. See essential connections between concepts and second-order effects. Apply these methods to minimize expensive mistakes, prioritize effectively, and make better decisions. 
  • Communicate effectively. Learn to write and speak well to communicate your ideas clearly and persuasively. Use compelling stories and leverage powerful psychological principles to influence people. Writing helps you formulate, organize, and edit your ideas into a clear and persuasive form before you talk with decision-makers. Aim for clear writing because clear writing becomes clear thinking. Writing also gives you leverage, showcases your domain knowledge, and attracts opportunities. Speaking well allows your ideas to have more significant influence, attracts opportunities, and helps you build stronger relationships.
  • Choose wisely. Judgment is recognizing the long-term consequences of your choices and making the right decisions to capitalize on them. Good judgment is a superpower, which is typically gained through trial and error. But it’s also a skill you can cultivate by learning to apply principles, processes, and tools to strip bare your beliefs and rigorously question and inspect assumptions. Force your brain to think about a decision from different perspectives to compare scenarios, improve your clarity of thinking, and evaluate options. Tackle stressful choices with confidence and make better decisions.
  • Negotiate effectively. You need to negotiate when you work with other people with different views so you can reach an agreement. Learn negotiation skills to turn conflict into collaboration and help you navigate relationships with work colleagues, customers, and supervisors. A productive negotiation is more like a dance than a tug of war. Skilled negotiators steer the discussion toward solving a puzzle through collaboration. Like a professional chess player who can see multiple moves ahead on the chessboard, skilled negotiators think through scenarios and use negotiation and persuasion tactics to guide the conversation toward a mutually beneficial outcome.

Learn skills in less time

You have a choice to make. You can be intentional, create a plan, and build good habits to maximize learning in less time. Or you can hope you will learn a skill when you have extra time, feel motivated, or are forced to learn to keep your job. Hope is not a strategy. Don’t put your financial security at risk by neglecting to plan for your continuing education.

Be intentional. Don’t rely solely on inspiration and willpower to make yourself better. Instead, create 30-day skill development plans, which will ensure you learn more in less time. Focus on one rare and valuable skill at a time and start with the in-demand skill that most interests you. There’s no need to commit to a long-term plan. At the end of 30 days, you can assess whether you want to dig deeper and carve out more dedicated time to further develop that skill or whether it’s time to tackle a different one.

Create a skill-building project. The best way to learn is to make something. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you know more than you do. To make knowledge stick, apply what you’re learning to a project. You don’t learn skills and retain knowledge by passively reading, listening, or watching content. Projects help you synthesize and express the ideas you are learning while forcing you to push through discomfort and confront real-world challenges.

For example, if I read a book, I remember only a handful of the ideas (maybe 10% to 15% if I’m lucky.) But if I write an article on the ideas presented in the book, I’m forced to think deeply and internalize what I’m learning. As a result, I retain more knowledge at a deeper level.

Projects also provide proof of skill, showcase what you’ve learned, and help you build your portfolio. Portfolios are not just for artists and designers. Build a personal website and portfolio to show how you think and problem solve. Portfolios are more potent than resumes and can help you earn a promotion or land a better job.

Commit to a small project, such as one from the list below. Choose one that is not too ambitious and make sure you can accomplish it in the 30-day timeframe.

  • Write an essay, article, or blog post.
  • Create a five-minute explainer video.
  • Write a summary highlighting what you have learned from a particular book.
  • Create a case study on a person, business, or historical event related to your work.
  • Build a financial model.
  • Learn to code a simple computer game.
  • Evaluate a job opportunity using decision tools (e.g., decision scorecard, mental models).
  • Prepare a strategy for a specific negotiation.

Commit one hour every day. Carve out one hour a day (including weekends) to learning and skills development. Use this time to read, write, and work on your skill-building projects. The most powerful way to accelerate your career is to create a daily learning habit. Shift your mindset until you view daily learning as equivalent to drinking your morning coffee or brushing your teeth, and you will earn financial freedom. Make the time. Your future self will thank you!

I recommend scheduling a one-hour block at the same time every day to minimize scheduling conflicts and ensure you prioritize the time. You can also break the time into two 30-minute blocks. To maximize productivity, avoid context switching and distraction during the time block. Don’t check your phone, email, social media, or get up to grab a coffee or anything else during the time block.

Create a weekly plan. At the beginning of each week, invest 10 minutes to map out weekly milestones (e.g., finish reading book X, create an outline for an article) to prioritize your time and stay on track. Update daily time blocks in your calendar with a short note (e.g., read book, work on first draft of article) so you know what to focus on each day.

Use clever shortcuts to cut through information overwhelm. You don’t have to wade through mountains of data and invest countless hours into researching a topic. Instead, try this smart shortcut: Identify the top two to three reputable experts with opposing views and focus on their material. You’ll quickly learn the essential ideas, terminology, and areas of disagreement, and you will be exposed to relevant, cutting-edge research.

Look for material written by experts who collaborate despite holding different views. For example, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Gary Klein use adversarial collaboration in this study to debate the power and perils of intuition in business decision-making.

Other methods to quickly identify experts:

  • Learn the history of the topic or field (notable contributors will be easy to spot).
  • Use Google Scholar to find the most cited studies and publications.
  • Look for a systematic review on the topic, written by a scholar conducting a meta-analysis of the research.
  • Check Amazon for the most-reviewed books on the subject.
  • Search Apple podcasts to look for in-demand experts interviewed on multiple shows.

Let’s say you’re interested in learning influence and persuasion tactics to become a more effective communicator. When you search for the topic on Amazon, you discover that Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion pops up as the first title with 7,467 reviews and 4.5 stars. Then glance at Google Scholar, and you’ll find thousands of citations for Dr. Cialdini’s work. Now you can be fairly confident about studying Cialdini.

You don’t necessarily need to read five or more books on a topic. You just need to read the best ones.

Before you read a book by an expert, read one of the author’s blog posts or listen to a long-form podcast interview with them and assess whether it will be a worthwhile time investment to read their book. (By the way, you definitely should read Dr. Robert Cialdini’s books Influence and Pre-Suasion. You won’t be disappointed.)

Eat a healthy information diet

Learn as much as you can from other people’s knowledge and experiences, but be very selective. The information you consume is just as important as the food you eat. Exposing yourself to low-quality information by scrolling through social media is equivalent to eating lots of sugar and processed food. It sticks in your brain and hampers your thinking.

There’s a reason billions of dollars are spent on advertising every year. Also, there’s an opportunity cost to every minute you waste reading social media or lower-quality information.

Read and listen to long-form quality content (books, podcast interviews, research papers.) Follow your curiosity and expose yourself to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Take a multidisciplinary approach (learn basic concepts from psychology, microeconomics, biology, chemistry, art, physics.) Often you can apply and combine insights from other fields to innovate. Look for patterns, connect the dots between ideas, and think hard about using them in your specific area.

Focus most of your time on reading books or research papers instead of articles, blog posts, and social media. Only the best ideas make it into a book or are published in scientific papers due to the level of effort required. Most authors spend years thinking about and researching the ideas that go into their book. Older books are usually better than newer books because they have survived the test of time. For example, to help me learn to write copy, I read Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins, published in 1923, and the Boron Letters by Gary C. Halbert, published in 2013.

Teach to learn

To learn an idea or concept faster, teach it to other people. Simplify and explain everything you’re learning through casual conversations with family, friends, and work colleagues. When you verbally explain new knowledge to other people, you can’t rely on memorizing information; you need to understand concepts from the ground up.

Start today

Follow your curiosity, identify the in-demand skills that align with your interests, make a plan, and begin. Don’t wait to sign up for a training or course. You don’t need money to start building rare and valuable skills. The only requirements are shifting your mindset and creating a daily learning habit. You can do it!

To learn more, sign-up for the “High-Performance Playbook” email series (it’s free), where I share the best evidence-based strategies, tactics, and frameworks to advance your career and make more money.


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