There are two paths to creating value.
The first path gets most of the attention: you become world-class at a specific thing. You become a J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg or Tiger Woods. Glamorous, but unrealistic for most of us.
The second path is far more doable: develop a variety of skills that make you unique. Scott Adams calls it the talent stack. I’ve called it the personal moat. David Perell calls it the personal monopoly.
They all touch on the same paradoxical concept: you don’t need to be the top 1% to be in the top 1%. By crafting a unique concoction of useful skills, you enter a league of your own.
In honor of Taylor Swift’s multi-album drop, let’s review her talent stack. Taylor may not be a vocal powerhouse or a slick dancer, but her unique intersection of witty songwriting, catchy hooks, thematic storytelling, appetite for reinvention and business-savvy puts her in a league of her own. Taylor’s combination of strengths is what makes her legendary.
The concept of the talent stack is everywhere once you learn to recognize it.
How I became 10X more effective
In the beginning of my PM career, I was known for data analysis. I first developed this skill during my consulting bootcamp, and used it to become an expert on how people were using our product. I was a decent storyteller, but my ability to weave in interesting data gave me an edge. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and used it to craft thorough product requirements. I wasn’t J.K. Rowling imaginative, but I made up for it by crisply defining problems and enabling others to dream up solutions.
Looking back, I mostly leaned on my strengths in analysis and writing to bootstrap my credibility. Since then, I’ve parlayed these strengths into other areas. I retrained my eagle eye to find pixel-imperfect implementations. I studied products, and took note of delightful and painful moments, training my mental model of good vs. great. I tapped into my childhood love of fiction to be more inventive with product ideas.
In short, I learned new skills. And while I may not be in the top 1% of any of them, the combination of all of them makes me unique.
I used to believe the myth that you either have product instincts or you don’t. Now I believe that product instincts can be trained, especially when you develop from a foundation of strength.
Finding your own multipliers
The talent stack you develop should be informed by a few things:
- Your curiosities — when you’re naturally interested in something, you will spend more time going the extra mile.
- Your environment — the DNA of your company encodes what it values. To be appreciated, it helps to be at least above average at the most valued dimension, if not world-class. If you work for yourself, this means identifying the most crucial ingredients to succeeding in your domain.
- What you already have in your stack — you benefit most from developing skills that are rarely found together. A masterful storyteller who understands business principles (like Jeff Bezos) is more valued than a masterful storyteller who writes good copy (these skills are more correlated).
- What naturally compounds over time — just like compounding interest, you want to invest in skills whose value compounds in your sleep. Writing publicly is a great example of this: your ideas continue to spread at a faster rate.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are skills that are universally useful: writing, design, business principles, data analysis, coding, storytelling.
The skills that are most paradoxical and rarely found in the same person include:
- Design instincts x business principles
- Design instincts x data analysis
- Storytelling x coding
- Storytelling x data analysis
- Business principles x coding
If you already spike on one of the skills above, pursuing the other half will pay dividends. And when you triple up, you’ll run circles. By becoming more interdisciplinary, you position yourself to connect the dots invisible to others.
So why don’t more people do this? First, the concept of the talent stack is less well-known than it should be. Second, learning different skills is uncomfortable — it’s often hard enough becoming good at one. Third, you probably self-identify with certain skills from an early age, and it hurts to reinvent an image you’ve grown to like. The good news is that all of these hurdles are surmountable.
What I appreciate most about the talent stack is that it opens us to more positive-sum games. Rather than competing head-on and trying to climb one global summit, the talent stack empowers us to be the best version of ourselves. It’s a lesson I wish they taught in school. It is the ultimate escape from competition.