“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” —Alvin Toffler
Learnability is the key to future-proofing your mind. As the job market changes and AI grows more competent, your ability to adapt is of utmost importance.
But beyond the capacity to learn new things, you also need an idea of what’s worth learning. It will be endlessly frustrating if you learn a new skill because it’s in demand today, but it becomes obsolete tomorrow.
So what should you do to maximise your time learning? In a constantly shifting technological landscape, perhaps the best thing isn’t to chase every new skill that pops up but to cultivate a unique range that makes you one-of-a-kind.
In this way, you won’t necessarily be eligible for those positions with the most job openings, but you will make yourself the best applicant for a particular selection of them. You’ll be the best in your niche.
To become the best version of yourself, you shouldn’t aim to be a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one. You should be skilled at a few. An above-average ability in a few areas can make you the best in the world at the point where those abilities crossover.
Scott Adams calls it talent stacking:
“The idea of a talent stack is that you can combine ordinary skills until you have enough of the right kind to be extraordinary. You don’t have to be the best in the world at any one thing. All you need to succeed is to be good at a number of skills that fit well together.”
By combining a few skills you become rather unique. There a lot of designers out there, but there are fewer designers who can code, and even fewer coding-designers with education in evolutionary psychology.
I like this analogy in an article on Glassdoor: imagine a video game character who can jump and crouch. Just two skills. Then you add the ability to run. Now you would think you have three skills, but consider that you can combine running with jumping to propel yourself further, or running with crouching to go into a slide.
Adding new skills to your repertoire can take you beyond the individual skills themselves. But it’s more effective if the skills complement each other somehow—Scott Adams leveraged his moderate art, business, and writing skills to create the popular Gilbert cartoons:
“For example, I’m not much of an artist, not much of a business expert, and my writing skills are mostly self-taught. I’m funny, but not the funniest person in my town. The reason I can succeed without any world-class skills is that my talent stack is so well-designed.”
While Adams used his skill stack to create his own job, there are signs that employers are starting to looking for people with a combination of unique abilities.
A report from Burning Glass found that hybrid jobs—those positions which require skills in a few different areas—are growing at twice the rate of the overall job market, and are 20-40% higher-paying. What’s more, while they note that 42% of jobs are at risk of automation, only 12% of hybrid jobs can be automated.
The particular combination of skills often merges what is traditionally thought of as right-brain and left-brain skills. For example, those in technical roles now need to be able to communicate effectively, while those in more social fields can benefit from knowing how to work with data.
When considering which are the most in-demand skills to acquire, the report highlights four broad categories:
- Digital tools and technologies
- Data and analytics
- Business management
- Design and creativity
They point how 57% of engineering positions now require business and leadership skills, 54% of IT jobs require some form of digital design, and marketing managers with SQL skills make 41% more than those who don’t.
I found it particularly notable that in 2010, there were 150 job postings for data scientists, but in 2018 that number was over 22,000, with 1.7 million jobs asking for data science skills. This ability seems ripe for stacking.
While combining a few skills within these categories increases your demand on the market, the report also stresses the significance of continuing to learn:
“The theme of ‘lifelong learning’ is perhaps the biggest finding of the study. … We have to learn these skills through several years of experience and self-development. If you aren’t spending a few hours a week “sharpening the saw” in your career toolbox, you are likely falling behind.”
Once you know what your talents are, or what skills you want to add, then comes the process of acquiring, building upon, and refining them. You can think of your skills as stacking horizontally, while your abilities in each skill stack vertically.
How can you gain these skills? Almost everything you need can be found online. Instead of going to university to focus on one subject for several years, you can take online courses and build your own peculiar degree. By taking this route, you have control over what, when, and where you learn.
“Modular education partitions degrees into smaller, Lego-like building blocks of learning, each with their own credentials, learning and skills outcomes,” writes Anant Agarwal, the CEO of EdX. “Students will essentially be able to synthesize their own education with the customized skill set they need to advance their careers, making for a truly unique job candidate.”
For example, let’s say you want to learn how to write, there are free online courses on writing essays, writing a novel, journalism, screenwriting, writing for social media, and others. If you want to combine this with data science, go take an introductory course, then add some SQL skills, machine learning, statistical inference, and data visualisation.
There are still questions about the recognition MOOCs and online courses have when job searching. They might not be as highly regarded as a degree from an established university, but perhaps it’s better not to treat them as signalling mechanisms, just as tools that expand your abilities.
When it’s purely about your skill level, you don’t have to take courses and earn certificates—you can learn from books, podcasts, videos, documentaries, and anywhere else good information can be found. These can still be stacked into something comprehensive.
When it does come down to highlighting your abilities to employers, instead of a list of certificates, build projects. Show off your talents by creating things—articles, videos, designs, programs. This is more tangible evidence that you know what you’re doing than a piece of paper, and it provides a better opportunity for you to make something that combines your unique skill stack.
Learning Far and Wide
“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly,” writes David Epstein in Range.
Today it pays to be a polymath, a jack-of-a-few trades. By expanding our minds in both breadth and depth, we ensure our value on the open market and make ourselves more immune to automation.
The beauty of this is that it works better when you’re curious and follow your passions. You don’t have to force yourself into a narrow box but can explore broadly and find your own unique angle. Just remember—this is a process, not a goal. The biggest hurdle is cultivating learnability, if you’re not expanding your mind then it’s liable to shrink.
If you enjoyed this article and want to start stacking your skills, I invite you to download a free copy of Upgrade Your Mind Online, where you’ll find a great list of resources to learn from. I would also recommend Connecting the Dots, my book on learning how to learn.