“But You Don’t Have Big Boobs!”
In this article I’ll talk about skill specialisation and doing what you’re best at. The title seems to be unrelated to that for now, but I’ll explain the context of it later.
I am currently doing my 2,000 word summative Philosophy course work essay on Ricardo trade theory. In short, Ricardian trade theory said that in free trade, if a country completely specialises in what they are best at producing, everyone will benefit from trade and be better off.
If you draw an analogy to real life, if everyone focus on one single thing they are best at, would it make a better world?
I recently read an article where the elder audience gives advice to 30-something of how to make the best of their 30s. Rule number 5 is that “You Can’t Have Everything. Focus On Doing A Few Things Really Well”. This is also the same idea that is presented throughout a really good book by Garry Keller - The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. By observation, I am amazed to realise that there is one thing that many people fail to understand: If you want to be the best at something, you will be the worst in many other things, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as a by product of that. It is because every precious moment of your life you spend on something comes at a cost of not doing the second best thing you could be doing. Moreover, once you are really focused on something, your mindset and life will be shaped in certain styles that may not be applicable for other fields. For example, imagine a point in time where your skill-set and knowledge enables you to become: either the world famous historian or an internationally renowned gamer. Say, you chose the gamer route. Every moment you spend practising for the coming gaming tournament means a deduction from your time reading history books. Overtime, as you play CS for long, your mind is trained to think and react in short time intervals that is no longer applicable to reading history papers. In the long horizon, you completely lost the ability to even become an average historian; you have become totally a sucker at it because of your chosen path of pursuing professional gaming.
But who cares? Once you become world class gamer like Patrik Lindberg (f0rest) in CS, no one would even mention or care of the fact that you are now so horrible at history study. A quote from my favourite entrepreneur Mark Cuban illustrates the point “You only have to be right once. And then everyone can tell you how lucky you are”. The public is biased towards success and is inclined to believe that there is a linear path to it. Perception creates reality, you just need one success and everyone will assume you’re the one, that your path has always been smooth without failures. Look at Steve Jobs, he is a perfectionist and may be consider the best in his field, producing the line of electronics product that changes our lives completely. Those who read bibliography books and do extensive research about him would know that he is a pain to deal with as a manager and partner, as well as having several failures pre-Macintosh such as being fired from the company he himself founded. But who cares? Steve Jobs is still Steve Jobs, he’s still a life changer no matter how bad he is as a person behind the scene.
The problems attributed to the non-successful is that you either spread your time out trying to be the best in multiple areas, or that you give up too quickly.
Scenario 1: You spread out your effort into too many areas.
The rule developed by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of best selling books “Outliers”, states that in order to become an expert in something you need to spend 10,000 hours in practising it. Assuming you can practically spend a solid 10 hours on it every day (deducting sleeping, eating and all habitual routines), that’s equivalent to 1000 days which is almost 3 years.
Now switch to the possibility where you try to practise to be the best in two different things (assuming no synergy between them, e.g. trying to be the best economics researcher and at the same time, a marketing expert) That’ll take you twice as long i.e. 6 years to master both given that you practise both rigidly for 10 hours a day without exception.
And you can self-calculate for the scenario of three, four, five, six… areas and so on. The problems of non-achievers is that your effort is being too scattered into too many areas that it will take you a multiple of 3 years and more to be able to master it. Since it takes you so long, it brings us to scenario 2.
Senario 2: You give up too quickly
Imagine Patrik Linberg, on his way to become a world-class professional gamer, thought of giving up gaming. He is one and a half year in to the practising schedule of the 10,000 hours rule, and now he thinks about switching back to become a historian again. The immediate loss he will have is:
- He’ll lose the possibility of achieving the best outcome of the current efforts, as well as loosing out on all of his effort so far.
- When he restarts as a historian, his chance is no longer to become the world best historian. Since he had spend long time practising gaming, someone else might already advance themselves in the historical research fields. Moreover, his thinking, skill sets and life routine does not apply to become the best historian anymore.
- Switching from one choice to another, he might, in the end, becoming both an average player and an average historian. Low risk, low rewards: the pay-offs for being close to the norms is too little.
Moral of the story: Once you choose a path, you should be aware that there is no going back if you are determined to rise to the top. Switching from one area to another, back and forth and U turn just make your chances of being the best narrower and your ability weaker to excel in that area. And if you do insist on switching to another area, be prepared to put in additional effort to get yourself up to the level you were before and catching up with your competitors - who spent all those time perfecting themselves and focusing on this area while you are doing something else.
So what’s up with the title?
When I was in my secondary school, in one of the breaks, some classmates and I were talking about who we want to become one day. When it’s my turn, I said “I want to be known by the world one day”. And one guy said “But you don’t have big boobs!”, and the crowd burst into laughter. I rebutted “You don’t have big boobs neither, does it mean you will also be nobody?”
There are many ways to become the best in something. The funny thing is everyone HAS the capability to be better than everyone else in something, just that some of those potentials are NEVER realised. The narrow-minded attributed success to a fixed set of qualities, just like how my guy friend attributed world-wide influence to big boobs.
Nonetheless, the most successful ones are more open to unconventional thinking. A recent Ask-me-anything on Wallstreetoasis is of a former trader who quit his job to now own a food truck. You must wonder – what the hell is he thinking? But who knows, he might be the the world most successful food truck owners that produce more P&L than if he were a trader.
If you do what everyone does, you’ll get exactly what everyone else get. Nothing more.
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Illustration: Jacob Jordaens (Flemish, 1593 - 1678), A Merry Company, Flemish, about 1644.
Copyrights: Open Content License from J. Paul Getty Museum