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You & Your Talents: The Power of Combination


Received wisdom says that to be really successful you need to be the very best in your field. To really shine, to stand out amongst the competition, you need to devote all your energies to developing, refining and maintaining some skill or aptitude at a very high level. If you are anything other than the best, you will have to settle for a place outside the premier league. So either show you’ve got the goods, or resign yourself to an unexciting, unfulfilling, unexceptional second-best career.

That’s a lot of pressure, right?

Well, what if this winner-takes-all model is simply wrong in the new economy? What if the trick isn’t to be the best at any one thing but to be very good at an interesting and original combination of things?

This is the claim of Scott Adams (creator of the famous Dilbert cartoon series). He calls it the ‘talent stack’, and my coaching experience tells me he’s on to something incredibly important. I have seen client after client, particularly but not only those in the entrepreneurial domain, unlock dramatic new possibilities once they began to see themselves not as a single common skillset but as an uncommon mix of common skills.

Let’s take a fun example. You’re nifty with magic tricks and have long dreamed of being a full-time stage magician. Unfortunately, however, you just can’t get enough well-paying gigs to make a living from it.

Question: Are you ever going to be in the top 1% of stage magicians in town skillwise? Answer: Nope. So—stop trying to reap the rewards that would come to someone who is genuinely top-tier at doing magic tricks. Instead talk to me about some other skills and interests you have. Don’t worry if you’re not amazingly proficient at any one of them—that’s kind of the point here. Give me a list that seems kind of random—for it's there the magic often lies. Crosswords? Ok. Music? Ok. Painting? Ok. Working out at the gym? Ok!

Let’s see if we can’t make something of this delightfully quirky talent stack of yours. Is there any way that your interest in crosswords and/or music and/or painting and/or physical fitness could be incorporated into your magic show? Remember, the goal here is not to be the best practitioner of magic tricks per se, but to offer something compellingly new and unusual that will create a buzz that will in turn translate into lucrative bookings. Might there not be a playful mix in here somewhere? Could you somehow incorporate your verbal-analytical prowess (crosswords) with a musical element and/or with a visual element (painting)? Could your gym time stand to you in the form of an unusually physical and energetic stage show? Think, think, think.

The suggestiveness of this fun example for the fine art of career-building is far from trivial. I have seen so many individuals reinvent themselves to great effect, so many great new business ideas take shape—all as a result of identifying an arresting talent stack.

The most successful rock bands rarely contain the most technically proficient musicians. All each member needs is to be very good at their instrument. What counts most is the alchemy that takes place when this particular group of individuals gets in a room together and plays.

What would happen if you were to stop seeing your career self as a single instrumentalist in competition with other single instrumentalists? What if you were to start thinking of your career self as—a band?

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