If you want to become exceptional or the best of the best in your field, you need an unmatched skillset. Whether you are aspiring to become an elite athlete, or musician or business professional, becoming the best in the world means having unparalleled abilities. Think about the skillset that the most extraordinary achievers possess, whether it is Serena Williams, or Michael Jordan, or Bill Gates or Ed Sheeran. Each of them has an incredible set of abilities, painstakingly built over decades through skill acquisition, development, practice, and continual improvement.
If you want to reach the very top of your field, you, too, need to build a similar level of expertise. The most effective way to construct best-in-class abilities is by sharpening your existing skills. Strengthening your strengths will have a disproportionately higher impact on you becoming exceptional in your field than working on your weaknesses.
To be clear, I am not advocating that you don’t improve upon your weaknesses. You do need to shore up your weak areas, as it is impossible to become elite in any endeavor with gaping holes in your abilities. However, skills beget advanced skills, and you get a higher ROI from sharpening the skills you already have, in other words, honing your strengths.
The Science of Skill Development
Skills you have already acquired catalyze and accelerate the subsequent development of those skills. Two properties of skill development explain why working on sharpening existing skills is a highly effective approach to enhance the development of new skills.
The first property of skill development is “self-productivity.” This means that skills acquired at an early stage persist and remain with you through subsequent periods of your life. This is why when you learn something as a child, it comes naturally to you as an adult, even if you haven’t practiced it for years.
The second property of skill-development is “dynamic complementarity.” This means that an investment in growing a skillset you already possess is more productive than an investment in learning a brand-new skill. In other words, building on an existing skillset produces a disproportionate increase in the output of subsequent skill-building efforts. For example, if you are learning a brand-new skill, one unit of effort may result in one unit of improvement. But if you are improving on a capability you already possess, one unit of effort will result in more than one unit of gain. You get the biggest bang for the buck by honing the skills you already have.
For this reason, it is vital to start building from the earliest set of skills you possess, which are your natural abilities—in other words, playing to your strengths.
Excel at your unique advantage
Every activity or profession is multidimensional, with specific sub-segments that require a high degree of competency. To become the best of the best in your field, you need to have a solid set of skills in each segment. Every exceptional, regardless of the domain, is in the top 10 percent of their peer group in each category. Additionally, they are in the top 1% in one or maybe two areas—these become their differentiators, and the reason why they become the best in the world.
Professional golfer Rory McIlroy, who has ranked number one in the world, does as well or better than his peers in most statistical categories. However, in one segment—driving the ball off the tee—he dominates over others; this is his area of strength. We know this to be true because of the meticulous recording of golfing statistics. But, this phenomenon of dominating a particular strength area is valid across all fields and is just as applicable to your domain.
Steve Jobs was highly competent at many tasks of managing a large and complex enterprise, but he was especially outstanding as a creative genius and innovator. Innovation was his calling card, and that is what made him exceptional. The Beatles were proficient across the range of skills necessary to become the most popular band in the world, but they particularly excelled as singers and songwriters.
Relative to your peers, improving your abilities from the top 10 percent to the top 1 percent in your area of strength plays a more significant role in exceptional performance than moving from average to the top 10 percent in other areas. If you can truly excel at one particular element of your domain, that will be the reason you stand out and become the best.
Also, when you have an outsized advantage in one area, you will be inspired to become the best in your field. As a result, you will also work harder at getting better in other sub-segments where you are not that strong. You will be motivated to ensure that you don’t have any holes in your skillset. That is how the best in the world in every domain has done it.
The most exceptional people have one or two strengths that stand out relative to their peers and other areas where they are on par. So, when you find your specific area of strength, sharpen it until your skill in it stands out, and no one can come close to you in that particular activity. You will still need to work on all aspects of your domain, so you are not substandard in any area, but strengthening your strengths will be the reason you separate yourself from everyone else and become truly elite.