Passion is the fuel for early careers. When you’re young, just out of school, you don’t have expertise and proven skills — you have education and ambition.
Turning that raw energy into concrete skills that create value is crucial — like a wind turbine converting wind into electricity. These skills become chips you can trade in for career opportunities as you grow and learn.
People with staying power in their careers know that ambition and passion only get you so far. Skills are the great multiplier of ambition. Let’s talk about how to acquire them.
There are four steps to acquiring skills:
- Break down the skills required to create career capital in your industry or field
- Select which skills provide real value
- Choose the best order in terms of value to your career
- Find the most information dense way to learn and practice those skills
Let’s take them one by one. Throughout, I’ll use the example of a career in marketing at tech startups because that is part of my personal experience. That said, I lead teams across engineering, customer support, operations, marketing, and sales. If you need help applying this framework to your path, just hit reply and I’ll do my best.
1. Break down the skills required to create career capital in your industry or field
In marketing, let’s use a simple model of brand marketing, product marketing, and demand generation as the three core practices.
Let’s say you work in demand generation. Demand gen is fundamentally about channels. Channels might be social, email, SEO, organic/word of mouth, and referrals.
Now, let’s say you’re working within social media. Skills relevant to social media might be copywriting, comedy/wit, storytelling, research, image editing, graphic design, analytics, conflict management and de-escalation.
Those are a lot of concrete skills that add up to great social media, especially given how “soft” social media can appear to be from the outside.
2. Select which skills provide real value
You can’t learn everything at once, and not every related skill has equal value. The key is to understand which skills are vital to your career and which are nice to haves.
It’s also important to understand where you are versus where you’re going. If you’re in social media today and already quite competent in your role, it might be more important to consider what skills are necessary for your next role — perhaps in marketing management or a lateral move to gain more experience in marketing as a whole.
Let’s assume you’re early in your career and you want to go from a social media intern to someone who is taken seriously in the field of marketing and who commands attention from recruiters and marketing leaders alike.
This ambition means you need to become a world class social media marketer. Which of the skills we outlined give you leverage towards that outcome?
Leverage: copywriting, analytics, design.
Nice to haves: research, storytelling, comedy/wit, image editing, graphic design, conflict management and de-escalation.
This is not to say the nice-to-haves are not valuable, it is simply to say that if you are not already world class at copywriting, analytics, and design, the others are not yet worth focusing on.
3. Choose the best order in terms of value to your career
A major mistake at this point would be to go buy 9 courses that teach you about all of these things.
Take a moment first and consider the order in which you should learn these skills.
Copywriting and design are about creating content. Analytics is about measuring the effectiveness of content.
It makes sense that you should learn copywriting and design first because without content there is no need for analytics. But which of these two is more important?
Without the written word — copy — there is no social media content. Even most design work for social media and the web in general is centered on words. Because of this, I’d focus on copy first, design second, and analytics third.
4. Find the most information dense way to learn and practice those skills
One thing at a time. That is the most important piece of advice when it comes to acquiring new skills. In order to make sufficient progress to be useful, you need focus. This isn’t a hobby, this is about professional development.
There are two ways I recommend going about this:
- Ask someone you trust and respect who is already great at what you want to learn: “How did you learn to _________?” Then follow up by asking them about the best learning resources they know of.
You’ll likely find that many people have a hard time remembering how they initially learned something they’re great at. That’s because most learning happens through practice. Regardless of what books, courses, or tutorials you take advantage of, remember: the faster you apply the knowledge, the faster you’ll acquire the skill.
The three most important things to read on skill acquisition
1. Expertise: Why You Need It and How to Get It by yours truly — I spent 20+ hours on this essay because it is so important for creators to be good at something in order to build a business. It’s a great overview of three frameworks from top thinkers on the subject: Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, and Josh Kaufman.
2. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport — when I first heard Cal speak about this book at the World Domination Summit, I’ll admit he rubbed me the wrong way. I bought the book anyway and it was excellent. Cal makes the best argument I’ve seen on why skills are more important than passion for building a high caliber career.
3. The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss — Tim has a knack for breaking a topic down into its component parts and then sharing knowledge in a comprehensive way. Don’t mistake this for a cookbook. This is his magnum opus on learning as a skill, with recipes to keep you engaged along the way.
High value skills accelerate your career growth
Over time, you can build a remarkable skill set by focusing your learning and development time on the highest leverage skills for your career path.
Rather than building on a skill set over time, work to stack complementary skills over time. This will prevent you from being pigeonholed into a narrow career trajectory with limited options. It gives you the flexibility to capitalize on career moves that cater to your interests or goals at a given time.
Skill stacking is the meta level skill to practice over time. The more skills you master, the more versatile your career will become.