I’d never heard the idea of a “personal competitive advantage” before.
That is until I came across a Twitter thread by former Canadian Spy Shane Parrish. Most of you probably don’t know who Shane is. While working as a spy he started an unlikely blog about self-improvement. His main readership became finance people working on Wall Street. Scott’s motto is simple: upgrade yourself.
The philosophies he gave up his spy job to teach are focused “on how learning deeply, thinking widely and reading books strategically could improve decision-making skills,” according to the New York Times.
Even if you hate finance, Scott pushes the limits on what makes for a great series of personal competitive advantages. They can be used to gain access to hidden opportunities that can upgrade your life significantly. I have edited the original list to focus on the most helpful sources of personal competitive advantage you can use.
Ability to Look Stupid
Protecting your precious image prevents you from progressing in life. It’s why I hate the phrase “personal brand.”
Instead, I regularly look like an idiot. I don’t care if people think I’m weird for talking about mental illness or failing so many times in startup land. I don’t care if my morning routine is a little extreme for some.
I am prepared to look stupid because it helps me not take every little thing so seriously. In the end, if you die tomorrow most people will forget about you within a few weeks. Your family will forget 99% of your life within a year. That level of perspective will stop you from caring about appearances. The problem with appearances is you have to constantly keep up with them.
Why not be yourself, look stupid, and enjoy life instead?
The 5-Year Method
One of the biggest temptations in life is wanting things too soon. Delayed gratification is a huge advantage. I translate delayed gratification into the five-year method that goes like this:
If you stick at something for five years, it is unlikely you won’t find a hidden path and succeed at it. The hardest part is getting over the inertia of the beginning, where it’s you against yourself and your current thinking.
It’s the reason I’m fine to make $0 off a skill for five years. It’s the reason I didn’t get angry at a blog owner who took my writing and published it without paying me for years — when friends told me this person was taking advantage of me.
The decision is, get rewarded now and feel very little. Or get rewarded in a delayed future when your investment of time will produce far greater results than you could ever imagine. The difference between the two realities can create a phenomenal personal advantage.
How You Think About Skills
If you create a habit of working on a generic skill, you run the risk of ending up in a crowded marketplace. Unique skills or combinations are a huge personal competitive advantage.
The first person I heard say this is Scott Adams the creator of the cartoon series “Dilbert.” He doesn’t believe he is the best cartoonist. What he’s mastered is his skill stack — writing, drawing, humor, business. None of these skills on their own are unique. But when you combine them, work on them, and reach a level of mastery in each, they become a huge personal competitive advantage. Tomas Pueyo sums it up perfectly with this diagram.
I accidentally stumbled upon Scott’s skill stacking power when I combined writing, social media, finance, self-improvement, and reading, together. The mix of these skills is uncommon, hence my results on platforms like LinkedIn.
A lot of the corporate world operates at hermit crab speed. It takes months to make a decision. Strategy packs are written up. Entire jobs are created to enable internal meetings that could have been an email.
Product delivery is behind where the market is heading. User research is based on already out-of-date data. Direction is determined by the slow rise of certain egotistical people’s career goals.
Speed crushes slow bullsh*t.
Speed is better than getting it right because speed allows you to get results and then iterate on the outcome. Speed is the attitude that near enough is good enough. Speed is the attitude of “we’ll figure it out as we go mate.” Speed is a willingness to fail at its core.
Not winning leads to winning down the line. Slow is almost certain death. Fast is almost certain success through experimentation.
Ability to Change Your Mind
A person who can change their mind is gorgeous. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you will be wrong.
It’s what you do when you are wrong that counts. I was unwilling to admit I was wrong about mental illness. I pretended it didn’t exist for years because I was deathly afraid to change my mind. When I admitted the truth and got help, everything changed. I looked like Atlas from Greek mythology carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. After I changed my mind I felt light and adaptable.
Ability to Learn/Adapt
When it came to choosing a partner this is the ability I was looking for. I just got engaged to the woman who demonstrated it perfectly. She is comfortable changing her mind. She changed her mind about eating meat, crypto, 9–5 work, money, investing, and even what tv shows are good.
The default human programming is to resist change. To change is to fight the system in your head that wants to keep you safe and happy. Fighting against yourself is hard work. It takes everything you’ve got.
You’ll hear plenty of well-known writers say, “I cringe when I read my writing from a few years ago. It’s terrible.”
There’s a reason: they’ve outgrown their former selves and are self-aware enough to know what they wrote a few years ago was the best they could do based on their current level of learning.
This is why Niklas Goke coined the phrase writers are liars. Writers don’t lie intentionally. They’re just outgrowing who they used to be by sharing ideas and riffing on them in public. That’s why writing online is a superpower.
Taking on Feedback
Many people take feedback poorly. They assume feedback is an attack on them and their ability to provide food and shelter for their family. (Just look at the dumpster fire called hashtag politics on Twitter.)
Even when they get good feedback they often don’t implement it. Feedback is how you discover what you need to work on — because we all have stuff we need to work on.
There is some truth even to feedback from haters. One person who is disgusted by my work said “walking on fire is stupid.” In some sense they are right. Walking on fire may be delusional. The feedback helps me intentionally reassess what I’m doing, even if I don’t agree with the feedback, or evidence suggests they might be wrong.
Consider you might be wrong. The process alters your thinking and gives you a personal competitive advantage.
Who knew a former spy could find an audience with the finance world and invent a new category of self-improvement.
Practice looking stupid, implement the five-year method, use skill stacking, use speed rather than act like a slow-moving corporate dinosaur, change your mind often thus becoming a liar, make learning and adapting your default, dare to take onboard harsh feedback.
Opportunities find you as a result of the person you dare to become. Who you are is the greatest competitive advantage.