You Don’t Need To Be Good At Many Things, You Need To Be Great At One

Most people have many talents. They can play multiple musical instruments, speak a few languages, or run a four-minute mile. They are good conversationalists and are interesting people to hang out around. You like them.

Unfortunately, they aren’t rewarded or recognised for their numerous talents. They’re pigeon-holed into a specific job scope and don’t really get to tap into their other skills. They’re called upon to do a certain job. It makes sense because specialisation makes every task more efficient.

We understand this truth, but find it difficult to focus exclusively on one thing. Novelty calls out to us, and we cannot resist the temptation to respond. As a result, we attempt many things at once. Those who are more capable become good at many things, but more often than not we end up good to mediocre.

Your life will look very different if you choose to focus on the few. When you become great at one thing, you’ll discover new opportunities that you never knew existed.

One Thing Leads To Another

You’ll know who Michael Jordan is even if you don’t follow the sport of basketball. He’s the greatest of all time in basketball. During his playing career, he was compensated as such, inking a contract which paid him $33 million for one season. It was unheard of, and he became a wealthy man by all measures.

Yet, his real fortune comes from marketing the Jordan brand. We continue to wear trainers and his signature shoes 14 years after he has retired. We don’t see that with any of his peers, even as he played in the 1990s which featured numerous other superstars.

Had he tried his hand longer at baseball, it’s unlikely that he would be named the Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th century. He went back to the sport he was greatest at, and when it was all over and done, he became a billionaire. All from a game which involved putting a ball through a hoop.

It’s not just Jordan. You see this in other fields as well. Arnold Schwarzenegger would not have become the Terminator, Governor of California and businessman if he was not first Mr Olympia. Dr Dre would not have been able to build a headphone company worth $3.2 billion if he was not first a hip hop mogul.

These individuals were exceptional in their own right. They were good at many skills — marketing and PR at the very least. But all of these people would not have been as successful if they did not make a breakthrough at their one thing.

The Superstar Effect

One reality of life is that the best reap much larger rewards than their slightly less talented peers. The phenomenon is well documented; it’s been named the Superstar Effect.

The intuition is simple: limited resources can only go to one source in a winner-takes-all environment. Athletes compete for the same gold medal. Companies compete for the same potential client. Television shows compete for the same hour of your attention.

Over time, these winners are able to leverage on their advantages and reap other benefits. The kid who makes it into an elite academic institution gets the high paying job. The published author is able to get a larger book advance and more marketing resources for his next book. The superstar athlete is able to start an entire brand of apparel centred all around him. What begins as a small advantage gets bigger over time.

The Navy SEALs have a motto: “it pays to be a winner”. It’s certainly true when we observe how superstars are made.

Getting To The Next Level

The difference between good and great is often smaller than we think. It’s marginal, although the consequences of this difference do not make it apparent. You need only be better, even just 1% better, to triumph over your competitor. We see this in athletics, where the difference comes down to milliseconds. As Al Pacino says, “the inches we need are everywhere around us”.

You’ve got to fight for that inch. Start by trying to just be 1% better every day. Build a habit of striving for excellence in your field of choice. The benefits might not be obvious all at once, but they will be apparent over time. Use the powers of compounding and accumulative advantage.

More importantly, you need to believe in your own success. Your quest is doomed from the start if you’re not convinced of your own abilities. Your efforts will be diminished over time regardless of the productivity of your systems are or the number of inspirational quotes you read. Those will not shield you from the pains of being great your craft.

Great In One, Good At Many

When you become truly great at one thing, doors you never knew existed will open to you.

Cal Newport, the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, observes that “being the best in a field makes you disproportionately impressive to the outside world. The effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.”

You can design your life to optimise the superstar effect. Stand out from the crowd by having skills that are rare and difficult to replace. Being different is good. Playing by the same broken rules as everyone else will make you no better.

Start by being great at one thing in one thing in your circle of influence. If you can do that, your circle of influence will expand as well. This promotes a virtuous cycle that will eventually get you to the top.

Make The Jump

Don’t get caught up with the shiny objects that pop up from time to time. There may be good opportunities, but it won’t matter if it’s not the right one. Find something you can commit to and double down on it.

The cost of an undisciplined approach to more is bigger than we think. Time and energy are our two biggest resources, but we constantly undervalue them. The time we invest into being good at one thing could be used to master our craft — bringing us to great.

And that gap, between good and great, makes all the difference.

If you’ve enjoyed this story, you’ll love my other posts. Stay updated with my latest articles and get further insights on how we can lead more purposeful and productive lives.