Laszlo Polgar is an unassuming man. In his old age, his white beard and round face make him look like a green-eyed Fidel Castro, but otherwise if you crossed him on the street, you would probably not take a second look.
What distinguishes Laszlo from other people is his methodological drive. As a young man, he had read the biographies of 400 extra-ordinary people in order to find out what made them special.
His conclusion was that the secret ingredient was starting very young and studying hard.
“When I looked at the life stories of geniuses, I found the same thing. They all started at a very young age and studied intensively.”
— Laszlo Polgar
He had identified a common theme among all these stories of supposedly “gifted” people, an early specialization and intensive training in one particular subject.
He became a big proponent of nurture over nature as the way to create a genius.
“A genius is not born, but is educated and trained. When a child is born healthy, it is a potential genius.”
— Laszlo Polgar
Being the methodological man that he is, Polgar decided to put his theory to the test.
After he married his wife Klara, and his first daughter was born, Laszlo started his experiment.
His daughter Susan was going to become a chess champion. Her parents made up a plan and dedicated their life towards this goal.
Susan’s life, and later also the lives of her two sisters, Sofia and Judit, were spent studying, practicing, and playing chess. Their entire day was organized around this one activity.
It turns out, Laszlo was right. All three of his daughters became chess champions, with Judit and Susan being the top two ranked female chess players in the world for many years running.
It is all about the 10 thousand hour rule
In the book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson on the nature of expertise.
In his research, Ericsson found that there was a pattern among the various world-class people in different disciplines.
They had all engaged in long hours of deliberate practice, meaning very focused practice beyond one’s comfort zone.
On average, the amount of deliberate practice needed to get to the top of a discipline was 10 thousand hours, hence the 10 thousand hour rule.
This required hard work, and a very structured program intended to make progress.
“So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”
— Anders Ericsson
In order for this to get results, the quality of the practice counts as much if not more as the quantity of the practice. This means a good plan, and dedication are required if you want to be world-class in your discipline.
What if you are too late to apply the 10 thousand hour rule?
The problem is that the results of the social experiment of Laszlo Polgar, or the findings of Anders Ericsson, are a bit too late for most people reading this article.
Unless you have been specializing in your discipline for a long time now, you have probably already missed your window for deliberate practice as the road to the top.
What should you do now?
Here, we can apply some of the insights that the great primatologist Jane Goodall found a few years into her study of chimpanzees in Africa.
When Goodall arrived in Gombe to study the local chimpanzee community, the alpha, or leader of the troop was Goliath.
He was a huge ape, who had probably spent his entire life working on his strength, and ruled his community because of this specialization.
At the edge of the community lived another chimp who was named Mike by the researchers. He was lowly in status, smaller than most of the other males, and looked quite scared at times.
However, at one point he found several empty canisters left over by humans. By playing with them, he discovered that they made noise and could be used to frighten other chimps.
He used this to his advantage, and within 4 months, he had displaced Goliath at the top of the hierarchy.
What made Mike have the ability to overcome his initial bad position?
The reason, according to Martin Jones in his book “Feast”, was a combination of skills and traits that he had.
“He seems to have risen through the ranks from a quite lowly position by a combination of guts, intelligence, and threatening use of the empty kerosene cans he found.”
While Goliath was actually decent at making tools, and despite the name no dumb brute, Mike’s ability to bring together several things won out the day.
Mike’s competence at combining different skills was able to overcome his rival’s initial advantage in size and strength.
While other chimps from time to time played with the cans, it was Mike who figured out how to use them just a bit more effectively.
This got him to the top.
However, even after the researchers took away his canisters, Mike was able to maintain his leadership position.
Subsequent research across different chimpanzee communities found that while large males specializing in strength rose to the top position much more easily, the individuals who could combine different skills stayed at the alpha position for a longer time.
What separated Mike from the rest was his ability to stack his different skills.
He didn’t have to apply the 10 000 hour rule, but instead used a different strategy. Because of a combination of skills, he was able to overcome his initial disadvantage.
Apply skills stacking
While humans in modern times live in a much more complex society, where the hierarchy is not always so clear cut, and where we are members of several different groups at the same time, similar dynamics apply as in the jungle.
Just like chimps who have the ability to combine different skills in order to overcome their initial disadvantage in size can become leaders, humans too can rise up in status through their ability to mix and match expertise from different domains.
The advantage of this type of approach is that you don’t have to be a world-class expert in any of the domains, but just being better than average in several of them can be a huge asset.
Scott Adams, the man behind the “Dilbert” cartoon explained how he applied this to get to where he is now:
“Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort.”
— Scott Adams
He stated how he could draw better than most people, but would hardly qualify as an artist. He would never make it as a stand-up comedian, but he is funnier than most people.
For him, it was the combination of these different skills that made him so rare.
“The magic is that few people can draw well, and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.“
— Scott Adams
Just by being in the top 25% in these various disciplines, Adams was able to create a unique niche for himself, and become a world champion in that niche.
The great thing about this is that with this type of approach you can rise to the top quite easily, because you are the one creating your niche, which automatically makes you the champion of that niche!
Skills stacking has allowed me to quadruple my salary
Skills stacking has been my strategy to the top. I am not the best in the world in anything, but I am in the top few percentiles in a lot of things.
This has often served to my advantage.
Straight out of university, I was stuck at a lowly job, but I decided to work on developing skills in some areas that I was weak at.
While I had studied humanities and economics at university, I started programming and developed a deeper knowledge of IT.
While, I am not the world’s greatest economist, or the most efficient project manager, and my programming skills are quite mediocre, the ability to combine these skills, as well as some others (semantics and data models anyone?), has allowed me to form my own niche.
In that niche, I am world-class.
This has helped me to basically create my own position and at one point to get a job which instantaneously quadrupled my salary.
The expert generalist is your path to the top
While yes being a world-class specialist can get you a lot of recognition, it also requires a lot of hard work and lots of time.
For most people, this route is already out of bounds.
However, by stacking your skills and becoming a Renaissance Man, you can have an advantage over your peers.
The way to get there is to determine what skills you already have that are above average, and figure out which skills you still need to complete the package.
Once you have picked the skills that you want to work on, you should come up with a plan of self-improvement. The great thing is that it doesn’t take that much effort to become above average in any one discipline.
Sure, you will never become world-class in any specialization, but by stacking the different skills that you have, you can create your own discipline.
There, you will be world-class… automatically!
This story was originally published on “Medium” here.