“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood.” –Terence McKenna
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We’re living in a time period where it’s never been easier to become a polymath. But in practicality, there are many cultural and social hurdles to this achievement. The idea of becoming an expert at many things seems daunting to many people, so they never begin. As time elapses, it’s easy to fall prey to many fallacies that prevent us from ever exploring our own ambitions. This is foolish because the earliest time we have to begin anything is in the present moment. Personally, I believe that there is always a hidden path waiting for us to begin, no matter what age or life circumstance we’re at. This hidden path always stands ready and waiting, and it’s our own failure of imagination that prevents us from starting on our own unique path of perfection.
So why is it so difficult to become a polymath or monopoly of one today? First, if we aren’t careful about our relationships and assert our intentions or large ambitions publicly, we’ll likely meet warnings to “slow down” or “just focus on one thing first.” This can sometimes be prudent advice. But oftentimes the people who voice their concerns about ambition have bought into the lie that we must dream small so we’re never disappointed. Those who wish to be mission-driven must never be afraid to keep dreaming big after every setback they face. In many cases, it’s actually better to ratchet up your ambitions after you survive a challenging ordeal, since now, you have more experience and information!
The secret that all polymaths know is that it becomes easier to learn when we increase our workload. When we have many things going at once, we can cycle through projects appropriately. In order to tap into the full power of our brains, it helps to have the right amount of projects (sometimes dozens) going at once. We can start slowly, but by moving in and out of overwhelm, we’ll be able to increase our mental capacities to handle it all.
There have never been more low-cost learning resources available to speed up our learning. Just consider the humble podcast, for instance. This is something many take for granted, yet the technology behind it is extraordinary. On any given day, online or directly on our phones, we can listen to the best teachers in the world from any given industry or field of study. This morning, I listened to an interview with a technology entrepreneur that I follow. She has created immense value in the world and radiates contentment and joy. I was able to pick up much of her wisdom and many of her insights at almost no cost. She wasn’t just answering questions; she was distilling wisdom that’s potentially life-changing if it’s applied. We might not be able to personally hire someone like that for coaching, but we can listen for next to nothing thanks to a podcast. Podcasts are an incredibly undervalued way to receive digital mentorship from the best in the world. For those who have the faith, willpower, and patience to teach themselves, the time to learn how to learn is now.
The standout men and women of history have all been self-taught, skill layering, life-long learners. Consider Leonardo DaVinci, Lucius Seneca, Ben Franklin, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Holmes, and Elon Musk. Many of these people started far behind where we are in terms of resources, familial love, and technology that we now have access to.
Each of these monopolies of one suffered through adversities and were able to prosper without all the advantages we have in front of us today. They managed to become self-taught masters of many skills. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in right now, others have triumphed over worse.
But how did these guys and gals do it? The simple answer, which we covered earlier and that most ignore (even after hundreds of years of it being repeated!), is that they learned how to learn through doing and taking massive action. They read, they wrote, they experimented, and they sought to be around others who were doing the same. They came up with ideas and then figured out how to begin pursuing them with the limited resources they (initially) possessed. They started small projects, they tinkered on and allowed their creativity to guide them from one project to the next. They didn’t look for their passions; they looked where it was easiest for them to invest huge amounts of effort and willpower.
To get started on this path, it can be helpful to begin rotating through many small projects in a strategic fashion. We can see for ourselves where we work the hardest and where we are the happiest. When it makes sense, we’ll know when to double down and go all in on a singular pursuit. Along the way, we shouldn’t judge ourselves for leaving projects unfinished. Learning to quit and leave some things undone is a healthy skill. We’re free to allow this learning and skill layering to ebb and flow based on our interests.
One of my favorite cartoon strips of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. The creator of the cartoon strip, Bill Watterson, rarely gave interviews. During one of those rare interviews, he was asked about creativity, productivity, and recharging. Watterson said,
“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery — it recharges by running.”
This phrase can feel overwhelming until we stumble over the power of it for ourselves. When we find work or a pursuit that is making the world a better place, serving others, or spreading meaning… ten-hour days of work can feel short! Or, if we don’t have that luxury right now, we can explore recharging by coming home from our job and immediately switching over to a creative pursuit. The body and mind will revolt at first, but if we keep going, we’ll soon find a blissful, mission-driven state of rejuvenation.
One of the last hurdles to beginning to learn is that some people think we have to become world class at something before it gets interesting. They severely overestimate how long it takes to become skilled enough before new skills will provide us with meaning.
This hurdle is unfortunate because there are many things we can become “expert enough” at within only a few months. Expert enough means that we learn enough that we can begin to create valuable work that makes us feel mission-driven.
The process of skill acquisition on the road to mastery has been discussed extensively by several authors and researchers. These notable authors include Malcolm Gladwell, Timothy Ferriss, and Robert Greene.
Gladwell says it takes around 10 years to become world class. Greene takes a more strategic, Machiavellian-meets-Aristotelian view and says 10–20 years. But Ferriss comes in with the exciting reality that if we use the right stakes and incentives, we can become expert enough in a few months.
Mastery: top .01% of a field — takes 20 years
Budding Master: top 1% of a field — takes 10 years (outliers)
World Class: top 3% in a field — takes 5 years
Expert: top 5% in a field — takes 1–3 years
Expert Enough: top 10% in a field — takes 3 months to 1 year
More authors and researchers are beginning to emerge showcasing that “expert enough” can be accessible after only a few months of highly concentrated effort, stakes, and incentives. In his excellent book SmartCuts, author Shane Snow advocates studying the outliers or “fat tail” top performers in order to uncover the most sustainable paths that are both short and smart. Our culture has likely left us with warning alarms going off in our heads at encountering advice like this. Shortcuts? Taking the easy route? If our intentions are in the right place, and we’re seeking our mission, why wouldn’t we take every smart cut possible? From the Presidents of the United States, to CEOs of world-changing companies, it’s often the youngest and least experienced person that doesn’t know the “way things are done” who figures out the way things SHOULD be done, and then does them.
We’re also prone to underestimating the small victories that we’ll unlock along the way towards “expert enough.” Those small victories will compound. Compounding is, as Ben Franklin said, the eighth wonder of the world. Humans have a hard time imagining the sheer joy and meaning of their skills compounding, so they never begin.
At the expert enough level, there are plenty of ways for us to be compensated for our newfound skill or service. Also, consider how we can make the math part of the mastery equation work in our favor. To become the top .01% in a given field, it may take 20 years. But we can become the top .01% in a brand new field we create that combines several skills together. This is why becoming a monopoly of one doesn’t take nearly as long as traditional mastery in old, tired fields. Our mission lies in boldly exploring new combinations of skills for greater service.
Think about the person who chooses a few skills which are in high demand. They become expert enough at them, reap the rewards, and then repeat the process again and again. They might be one to three years into their learning, but they are not competing on the same playing field as the person who has focused on one thing, sunk in eight years of agonizing investment, and is wondering why he’s gone nowhere.
The Premiere 21st Century Mindset, Goal, and Path
Some people hate the word “goal.” I agree that sometimes the definition can be murky. If we only focus and work towards one goal, we can find ourselves in a perpetual state of discontent. We tend to grow frustrated because we haven’t achieved it yet, then once we do, we become bewildered when the initial euphoria of victory passes. This is why a diversified set of goals, interests, and massive future projects are so important. With a basket of smaller goals, we can break each down until they are a series of little steps, with little victories, in order to consistently achieve the euphoria of “winning.” Once we begin spreading and breaking down our goals into manageable chunks, we can then pick out hyper-specific skills to begin learning. There are many small skills we can teach ourselves on the way to achieving broad and overarching goals. By starting with a massive goal, skill set, or pursuit, we can then get busy breaking it down into small, localized “goals” that we can begin learning. From there, we can learn the next skill, and then the next, until we gradually check off all the small goals necessary to achieve our big goals. On a path of learning like this, we’ll eventually find ourselves with an immensely valuable and unique set of skills. We’ll likely be at a place where competition is scarce. If we keep up the practice long enough, we’ll find ourselves as a monopoly of one.
“…Every business [or for our purposes, individual] is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.” –Peter Thiel
“I’m not trying to find nobody else to beat.” –Drake
In this strategy and actions section, we’ll cover more examples of skill layering to become a monopoly of one.
If we want to become a world class designer, we might first practice sketching user experiences, learn Sketch and Photoshop, take on client work, and then build our own UX for our own apps. As we learn each skill and offer it to clients or the market, we’ll discover where the biggest margin lies: wherever there is an inefficiency in the market.
If we want to become a world class speaker, we could start offering gigs on Fiverr, Upwork, or ACX for voiceover work or narration. We could then find some speaking gigs by starting for free, and then begin to take free work with the condition that it’s recorded. After that, we can start charging a fee while sending out our recorded proof of work, or even take a sales job that forces us to speak articulately at length.
Examples of a Skill Layering Path in a High Demand Field
1. Learn the Apple iOS Swift programming language.
All we need to know about Swift is that its way easier to learn than its predecessor, Objective C — it’s a great time to get in! Apple will be the first trillion dollar company, so it might be a good idea to learn the languages they’re building.
Existing Swift developers have said the language is a huge simplification which creates an amazing entry point for anyone who wants to get started in the industry. If we learn Swift, we immediately have a skill people will offer us money for. At this point, we know we’re literally helping make the United States economy more efficient. We can even get started with a free book Apple has published detailing the Swift language. There are also online classes focused on Swift available via Thinkful and Udemy.
From this point, we could learn Sketch or Photoshop in order to do a little front-end work (if we are design inclined), or we could begin learning more about back-end work and APIs. This is just my non-technical explanation and brief skill layering overview, but you get the idea.
2. The next skills to layer onto the existing competency of Swift would be perfecting your app’s look and feel in the storyboard and becoming an auto layout guru.
4. Next, we can learn Amazon Web Services to become completely deadly and either start our own business or work to build apps for others. But at this point, there is a much better chance that we’ve received offers we can’t refuse and are being paid $150,000-$250,000 a year at a Silicon Valley technology company (and having breakfast, lunch, dinner and childcare paid for while we work).
5. Want to layer more skills? We can keep going and learn how to efficiently convert the iOS apps we build to Android via a tool like AppFolio. Now, we’ve moved even further toward creating a monopoly of ourselves.
6. From there, we go deeper into learning the existing skills we have. By this point, we’ll have found several niches with great margin and unique opportunity. Maybe we see an opportunity to layer on skills that involve learning sensors, HUDs, and wearable technology; the opportunities are endless.
The exercise below is to search for existing opportunities to start layering skills. Start below by writing down a skill people will pay for, then practice writing out skill layering progressions. How will we progress so that with each step, the air becomes more rarified, and we compete less and less?
We can even get technical and look up specific skills to estimate how many other people are proficient with them, and then study future projections and demand for them.
Some additional questions we can ask ourselves when going through this exercise:
Is there a combination of skills we possess that no one else in the world has? Where have we already devoted 10,000 of our hours (intentionally or unintentionally)? Oftentimes, the answers we need about our own unique talents have been staring us in the face for years.
From this point, what brand new recipes of skill layering could we create?
If we’ve become proficient at teaching a specific type of class or skill, how can that directly translate into another sector? Is there a simple skill in this new sector that we could layer onto our existing training to reduce competition even more?
Now, let’s start looking extensively at places where we have an unfair advantage of practice. Maybe we are amazing parents, communicators, artisans, or great listeners. Or, maybe we have an analytical, left brain mind, with an obsessive attention to detail. Maybe we’ve worked and built things with our hands and are fascinated by building and machining.
Below, try the sample skill layering practice again by starting with where we already have invested time or have expertise. Feel free to continue to go through this practice. When our minds continually think in terms of finding less competition, our service to ourselves, those we love, and all of humanity continues to increase.
To learn more about skill layering, listen to: