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Generalists are usually more successful—but only if they do this

Stacking skills in unusual ways can allow you to stand out more than any specialist.

Generalists are usually more successful—but only if they do this
[Source image: eugenesergeev/iStock]

Your mom may have told you that you can be anything you want to be, but being the greatest of all time is unlikely. The good news is that GOATs are overrated—at least when it comes to overall career success. While it’s good to excel in a skill, the better way to move ahead is by stacking them, says Tomas Pueyo, vice president of growth at the education technology website Course Hero.

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“Generalists have an edge,” says Pueyo. “It’s not about being great at any one thing; you just need to be pretty good at an array of useful skills that, when combined, make you truly one-of-a-kind, where the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. ”

Pueyo says his skill stack of storytelling, psychology, and public speaking helped him land a TEDx Talk. He gathered his skills organically. His father, who worked in advertising, taught him about storytelling. A job he had designing online products gave him insights about psychology as well as how things are made. To get over a fear of speaking, he attended Toastmasters training.

“Those three skills are not normally combined,” says Pueyo. “I’m one of a bunch of people in the world with enough knowledge about storytelling, design, and psychology to make a connection between all three. But of those people, only a few have an engineering mindset to deconstruct the problem. And of the very few who can do that, only a tiny fraction are good enough at public speaking to convert the theories into a TEDx Talk.”

Examples of good skill-stackers

In his famous commencement speech, Steve Jobs talked about connecting the dots looking backward. His interest in fonts, packaging, and design became an important part of Apple’s success.

“[Jobs] was never the best in the world at design, but over time, he developed a keen understanding of winning design principles,” says Pueyo. “He later combined his various design skills with deep insight about what people want, tech knowledge, a strategic mind, salesmanship, an ability to extract everything from his employees, and entrepreneurial skills.”

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Ukrainian pastry chef Dinara Kasko is another good example. She brings her background of architecture to baking, creating desserts that look like buildings. “She combined the two skills plus her skill in social media to become super famous and successful,” says Pueyo. “Her cakes are beautiful and completely new due to a combination of skills.”

Building your own stack

Building your skill stack requires following your passion, and it can help you move up the corporate ladder, says Pueyo. “If you want to be unique at broad level, you need to combine skills that nobody else has combined before,” he says. “Following your passions is super important because most people don’t have passions around just one topic. The combination is what makes you unique.”

The goal is to reach a high proficiency in each skill. Also, the skills should complement each other without being too similar. One skill you must have, however, is communication so you can share your unique skill set. This could be public speaking, social media, writing, or video.

“If you have passions, pursue them even if they are disparate,” says Pueyo. “You don’t have to become an expert—you just need to be good at them. Then you can combine them to create something that is unique nobody else can do.”

Don’t confuse skill stacking with being a jack-of-all-trades, says Pueyo. “The terms are different,” he says. “A polymath, Renaissance person or a jack-of-all-trades is average at a bunch of things. That’s not enough. This isn’t just being good at something. You want to become great, but you don’t need to be the best. It’s better to use your time to develop other skills.”

In a global economy, skill stacking is more important than before. “Fifty years ago you just needed to be the best in town to be successful,” says Pueyo. “Competing with 100,000 people might be hard, but it was doable. Today you’re competing with seven billion people. You’ll never be the best; the only way to stand out is to create your unique combination.”

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