I’ll start with few examples from cricket, a popular sport in South Asia and few other countries, to drive home what is meant by intersection of skills.
Every Indian cricket captain wants Hardik Pandya in his team. Why?
He brings to the table more than one skill at a significantly high level – he can bowl decent pace and he can bat, especially explosively if the situation so demands. It’s so hard to get into the Indian cricket team and it’s even harder to cement your place, but there are hardly any replacements for Hardik Pandya. He possesses two key skills – bat explosively and bowl. There are lots of players who can bat as explosively as him and there are lots of players who can bowl better than him. But the moment you combine the two skills, there are hardly any.
Intersection of skills can be shown diagrammatically through a Venn diagram as shown in the featured image above.
Do you see how small the common area (in green) is? That’s the number of people possessing both the skills. There are plenty with either of the two, but few with both.
Possessing more than one valued skill is what is intersection of skills. ‘Valued’ is the key word. If Hardik Pandya is a good cook, it wouldn’t matter in his selection to the Indian cricket team. Would it?
Continuing example from Indian cricket, M S Dhoni, the former captain, is valued for three key skills – wicket keeping, batting at the fag end to finish the innings, and tactical inputs to bowlers on where to bowl and inputs to the captain on match strategy. He indeed is multi-skilled. Now, in the last year or so he was struggling with his batting in international matches. His strike rate went on a downslide. His finishing touch lost some of its sheen. No wonder, tongues started wagging. He was under serious pressure and his position in the team wasn’t as secure as it once was.
We’ll never know what transpired behind the curtains when selection committee met on multiple occasions to select the team, but popular belief is that his wicket keeping and role as master tactician prolonged his stay in the team.
Imagine, if he was only a finisher with the bat. He would have been chucked out on merits long time back like many have been. But his other skills made him indispensable. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll never be dropped. What it means is his place will be more secure than players who possess one valued skill.
You look around and you’ll find plenty more examples in cricket and other sports. Think of how many times cricketers edge out others on the strength of their fielding skill or part-time bowling. If you’re single-skilled in sports, make sure that you’re really, really good at it. World class.
To give few examples again from the Indian cricket team, look at how many single-skill players have figured consistently in the team over the last 3-4 years across the three formats of the game. Virat Kohli. Jaspreet Bumrah. Maybe one or two more. (Even Rohit Sharma is not a certainty in Test format.)
What’s the lesson?
I’ll put it in words of Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. He advises to become very good (top 25%) at two or more things to pull off something extraordinary in career or life.
To quote him from the book Tools of Titans:
He is able to draw better than most and is funnier than most, an intersection that makes his work rare. And ‘capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable’. (Being at the intersection of few skills can make you rarer than you can imagine. Top 25% in a skill may translate to a crowd of 200,000. Top 25% in another skill may translate to another crowd of 100,000. But the intersection of the two may make you a member of an exclusive club of just 50. Add another skill, and you may be the only person standing with those three skills. Yes, only 50 and only 1! It easily gets that rarer.)
So, look for 2-3 valuable skills and become better than most (top 25%) in them. Scott recommends communication skill as one of the skills to possess, and I completely agree. It’s a skill that will always be in favor, even beyond your career.
This is Hardik Pandya and M S Dhoni route to pulling off something extraordinary. Now, the two guys are in a much more exclusive company than 25% in each of their skills, but then they’re competing at the highest, highest level. Most of us aren’t.
The other route is being the best in one skill – Virat Kohli and Jaspreet Bumrah route. But, as we saw earlier, that’s riskier route.
Examples of intersection of skills from other fields
1. TV journalists who are good at networking
TV journalists with good networking skills (second skill) can get big-shot politicians and celebrity guests on their shows. That’s intersection of skills.
2. TV journalists who possess digital skills and can write well
TV journalists who can write compelling content that drives traffic to their organization’s website and who possess digital skills can contribute to their organization’s digital properties, which have become an important cog in any media house’s wheel. That’s intersection of skills.
3. Employees who can write well in English
I was part of the interviewing team who wanted to hire a guy at any cost because of his impeccable technical knowhow, but we had to let him go because he couldn’t write well in English, another key requirement. If he possessed better writing skills, he would have sailed through despite a competitive applicant pool.
In the context of countries where English is not the first language for most people and where English is the common transactional language (India falls in this category), anyone possessing good writing skills will have a strong additional skill in private sector and an absolutely indispensable skill in the government.
4. Politicians who are good administrators and are articulate
Many politicians are good at winning elections and many are good administrators. A politician who can win elections and who is also a good administrator is indispensable for any political party. And, on top of this, if the person is articulate enough to represent government and his party at different forums, s/he may be the only person of her/ his kind.
5. Teachers who can engage the class
There may be lots of teachers with mastery in, say, Economics, but there will be few who can turn a dry subject into an engaging one. Teachers who can make engaging presentations in their class too will fall in the small band of multi-skilled teachers.
6. People who are also good at troubleshooting
I’ve seen people becoming indispensable because of their troubleshooting and crisis-handling abilities.
‘Isn’t it hard to gain multiple skills?’
Nothing comes easy, but it is not as hard as you think.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The arena you’re operating in is unlikely to be as competitive as international sports. So, it is definitely easier than what international sportspersons toil for multiple skills and even there multiple skills aren’t a rarity.
You need to identify one or two additional valuable skills (nothing like it if you’ve natural inclination toward them) and learn it by doing it. It goes without saying that you need to work extra hours beyond your regular professional hours if you want to ace another skill.
However, what most do?
Most people carry on with the minimum level of skill that enables them to perform their job well. They don’t plan for future. They don’t create the safety net of an additional skill. They don’t make the effort to become indispensable. And when something terrible like loss of job in down times happens, they blame everybody else and not themselves.
No pain, no gain.
Unless you’re really, really good in your core skill, it’s tough to stand out and achieve outsized success or become indispensable. A somewhat easier way to stand out is by being at the intersection of more than one valuable skill.
Imran Amed, Founder and CEO of The Business of Fashion and one of the most influential voices in fashion industry, found his intersection: “I was never the smartest kid in school. And I wasn’t the most creative. It took me a long time to figure out that my potential value wasn’t in choosing between one or the other – it was in the combination of both.”