Talent stacking and why you should do it

Ever heard the following phrase?

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

And you may have heard another quote as well, one that you need to spend 10,000 hours practising something to become an expert in that field – which is absolute rubbish, the real answer is perhaps a thousand, and to be simply competent the period of time is more like 20 hours.

The inference of course is that to be REALLY good at one thing, you need to focus on it. Exclusively and obsessively.

Two implications of this:

1) If you aren’t focussing on a single skill, you aren’t fulfilling your full potential, and;

2) If you aren’t the kind of person that can only have one interest in life, you can’t succeed.

These points might reflect a fear of yours, a fear that you’re not doing as well as you feel you should be in your field. Should you be trying harder? Aim higher? Focus more?

I’m going to explain why we should focus instead on building a talent stack.

The talent stack concept, by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, is that by having a stack of different, but typically complementary talents, you can enjoy success in your chosen field. Scott declares that he is “not a great artist…never taken a traditional class in writing…not the funniest person in [his] social circle, and [is] not a great business mind”.  But because he is good enough at each of these talents, he successfully combined them and become a massively successful cartoonist.

Do something for me – take a moment to imagine your own talent stack as a pile of books, on top of one another, the spine of each book titled with each skill or interest you have. Doesn’t it feel better than if you just had one really thick book on just one topic?

Any major modern construction project has many tens, if not hundreds, of different people working on it. Architects, engineers, contractors, buyers, quantity surveyors, experts in fields such as BIM, waste management, 3D scanning, drone operators, and, after all those other key roles, even project managers.

And hypothetically if you were selecting someone from a stack of CVs for a role – say, a quantity surveyor – I would say that you would look for the one with a depth of experience being a quantity surveyor in the type of project you are delivering. Rationally, it would be hard to justify picking someone who had hopped from sector to sector.  Your choice might even work out.

But my argument is that by understanding each others roles, even by just spending a few hours immersing yourself and trying to undertake those roles, you can hugely improve your own effectiveness. Because the reality is that none of us are solely responsible for construction.

To strengthen my argument, I’m going to use a persuasive hook (I’m a project manager, that’s what I do) by digging out a historical quote.  As an aside, it makes no difference if I openly tell you that I’m persuading you, or if I keep silent – it still works.

“The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test.”

The above quotation is from a 1914 translation of “The Ten Books on Architecture” by Vitruvius, written in the 1st Century BC, a Roman author, architect, civil engineer, and military engineer. (according to Wikipedia, anyway).  This is the first statement Vitruvius makes in the first chapter, and he goes on to talk about how the architect should understand topics such as geometry, history, theatre, law, philosophy, music, lighting, medicine, and astronomy. Plus they need to work a mean pencil.

This sounds like a talent stack to me.

Each and every one of us has been in an argument. And the person on the other side of the argument is not always wrong, but their view is simply incompatible with our own. Example: I want to eat the last slice of cake, and they don’t want me to.

Breaking it down with an experience we all share… rubbish  bins. We all have them at home, and  they’re annoying. I would happily bet that sometime over the last week, in one way or another, you’ve been annoyed by a full bin.

At home, I have 3 recyclable bins, and 1 non-recyclable bin, emptied every 2 weeks.  I used to have 2 non-recyclable bins, until one was taken away in an effort to increase recycling. This is a logical attempt to nudge people into a more positive behaviour.

But for me, as I already recycle everything I can, I end up having a number of bags of non-recyclable waste that I can’t fit into my bin. So I have to drive to the local tip to get rid of the waste there instead, burning petrol. So the attempt to nudge me into better behaviour to protect the environment actually resulted in a worse environmental impact than if I had kept my bins.

I believe that 99.9% of us in construction are doing their best to do a good job, whatever their job is, but because we don’t understand how we impact on each other as well as we could, we end up creating problems. But if we consciously increase our talent stacks, by learning just a little bit about other disciplines, we can change this. And the worst case is that you’ve still increased your knowledge. That’s still a win.

A step we can all take is to take part in G4C.  By taking part in G4C, meeting and talking with others in construction, we can ask questions, understand other peoples points of view, be happier, and do a better job.

Thanks for reading.

Mike is Assistant Principal Project Manager at East Riding of Yorkshire Council. When not delivering construction projects as varied as caravan parks, blocks of flats, and offices, he enjoys all aspects of social media, computing, practising magic tricks, and attempting to remember a few words of Polish.


Talent Stacking – http://blog.dilbert.com/2016/12/27/the-kristina-talent-stack/

Wikipedia Article on Vitruvius – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvius

Translation of the Ten Books on Architecture – http://academics.triton.edu/faculty/fheitzman/Vitruvius__the_Ten_Books_on_Architecture.pdf

“How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” by Scott Adams

“Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter” by Scott Adams