career moats at the intersection of skills

Published on April 21, 2020

There are a few different ways you can think about building competitive advantages in the context of careers.

One of the most common pieces of advice I have heard is to become the best in the world at something specific, and use that to build your brand. This advice resonated with me so much that, last year, I tried to corner the intellectual market on Income Share Agreements, and positioned myself as an expert in the field.

This advice is not bad, but looking back I feel as if it is not an optimal path for most people. Becoming the best -- or even one of the best -- at someone specific is really difficult. In my case, I pursued a really novel field in its infancy, and still, to this day, there are people who are significantly more knowledgeable on ISAs than I.

Indeed, people still come to me to talk about ISAs, but my knowledge is not enough to set me apart from the other experts out there. That’s because there are now more people pursuing ISAs full-time, and thinking about them in contexts that do not interest me right now.

Becoming the best in the world at something is really difficult. The common advice given with “become the best in the world at something” is to “redefine what you do until you are the best.” While this advice also makes sense -- and is to an extent what I tried to do last year -- it is still not broadly applicable.

Some people will never become the best in the world at something. In fact, most people may not even aspire to do it. Does that mean they can’t build a career moat?

I think a more viable way to build a career moat is to look at the intersection of multiple different skills or fields, and become good at combining topics from those disciplines.

My job right now -- although my title does not exactly reflect this -- is to be a technical writer. This involves knowledge of two fields: writing and coding. For somebody to be a good technical writer, they need to both know how to code well, and know how to write.

In order for someone to replace me, they need to be good at both writing and coding, which is a rare combination of skills. There are many great software developers and coders out there, and many great writers as well. But not a lot of people specialize in the intersection of these two fields. Therein lies an advantage.

I think, for most people, the best way to build a career moat is to become great at two different fields (or perhaps even more). For me, I am a good programmer and a good writer, which has allowed me to position myself well as a technical writer. If I was challenged to do an interview at Google, I may not succeed based on my coding skills, but if the person who challenged me was asked to do my work, they would likely fall short.

Combining two or more skills is a viable path because there is less competition. When a new and novel idea comes out -- like Bitcoin, or ISAs -- there will always be an influx of people who come and explore it. Some may even try to make it their career moat, and some will succeed.

But when you are combining different skills, there is usually less competition. Tim Urban of Wait But Why, for example, has combined his literary and cartoon skills to build an excellent publication. Perhaps without his cartoon skills he would never have attained the level of success that he did.

What is interesting about this way of thinking is that it is so simple. You don’t need to corner the market on any field, nor develop some elaborate set of skills. You just need to be really good at a select few things, and find the intersection between them.

These ideas also apply to soft skills, too. If you are great at written communication and you are also good at Linux system administration, then you may have a career moat on your hands. How many sysadmins have this combination of skills? And, even though many may have these skills, how many have thought to combine them to create an advantage?

Being very good at two or more different things is just as defensible -- if not more defensible -- than becoming the best in the world at something.

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