Every 4 years, the world’s youth gather in one city while everybody else watches on as they demonstrate the limits of human physiology. I’m referring, of course, to the Summer Olympics. Unlike the Winter Olympics, which is dominated by rich white kids whose parents bankrolled their expensive hobbies as they grew up, the Summer Olympics is a showcase of raw physical talent.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the signature event: the 100 meter dash. The winner gets the unofficial title “fastest man/woman in the world” for 4 years. Most of the events in the Summer Olympics are centered on one specialized activity that can generally be described in one verb. Running, jumping, swimming, cycling, throwing, lifting, etc.
And while the fastest man in the world might represent the absolute peak of human speed, we don’t really care too much about him. Maybe a quarter of you can recall his name without looking it up (Usain Bolt), but how many of you can name the second fastest man in the world?
LeBron James is currently the best basketball player in the world. The second best is probably Kevin Durant. After that, you’ve got a handful of players who could realistically claim third best (Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, etc). But the crucial difference between the fastest men in the world and the best basketball players in the world is that the people in the latter group all get paid about the same.
All the basketball players I just named would easily land a “max deal” in the NBA in unrestricted free agency, which means 100 to 130 million dollars guaranteed over 4 to 5 years. Usain Bolt makes 20 million dollars a year, but the next fastest guy (Yohan Blake) doesn’t even crack 1 million.
Basketball is a much more complicated activity than running. If you’re playing basketball, not only are you running, you’re also going to dribble/pass/shoot a ball, trying to disrupt other people from doing the same, and keeping track of the hundreds of rules and regulations that govern the sport. Running in the 100 meter dash is extremely simple: run like hell once you hear a gunshot.
The people who do the best in the economy are those who have the most skills. It’s not enough to be really, really good at one thing. You have to be good at multiple things, even if you’re not the best in any one thing.
The highest paid actor in the world last year was Robert Downey Jr. He’s not the best looking man in the world. Nor is he the funniest. Nor is he the most likeable. He can’t sing. He can’t dance. He definitely can’t speak more than 1 language natively. But he’s funny enough, good looking enough, and likeable enough to be the highest paid actor in the world.
The “best” actor, if such a thing could be measured? Probably Daniel Day-Lewis. But to be the best actor, he immerses himself in the roles he’s given. It’s a long and arduous process. The result is that he does a film maybe once every 3 years. While he’s absolutely brilliant in anything he does, if we judge him by his paycheck, he doesn’t hold a candle to Downey Jr’s earning power.
The economy does not favor the master of one trade over the jack of all trades. In order to succeed in getting other people to value you (which is measured exclusively in how much money they’re willing to give to you), you have to be good at multiple things. It doesn’t matter if you can paint really well if you don’t also go out and market yourself to prospective buyers and critics. You won’t get a PR job if you can talk really well but can’t read or write.
You’ve got to be able to walk and chew bubblegum. The most successful people specialize in one area and become well rounded in all others. And it’s better to be well rounded in multiple skills than really, really good at just one skill and terrible at everything else. Be the person who can tell other people “I can write effectively and argue persuasively and read thoroughly and code software and draw art and look good doing all these things”. The more “ands” you can tack onto your professional self summary, the more valuable you are in today’s marketplace.