Your Weird Skillset is Your Best Asset

Let’s talk about unconventional career paths and how they can create magic!

Weird Skillset Thumb

If you haven’t taken a conventional career path you might feel frustrated from time to time. Are things really coming together? Are all these things I have learned actually useful? Am I a jack of all trades and master of none?

Such feelings can be particularly intense in social situations, around people with ‘normal’ jobs and those who are conventionally ‘successful’. They appear to take an interest in your funky project; but you feel they are just being polite. I personally dread the question ‘What do you do?’ It makes me shudder!

Though it’s still there, the social anxiety is less acute these days. Over the years I have come to realise that skills and experiences that seem varied, disparate or completely unrelated can synergise to give you unique competitive advantage. This synergy emerges over time and it is difficult to feel it happening. But it definitely happens, in the background, and can put you in a powerful position career-wise.

You might have watched Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement address. If not, look it up on YouTube. In the video, Jobs talks about his career and how he got his business started. One part in particular resonated with me.

Apple pioneered a unique and beautiful typography in its early systems. It’s one of the features that contributed to a long tradition of elegant design. The typeface created a point of differentiation between Apple and its competitors (until they copied it!)

Jobs is such an interesting character. I was fascinated to find out he took a caligraphy class in College, which is why he integrated the new lettering into Apple’s systems. Without the class, the typeface might not have been conceived, and Apple may never have carved out its market niche for premium products – who knows?

Why on earth was Jobs, a computer programmer, in a calligraphy class? It turns out Jobs got bored of his college programme and withdrew, but not entirely; he remained on campus and picked and chose the classes the interested him, following his instincts, interests and passions.

His aim was self-actualisation rather than anything more practical, so it is funny to think that he eventually helped Apple become the world’s most valuable company. He went about developing an unconventional and varied skillset, a weird skillset … that turned out to be his greatest asset.

Coming back to my humble career, I can say that things certainly got easier once I started the YouTube channel – it creates interest in the company, some enquiries about projects, and provides a very modest income stream. It’s now at the centre of the company’s long-term strategy. But, not everybody can be successful on YouTube (I myself have achieved very minor success); it requires a unique set of skills.

In the feedback I receive on the channel, people say that I speak clearly and that they can understand. I learned how to speak slowly and clearly, and in a manner that people from other countries can understand, through teaching in a high school in northern Japan for two years. In the context of the YouTube videos, it is something that makes the channel distinctive, at least to some extent.

I could not have started the channel if I had not learned VBA programming on the MSc I undertook after returning from Japan. Programming requires attention to detail; I was able to foster real precision in my thinking through studying Japanese for four years when I was resident there.

It’s funny that by teaching English and learning Japanese in Japan I was actually crafting a skillset that would allow me to run a YouTube channel about computer programming years later! It’s impossible to tell how your apparently disparate skills will synergise, and how your unique skillset will interact with the demands of the economy (who would have predicted a business model like YouTube 20 years ago?)

I like to think that somewhere deep in our subconscious we are guided by a force that sees how everything might fit together in the future. This is why, in my view, it’s a good idea to put the conventional career on the back burner, periodically and if circumstances permit, to pursue a hobby, interest or passion that you love, if only as a side project. Things might make sense later on – and you might end up with your dream job, or make a massive contribution to society with something unique (or both!)

Coming back from Japan I felt a little bit lost career-wise. I distinctly remember a couple of social situations where my insecurities were definitely exposed and I responded defensively to people about not wanting to do something conventional. I do regret this. I could not feel everything coming together; but, in the background it was, it’s just the circumstances were not right for it to bear fruit – but it did eventually and I am extremely grateful for it. A weird skillset turned out to be the best asset.

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