Systems and Talent Stacks: The Two Biggest Tools to Career Success

It’s sort of wild to think that I’ve been in the full time workforce for more than eight years now. Feels like just yesterday when a doe-eyed David walked into a corporate facility for the first time not knowing what to expect, how to behave, or even necessarily how to dress. The jobs I’d held up to this point were things like working at Steak n Shake where my manager explicitly dismissed me at the end of my shift, so when I sheepishly entered my intern supervisor’s office a full hour after I was expected to leave and asked if I could go, he was sort of baffled then laughed and shared that I didn’t need to ask permission to go home.

Because my first formal role was actually a contracted position, I wasn’t given many opportunities for guided professional development. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still super grateful for that contracted role, but considering I’m the same stupid intern that asked permission to go home, can you imagine how I’ve stumbled through my professional development journey over time? I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and it truly doesn’t feel like until maybe the last two years that I really started to firm up how to make better decisions for my career journey.

So I’ve already given away the two biggest tools I leverage right in the title of this post, but first, I must give credit where credit is due. I learned these ideas from author Scott Adams in his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big probably about four years ago, and they’ve been pretty revolutionary for my career path. I’ll share generally how they’ve helped me, and if you’d like to know more, I’d encourage picking that book up.

Alright, so let’s talk about systems. Namely, how systems contrast with goals. The idea of building a system is working toward doing / learning something productive that doesn’t necessarily paint itself into a corner. It’s entirely possible to work toward a goal and build no underlying system along the way. Of course, crossing the finish line of a goal with nothing really to show for it isn’t worth much at all.

Like I said, I’ve done things wrong before, so I can give a very clear example of a big goal I accomplished that basically did nothing for me: getting my Master’s degree in organizational leadership. Just like most young students these days, I was given the general direction that more education is good, so my goal was to get a Master’s degree in a business field. But the problem is that this goal left me empty at the finish line. The degree program that I took had a very abstract curriculum chalked full of a ton of rehashed soft skills that even though I walked out with a 4.0 GPA, I felt I got nothing from the program. (Other than a disdain for APA formatting.)

Contrast that with a system I later sought to build: growing in a data science skill set. I could have painted myself into a corner again be setting a goal as “become a data scientist in my current company,” but I think that would have closed me off from learning about things that would later become very practical. And of course along the way, my company would go on to create an entirely new role — machine learning engineer — that I have now stepped into with my data science / machine learning system of learning. Truth be told, I think I like this role even better than the data scientist role!

That’s just one example of many where building systems over goals has been much more fruitful for my career thus far. For brevity’s sake, let’s move onto the next idea learned from Mr. Adam’s: talent stacking.

Let me put it to you this way. What is the probability that you will become the next Michael Jordan of your niche field? The most honest answer is probably zero. Some people tend to be more naturally gifted than others at certain things.

But fret not, friend! This doesn’t at all mean it’s impossible to find success. It’s not a bad idea at all to cultivate a skill, but just like investing your stocks, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Talent stacking is very much like having a well diversified portfolio. By learning multiple skills and knowing how to use them well together, you can be far more effective than if you were to only focus on a single skill.

Again, learn from your old friend Dave here. (But please don’t call me Dave.) I spent the first five years of my career only pursuing strictly leadership-oriented skills. And guess who doesn’t really care about a 25 year old with a lot of leadership-oriented skills? Most of the corporate world! So with this new notion of talent stacking, I started to develop wholly new skills that paired well together to form what I think is a really strong stack. I already shared that I learned data science and machine learning, but I’ve also since learned graphic design with Adobe Illustrator / Affinity Designer, blogging (clearly), cloud-based development, data visualization, and more.

In my opinion, the graphic design piece alone is probably one of the strongest parts of my talent stack. Why? It’s because I know how to visually tell a story better than most people I know in the business world. I actually haven’t had to give any major presentation in my role as a machine learning engineer yet, but I’m sure that my data science / graphic design talent stack could create a very powerful presentation.

Okay, okay, my head is getting too big now. Of course, I’m still relatively early in my career, and I undoubtedly have a lot to learn yet. Heck, I learn something from my peers probably every single day. But I hope these general ideas here help you to re-frame things in such a way that you can take better charge of your professional development journey. They’ve helped me out a ton, and I’m sure they can do the same for you!