The Value of Competence and Mastery

One of the most interesting personal finance concepts I’ve come across is the “Renaissance ideal,” which I first learned of from the writings of Jacob Lund Fisker.


Fisker’s idea is simple: for every skill out there that people find useful, there is a level of ability of that skill where, if you’re below that level, you’ll pay someone else to do it for you, whereas if you’re above that level, someone will pay you to do it. (if you’re near that fine line, it’s usually worthwhile to just do it yourself.)

Fisker argues that you’re better off having a large set of skills that are above the level at which people will pay you to do it rather than performing at a very high level at just a few skills and having to pay others for all other skills.

What does that mean in the real world?

Let’s say you have a researcher who is one of the brightest people in the entire world at a particular research area and a few associated skills, but aside from that, this researcher struggles with everyday life. That person can barely accomplish very basic household tasks and never with any efficiency and usually just throws money at basic needs (or relies on the generosity of others).

On the other hand, you have a person who is a competent carpenter, a competent plumber, a competent chef, competent at IT, competent at household tasks, reasonably well versed on a lot of different intellectual topics, and so on.

Fisker argues that the latter person, a person with a lot of areas of competence, is far more stable in terms of their financial future, because not only will that person have significantly fewer expenses, that person can easily find employment in a variety of fields and can often combine their competencies to find a lot of high paying jobs. A person with just a few highly trained skills might be world class in those skills, but what if those skills become less valuable going forward? That person is in real trouble.

This idea is largely in line with my own life experience and observation about how people (myself included) find employment. Over the years, however, I’ve somewhat expanded and altered some of these ideas. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s dig in.

Competence and Skill

When I look at this idea, I tend to see two different lines that separate skills into three groups.

The lowest level of skill is what I might call “incompetence,” which is where you’re unable to do the task at all and usually hire someone to do it for you.

The next level of skill is “competence,” which is where you’re able to do the task well for yourself and don’t need to hire someone to do it for you.

The highest level is what we might call “mastery,” which is where you’re able to perform a skill well enough for someone to pay you to do it. This doesn’t refer to jobs that are mostly manual labor that anyone could do, but jobs that require a specific skill.

Let’s look at cooking, for example.

Someone who is incompetent at cooking subsists on prepackaged meals or meals prepared by someone else. Typically, this person either has someone in their household that cooks for them or they’re spending a lot of money on food preparation (whether it’s prepackaged meals from a factory or restaurant meals).

Someone who is competent at cooking can make their own meals and snacks out of inexpensive ingredients. This significantly reduces their food bill. However, they’re generally not skilled enough to be able to be paid to do this.

Someone who is skilled at cooking can get a job at a restaurant because they can make good meals quickly and efficiently.

You can do the same thing for almost any skill or area of knowledge. There’s a level of incompetence, where you don’t understand the topic or the skill; a level of competence, where you reasonably understand the topic and can reasonably practice the skill; and a level of mastery, where you deeply understand the topic and can practice the skill at a very high level. Typically, incompetent people have to pay others to do things, competent people do things for themselves, and masters are paid to do their thing.

If we roll back to the analogy from earlier, the researcher is a very high level master in a few specific areas, but is mostly incompetent in all other areas. As long as the researcher’s career cares about mastery of those specific areas, the researcher is fine, but the researcher is going to be carrying a lot of expense.

The “jack of all trades,” on the other hand, has relatively low level mastery of quite a few areas and competence in a ton of areas. This individual rarely has to hire anyone to do anything and is employable in a lot of situations. Rather than being paid for pure mastery of one area, this person usually makes money by combining a bunch of different lower level masteries and competencies into one package. Entrepreneurs often fall into this category, for example.

Your Areas of Competence

So, let’s translate this to your own life.

What things are you competent at? In other words, what things can you and do you easily handle for yourself that other people pay others to do?

I don’t mean that you do them well enough or efficiently enough to be employed to do it, but that you do it well enough to meet your own needs.

Are you good at making your own meals? Keeping your house clean? Doing your own laundry? What about fixing minor plumbing issues? Handling basic car maintenance? Handing minor electrical issues in your home? Can you repair some non-electronic appliances? Can you fix electronics issues in your home?

In other words, do you regularly need to buy prepackaged food or order food because you’re not up to the task of making food? Do you have a housecleaning service because you’re awful at housekeeping? Do you have a laundry service that you use? Do you call a plumber every time there’s any kind of plumbing issue? Do you take your car to the shop for every minor issue and every maintenance task? Do you call an electrician every time something isn’t quite right? Do you have an “IT guy” that you call (often a family member) whenever a device doesn’t work the way you want it to work?

It’s okay if you do these things occasionally or when things demand someone with mastery, but competence means that you handle issues like this for yourself almost all of the time.

Make a mental list of your areas of competence. What things do you do well enough for yourself that other people often pay people to do for them? You aren’t good enough (perhaps) to do it professionally, but you’re certainly good enough to fulfill your own needs almost all of the time.

Your Areas of Mastery

Mastery generally refers to areas of expertise where you have a high enough level of skill and/or knowledge that other people rely on you for help and will often pay you for your knowledge, skill, and expertise.

Most people that have a steady job that pays reasonably well have at least one area of mastery that they rely on, or else they rely on a lot of simultaneous ares of competence. Most people that run a small business, particularly a service-oriented one, have some sort of mastery that they’re drawing on, usually revolving around an ability to do something very efficiently and with good quality.

What are you good enough at that people will pay you for the service? What knowledge do you have that others will pay you for the opportunity to tap it? Those are your areas of mastery.

Obviously, there are varying degrees of mastery, and higher levels of mastery earn a higher wage. True masters can often name their own price and can often get away with few other areas of competence in their life.

Becoming Competent

The secret to becoming competent at something is to just do it as often as possible. If you want to become competent at cooking, just get yourself in the kitchen as frequently as you can. If you want to become competent at computer programming, just write code as frequently as you can. If you want to become competent at plumbing, dive into every home plumbing issue that you can, either in your own residence or running over to help out friends. If you want to become competent in a particular area of knowledge, start reading books and taking notes on that subject.

At first, you’re going to be bad at whatever task it is you’re taking on, and that’s perfectly fine. If you have a bit of natural talent, you might quickly become competent at it; if not, it’ll take some time, but almost anyone can become competent at almost anything by doing it for a while.

If you don’t know how to do something, Youtube is an incredible resource for teaching you enough of the basics to become competent at almost anything you might want to do. If you want to learn about something, Wikipedia can give you just enough to figure out what books you should read on the subject.

Competence, in my mind, means that you feel skilled enough at a particular task to simply prefer to do it for yourself most of the time rather than have someone else do it for you. Competence in an area of knowledge means you understand it well enough to explain it to others, and if it’s a concept that’s debatable, you understand both the benefits and flaws of the concept well enough to explain it to others. You can carry on a conversation about that area of knowledge with both a person that knows almost nothing as well as a person with mastery in the topic.

Here’s an example of this idea at work, in the form of four people preparing a pasta meal. The first person is competent – they can prepare a good meal for themselves. The next person is still what I would call competent, but a high level of competent – they wouldn’t quite be paid for it, but they can prepare a really good dinner at home. The last two people are at various levels of mastery. (An incompetent person in this video would call a local Italian restaurant and get takeout or else flail around without any direction in the kitchen.)

Turning Competence into Mastery

The path from beginner to competence is easy enough – just do it – but how does one go from competence in an area to a level of mastery at which people will pay you to do that particular thing?

That’s a lot harder.

For starters, in some skill levels, your level of skill has to be incredibly high to be paid just for that skill. I could practice for the next ten years and still not be good enough at basketball to get paid just to play basketball. It’s not happening in any reality. I can definitely be competent at basketball – understanding the game and playing in local pickup games – but to be able to be paid for that? It’s not happening.

(Remember, we’re defining “mastery” here as “a high enough skill level that people will pay you to perform that skill.”)

Some skills simply don’t earn a lot of money, either. Other skills require some kind of external certification of your skill to earn a lot of money.

In other words, there is no specific path or guaranteed path from competence to mastery.

However, there are some things that almost all journeys have in common.

For starters, they typically involve some form of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a type of practice that is focused on improving technique rather than mindless repetition. For example, if I just shot 100 free throws, that would be just mindless repetitive practice. However, if I shot 50 free throws with careful attention to detail, videotaped it, watched the video, looked for flaws, then spent the next 50 shots carefully shooting with attention to correcting those flaws, that would be deliberate practice. If you want to know more about the specifics of deliberate practice, here’s a great introduction to deliberate practice by James Clear.

Deliberate practice can be done for almost any skill. You do something carefully and deliberately, thinking about each step, study what you’re doing to look for flaws, then do it carefully and deliberately with the intent of correcting those flaws. This is where a coach or a teacher can really help, but you can do this yourself.

For mastery over areas of knowledge, I usually point to two things: meeting the requirements for employment in that area as well as being able to explain that area of knowledge to an elementary aged child. If I can’t explain something to a child, I don’t understand it forward and backward; however, if I can do that, I can almost always achieve certifications and such. One great way to practice this is to actually try to explain what you’re learning to a child, or at least on a child’s level. If you can’t, note where you’re having difficulty and you have a direct arrow to your next area of focus in your learning.

As I noted earlier, the exact path to being able to be paid for a specific skill or area of knowledge varies quite a bit.

A Palette of Competencies (and a Mastery or Two)

These ideas are interesting, but how does this translate into practical advice for making more money? Let’s dig right into that, shall we?

Almost every employee and entrepreneur out there making more than minimum wage has achieved mastery in an area or a few related areas or has competence in a wide variety of areas. Often, the people who really succeed have both – they are masters of business organization and communication and competent at engineering and computer programming, for example.

So, ideally, if you want to earn more money, you should be aiming for a wide variety of competencies and a few masteries.

Why is that so useful? It’s often the combination of several competencies or the combination of a few masteries and a few competencies that add up to a lot of value. It’s relatively easy to find a person that’s a master level at one specific thing; it’s also relatively easy to find a person that’s competent at a few things. What’s difficult is to find people with specific mixes of competencies and masteries that makes them specifically equipped to tackle valuable problems.

That’s what people will pay a lot of money for. That’s how people found successful businesses. There’s a specific problem out there and they have a good mix of masteries and competencies to solve that problem.

The thing is, the more competencies and masteries you accumulate, the greater the set of problems in life you’re going to be able to solve. If you’re a master of just one particular skill and are competent in two or three areas, there are likely a few jobs out there that are great for you, but not many. If you are a master of several things and competent at lots of things, there are likely lots of problems out there you’re suited to solve, and thus lots of job opportunities and lots of potential entrepreneurial paths to follow. That’s because those different masteries and competencies combine in different ways for different problems.

It’s like having a box of Legos. The more Legos you have in the box, the more things you can build. A mastery is like a really vital piece for a few particular things you might build; a competency is a fairly ordinary piece, but several of those are always needed to build anything worthwhile. The more you fill up your box of Legos with competencies and masteries, the more things you can build and the more problems you can solve and the more employment opportunities you have.

So, what can you practically do?

The first thing you should do is figure out what competencies and masteries you do have. What does your resume look like? What skills do you list on there? What things outside of your resume are you competent at? Think of things you do in your day to day life. There may even be things outside of your employment that you could be doing to earn an income, but you’ve chosen a different path.

For most people, that ends up being a pool of talents that they possess. They might be really specific, or they might be fairly broad – it’s all fine.

Now, consider what specific competencies or a specific mastery you could add to that pool that would make you employable in more areas or make it easier for you to start your own business or side gig. What abilities, if added to this pool, could really increase your professional opportunities?

You’ll probably start by looking at advancements in your current career path, but don’t stop there. Consider what other career paths you’re not too far from being ready for if you could just add another skill or two to your pool.

For example, I moved from data mining as a career path to writing, which might seem like a huge leap, but the truth was that as a data miner, I actually did a lot of writing on a daily basis, and I had the technical skill to code a very complex data driven website on my own. I really only needed knowledge and experience in another field and some general entrepreneurial ability to set myself up to make that leap.

This isn’t a quick process. It’s something to mull over for a period of time as you try to identify a few new things you can become competent with or master in order to really amp up your career possibilities, because that’s what this is all about: adding competencies and masteries to your set of skills not only sets you up for advancement, but it multiplies the possibilities in and out of your field. It becomes much easier to rebound when things fall apart. It becomes much easier to move into interesting opportunities that pay well. It becomes much easier to open doors that would have been closed to you.

Once you’ve figured out a few things you can add, then it’s time to start building those competencies and masteries, as described earlier. Start doing. Start learning.

If you’re wondering, the big thing I’m trying to add to my skill set right now is building towards a level of mastery (or at least strong competence) in fiction writing and adding competency in a bunch of different ideas as well as competency in self-publishing… I’ll let you figure out what that all means.

“I Don’t Have Time To Do This!”

The reaction that most people have to these ideas is one of time. “I don’t have time to learn new skills! I barely have time for life as it is!”

Here’s the thing: you can work on skills as part of your life as it is right now.

Your job provides a great opportunity to learn new skills, hone them into masteries, and even sharpen the masteries you already have. Just strive to do what you do now with a higher level of excellence, or look for opportunities to learn new skills or take on new challenges.

Daily life offers tons of opportunities to pick up new competencies. Start making meals every day instead of just ordering food or going to restaurants or eating convenience meals. Instead of waiting for your oil to get changed, spend that hour at home learning how to change your own oil and change your own wiper blades. Instead of calling a plumber when your toilet doesn’t work, fire up a Youtube video and diagnose your toilet problem. Look for anything in your life that you pay other people to do and do it for yourself, even if it seems really hard at first. Not only are you adding new competency to your life, you’re also gaining the courage to try new things.

During your downtime, read challenging books on topics that you want to learn about to add to your repertoire. Spend less time on cable television and Netflix and social media and more time on really challenging books and other learning materials.

Look at the things you do in your life and ask yourself how you could do them a little better or a little more efficiently. Walk through the little repeated tasks step by step and find ways to shave off a minute here or make the result a little better there. (This is an awful lot like deliberate practice.)

You have the time. It’s really more about using your time better.

The Matter of Convenience

The final issue I want to cover is the fact that many people choose to pay others to do things for them out of convenience and time saving. A particular evening might not afford the time to cook a meal, so you order takeout as you’re leaving work, grab it in three minutes, and when you arrive home you pop it right on the table. You might be overwhelmed by laundry, so you just pay a service to take care of it.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this, provided that the time you’re saving is being used in a way that’s more useful and valuable than what you’re doing. If you’re buying takeout so that you can sit on the couch and binge Netflix for three hours, that’s not an effective use of time. If your counterargument is that you’re worn out after a day of work, then you should be getting more sleep – try making a meal for half an hour, watching Netflix for only an hour, getting half an hour of exercise, and getting an extra hour of sleep.

Convenience tactics should only be freeing you up to do more effective things with your time (and, yes, meaningful leisure can be that more effective thing, but it needs to be meaningful and valuable, not just idle). If they’re freeing you up to be idle or to do unimportant things, then that means you need to change some other areas of your life.

Final Thoughts

Here’s what you should take home from all of this.

Being competent with a skill has a nice financial benefit if it means you’re no longer paying someone to do it for you. The more skills you’re competent in and the more areas of knowledge you’re competent in, the less you have to pay others for services. Furthermore, the more things you’re competent with, the more you have to draw on to be effective in your career and life.

Honing a skill until it becomes a mastery is another great move. If you have a skill (or a small group of highly interrelated skills) that’s useful enough on its own to get people to pay you for it, that’s wonderful. If you surround it with other skills you have some level of mastery or competence in, you’ll find yourself endlessly employable and likely able to chart your own path in the world.

What’s at the core of all of this? Constant self-learning and improvement. Constant building of new skills and refining old ones. Constant growth of your set of competencies and masteries. This isn’t just a one day thing. This is a lifelong pattern of growth.

It’s all up to you.

Good luck.

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