How to Get Advantage Over Other People

“No, I didn’t get any of that.”

Fair enough, both of us have been drinking all day, but in my mind, it was a simple notion to understand. My friend didn’t agree.

“I invest in this software so people can get content that’s better suited for them. So when they sign up, they choose what they’re interested in and then receive content based on what they chose, and then they will be more invested in the content.”

He still looked at me with that dead-eyed look, unable to comprehend what I was talking about. Not because he was stupid or because I was super-smart, but simply because… he wasn’t in it.

It is the same look I give to him when he starts talking to me about professional photography.

He talks about equipment and exposure and lenses as if it’s common knowledge. Even though I’m pretty tech-savvy, the world of photography is still a kind of a blur to me. I like it but I was never willing to put in the same amount of effort as he did to develop the same skills.

We have different interests and different abilities. But there is one similar trait we share that allows us to be admired in our respected fields:

We can do what other people can’t.

So… what can you do?

If you’re like me, you were probably told something like this:

  1. Get good education
  2. Learn skills employers want
  3. Find a good job based on those skills

Even though I often talk bout about how I “hate being normal” and dislike common plasn society lays out for me, this actually makes sense. Be smart and skillful, then put those things to good use.

At any point in history, there are certain jobs or skills that are more desirable than others. That doesn’t mean that only these jobs are important but they are certainly more in-demand, paid better, and provide better opportunities.

Without providing you with a condescending history lesson, let’s just focus on the current era of our lives (that’s 2010s for those reading this in a distant future *friendly wave*).

Today, it’s all about the tech.

Technology is growing at a faster rate than any time in human history. If you’re a skilled software developer, your work is naturally going to be in demand. 

This doesn’t mean that professions like doctors, lawyers, translators, or store clerks are unimportant. They will likely always be important. 

However, as times change, the required skills change with them. It is not necessary for most men to be hunters and gatherers. That process is done for you and you just buy your food at the supermarket so you can focus on other things. 

New professions emerge and old ones die out or become very rare. Those who thrive are those who are relevant.

With this perspective, the plan society lays out for most of us in the modern world makes sense. It points us towards the future, making sure we stay relevant. 

This also creates a problem — if everybody is relevant, then nobody is.

Oversaturation of Skilled Individuals

So far, it’s obvious that you need a relevant skill to survive.

You work hard, get good grades, and try to get into a good school that will teach you the desirable skill. As it turns out, all of the other geniuses around you had the same idea.

So in-demand places get oversaturated and can only accept a limited number of applicants. The rest may be almost as smart or almost as skillful but they are left to either:

  1. Fend for themselves and make their own way.
  2. Give up and find another profession.

This applies only to those who want to work hard and develop these skills. Most people want a mediocre job with a mediocre pay, aim for mediocre institutions that allow them a semi-comfy existence. 

What happens? 

These places also get oversaturated and can only accept a limited number of applicants. The rest have same options once again:

  1. Fend for themselves and make their own way.
  2. Give up and find another profession.

In the end, looks like the plan I outlined in the beginning isn’t actually such a great plan after all. Most people end up getting screwed anyway and end up doing what they do not want, even if they have the necessary education.

So this brings us full-circle to the original statement: you need to be relevant.

There’s always competition and there’s always someone better than you. The times are always changing and you can very easily be made redundant. It’s not a pretty thought but it is a fundamental fact of life.

So what can you do to prevent this?

Do What Other People Can’t

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed “The hierarchy of needs”.* He put forward the idea that human needs are like a pyramid, with the essential needs at the bottom and more profound needs at the top.

Something like this:

Credit: Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0

You won’t care much about your long-term business plans if you cannot breathe at this moment. The same way, you won’t care about the respect of others if you are starving and haven’t eaten in a week. Once the bottom-level needs are met, you start caring about the next level up.

It’s similar to the saying “more money, more problems”.

The days of primal tribes and working hard just to survive are long gone. Most of the world lives in relative safety and comfort, shifting our focus to other things. We’re not struggling to find food or shelter so we’re plagued by different kinds of problems.

What should I have for breakfast? Why doesn’t that boy/girl like me? What is my life purpose

Many of these issues are jokingly referred to as “first-world problems” because, to people in third-world countries who are actually starving and struggling to survive, these things are unimportant.

Why am I mentioning this?

Because in order to stay relevant, you need to keep moving up the hierarchy.

If everybody around you is well-fed, the strongest person takes the advantage. If the best jobs require intelligence rather than brute strength, then the smartest person has the edge.

If everybody is well-fed, well-educated, and about as skillful, then the advantage goes to the person who has the upper hand in other things: more experience, higher confidence, or better problem-solving skills.

rope tied knots problem solving symbolism

This is exactly what professor Carol Dweck found when she researched the influence of a person’s mindset. Those who have “fixed mindset” are afraid of challenges and competition, making them less likely to improve and, therefore, less likely to do well in the long-run.

On the other hand, those who adopt a “growth mindset” are the opposite.

Those who can endure pain and hardships more easily will thrive better. Those who are more confident in themselves are less likely to give up. Those who are more creative will think of better solutions to their problems.

Let’s go back to our current in-demand profession: software development.

Even within this set of skills, having the edge is important. Just 10-20 years ago, as the Internet was emerging, it was more about building websites and desktop apps. 

Nowadays, many tools exist that allow non-techies to quickly create complete websites without touching a line of code. With the emergence of mobile platforms, the focus has shifted toward mobile apps and dynamic experiences. And this is also likely to change soon enough.

Web developers and web designers are not redundant — but they are becoming less and less relevant as a whole.

Those who thrive throughout modern times are those who adapt; those who take the extra step, who constantly expand their skills, and embrace the future. 

As expected, those who are willing to do so have mental strength.

They are able to observe the world more objectively instead of getting emotional (“it is not fair”, “back in my day it was better”, etc). They accept pain and failure as part of the process, instead of trying to avoid them. They believe in themselves even when they haven’t yet achieved what they are trying to do.

They do what other people aren’t willing to. And for this reason, they end up doing what other people can’t.

What lengths are you willing to go to?

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