Skill Stacks: Why National Treasure May Hold the Key to Everything by Ryan Wooley

This is for you, Steve Hopkins (friend and former colleague, not signer of the Declaration)

Do you remember this 2004 Disney movie?

I want you to picture the “glasses scene” inside Independence Hall. Benjamin Franklin Gates (played by Nick Cage) discovers a pair of special glasses that he and his compadres use to decipher secret messages on the back of the Declaration of Independence, which will lead them to the next clue on their journey to find the ultimate treasure. The glasses have multiple, swingable colored lenses (jeweler’s loupes) over each eye in front of the standard lenses. Different combinations of colors and lenses reveal different layers of 3D messages, which are all invisible without this ocular manipulation.

Well, it turns out that such glasses could be, and perhaps were, used to encode messages or drawings. They work off a principle called “color blocking,” which is what made early 3D glasses work. And, in preparing for this post, I discovered lots of articles and posts about how to construct your very own replicas of these glasses (Yay, Internet!). 

Though in this case, the gadget was mostly a plot device, I was and am enamored with the idea that seeing something important or valuable might require stacking lenses or perspectives. Without the stack, you may see nothing at all, but if you account for layers of unseen complexity, you may just get the perspective you need—the key to unlock your door to treasure.

I recently thought of this image when Tim and I were talking about skill stacks—a term that he learned about from Scott Adams, creator of the comic, Dilbert. In short, skill stacks are the unique combinations of skill layers that we all have that can differentiate us or give us a competitive advantage. On their own, any one of the individual layers might be underwhelming. It is only through the stacking of these skills or talents that they really power on.

Since I am a dilettante, I am particularly intrigued by this concept. I know a little about a lot of different things. Another way to put it is that I have lots of thin layers of skill. Considered separately, none of them are going to distinguish me from the experts out there.

For example, one of the many home improvement skills I have is that I taught myself how to tile. The quality of my work is high, I think, but I am not the fastest, and I’m not going to win any prizes for cutting-edge design. My tiling skill alone is not going to do much for me beyond making the rooms of my house look better.

However, I also can write and speak and teach. Can those skills be combined in a way that gives me a unique advantage? Most likely, yes. What if I layer on some tech skills and the fact that I am mildly conversant in current entrepreneurial thinking? Or, what if I know a little about electric wiring and know how to heat a tiled floor? Many people out there can install tile. But how many can stack that tiling skill on top of several other skills? How many can stack that tiling skill on top of the same unique set of layers that I have?

Teaching alone has the power of completely transforming my tiling skill into something that could differentiate me. Perhaps I find a niche developing online content marketing materials for actual tilers or tile companies. In this venture, being a layperson actually helps my perspective, because I won’t suffer from the “paradox of the expert,” where the automaticity of the expert gets in her way of explaining what she is doing or what she knows.

Okay, so let’s just trace this idea across the layers of my stack.

  • Layer 1. Tiling.
    • I’m not an expert, but I know enough.
  • Layer 2. Teaching.
    • I’ve been doing this for a while. I know how to structure information and learning.
  • Layer 3. Writing.
    • This could have been linked to teaching, but may be especially distinct given that I’m developing asynchronous materials for a web site.
  • Layer 4. Tech.
    • Did you read the sub-bullet of Layer 3?
  • Layer 5. Entrepreneurial awareness.
    • I know what content marketing is and how it benefits a business. I know why it is a thing.

Scott Adams claims to be only an average artist. So, how did he become such a successful cartoonist with a net worth of $80 million? According to him, it was by combining his average artistic skills with his average writing skills, average business skills, and average sense of humor. It was the entire stack that did it for him, where the individual layers or even thinner stacks may not have separated him from the pack. One might say his layers are more multiplicative than additive.

What skills do you have? Maybe take a moment to throw them on a piece of paper. Be creative. What stacks are possible? Unlikely combinations? Go for it. Maybe the more unlikely, the better. If you need to, find a video or blog about constructing your own set of Ben Franklin 3D glasses. Then, once you have them built, try looking at your list again.

All right, now I’m just being silly. But seriously, be unconventional. Look for uncommon connections and combinations. In order to truly apply a design mentality toward constructing our own personal value propositions, we must be skill-stack artists. We must not only recognize the unique talent layers we have, but connect and arrange them in ways that bring distinctive value.