Scott Adams, careers and correlation

I’ve written here earlier about how much I’ve been influenced by Scott Adams’s career advice about “being in top quartile of two or more things“.  To recap, this is what Adams wrote nearly ten years back:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

Having implemented this to various degrees of success over the last 5-6 years, I propose a small correction – basically to follow the second strategy that Adams has mentioned, you need to take correlation into account.

Basically there’s no joy in becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more correlated things. For example, if you think you’re in the top 25% in terms of “maths and physics” or “maths and computer science” there’s not so much joy because these are correlated skills. Lots of people who are very good at maths are also very good at physics or computer science. So there is nothing special in being very good at such a combination.

Why Adams succeeded was that he was very good at 2-3 things that are largely uncorrelated – drawing, telling jokes and understanding corporate politics are not very correlated to each other. So the combination of these three skills of his was rather unique to find, and their combination resulted in the wildly successful Dilbert.

So the key is this – in order to be wildly successful, you need to be very good (top 25%) at two or three things that are not positively correlated with each other (either orthogonal or negative correlation works). That ensures that if you can put them together, you can offer something that very few others can offer.

Then again, the problem there is that the market for this combination of skills will be highly illiquid – low supply means people who might demand such combinations would have adapted to make do with some easier to find substitute, so demand is lower, and so on. So in that sense, again, it’s a massive hit-or-miss!

Scott Adams’s advice and career options

Some five years back, I took a piece of advice from Dilbert creator Scott Adams. A few years earlier, he had blogged that there are two ways in which one can be successful in a career –

 But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The post had made an immediate impression on me when I had read it back in 2007. And when I was planning to leave a full-time corporate career in 2011, it was Adams’ old advice that I turned to.

There were a number of things that I’d found myself to be good at (definitely top 25%) – mathematical modelling, data analysis, writing (based on this blog), economic reasoning, financial markets and maybe even programming (I’m a good coder but lousy software engineer). Combining these, I reasoned, I could do very well for myself.

And over the last five years I have done reasonably well for myself. I’ve built a fairly good freelance consulting practice which brings together my skills in mathematical modelling, data analysis and economic reasoning. The same skills, along with an interest in public policy, have led to me joining a think tank as a Resident Quant. Data analysis and writing together has got me a column in Mint. Yet another subset led me to become Adjunct Faculty at IIM Bangalore. And yet another led to my book, which is currently under publication.

However, now that I’ve decided I’ve achieved enough in my portfolio life, and am looking for a full time job (it was supposed to happen a while back I know, but I postponed it due to an impending location change – I’m moving to London in March), I’m not sure this strategy (of being reasonably good in multiple things rather than the best at one thing) is particularly optimal.

The problem is that the job market hasn’t evolved to sufficiently demand people who are good at several things (rather than at one thing). This is a consequence of not enough people following Adams’s second advice – they’ve chosen to strive to be the best at one thing instead.

And so, if you are like me, and consider yourself reasonably good at several things rather than the best at one thing, the job market doesn’t serve you well. Think of all the things you’re good at as dimensions, and your skillset being represented by a vector across all these dimensions. Traditional job markets tend to look at you from the point of view of one of these dimensions (the skill they’re hiring for). And so, rather than showing your potential employer your full magnitude, you end up only showing the projection of your vector along the dimension you’re optimising for.

And if you are good at several things, it means that the magnitude of the vector along any one skill is far smaller than the magnitude of your full vector. And the job market is likely to leave you frustrated!


In contract bridge, when you are dealt a hand that is equally strong in all suits, you bid to play a No Trump game. In this scenario, though, it seems like it’s impossible to effectively play No Trump.