Personal Branding: Skill asset and acquisition cost

As promised, key takeaways first.

Every skill at its most basic level brings with it fundamental truths about the universe. Economics taught me about value. Physics taught me about energy and transition. Art taught me to look at generalities first while sports taught me to operate accurately within 3 dimensions. All of these fundamental truths were obtained within my first few dozen hours of study, yet each of these truths is applicable to everything I do in my life. The artist does not hire painters for her loft and the architect does not buy overpriced storage unites from home depot. Yet the architect who is also a conversant artist is able to see the shapes in his designs while his competitors are waiting for the model to render. Diversifying skills results in an exponential increase in ability to reliably and predictably asses the world at large in interesting and financially advantageous ways.

We only have so many available moments in our lives. What do we do with this time? The answer to this question is most often some spiritual platitude or vague reference to ‘The Good Life’. Family, Friends and professional accomplishment seem to top the list. What does this mean and how do I determine the best course for my life? It is only through this introspection that we can get away from the meaningless platitudes and put some real meat on the question, “What is the best possible life I can lead?” I would like to explore the relationships between time and value spent on skills and the output we receive from them in terms of capability.

Several common fears reduce our capacity to live the best possible life. We are naturally scared of so many situations. Next time you are at a busy bar, just think of how many great people are within 30 feet of you. How many of them will you talk to? I would love to know where this social aversion comes from. In fact, I have a hard time talking to random people at meetups when the sole purpose of the meetup is to get random people to talk to each other. I cycle between crying and laughing about this personal defect. I have spent my whole life learning to converse, then when the opportunity comes up, I sit at the table and pull out my phone to check Twitter or Facebook. This is such a ridiculous fact, but a truth none-the-less. Take the idea of sunk cost. Sunk cost is a fallacy. We say, “I do not want to get into cycling because what if I end up hating it”. This fallacious belief results in one of two scenarios.

  • We stick with something we do not enjoy because we have already spent so much time and/or money.
  • We do not try something that could be great fun because we do not want to spend the time required.

Occasionally I will read some author who thinks it is an amazing new truth that socialization or conversation is a skill. What annoys me about this is the fact that everything is a skill. From communicating to grabbing the best public transportation in a scenario. Some of these skills are mundane and others are much more exotic. The girl scaling Everest also has to balance her checkbook. For each skill in our skill arsenal, we neccasarily have a tier of accomplishment. Since our time is limited, we make intuitive decisions about where to spend our time. Should I work on my writing this weekend or go work on my marathon time? Should I get a start on deploying a fourth edge server or read the latest draft of 800-35 to get a jump on the new requirements. Answers to these questions often border on simple emotional platitudes. “Do what your heart wants.” These platitudes hide the fact that we are making decisions on incomplete or unidentified variables. Every time I have said, “My gut told me to do it” or it “was an intuitive decision”, I was saying nothing more than, “I was unable to figure out the variables so it just felt right to do X”. It feels great to believe that we will magically get the right answer because our gut tells us, but without identifiable variables, even if true, it is unverifiable.

So how do we drop the platitudes and emotional baggage and truly analyze our skill development decisions for their potential impact to our value to us as a person? It is a truism that we have no more than 100% of our time available. I hate the sports cliché, “Give 110 percent!” The irony is, if you could give 110 percent it simply turns into your new 100 percent.

I am not interested in the specific numbers used in the examples below, only their relationship to each other. We have an internal ‘Skill Asset List’. For each skill in this asset list, we must determine to what extent we will develop these skills. Each step we take to become more competent in a skill exponentially increases the requirements of gaining and maintaining that skill while decreasing the actual gain from that skill. An artist who is 6 months into his training is significantly better than an artist who is four months into his training. Yet in 20 years, the difference between these two artists in terms of skill will be so inconsequential it will barely be noticeable. It is all a tradeoff. For each skill you increase from tier three to tier four, you give up the value to get x number of other skills to tier two. For each skill you increase from four to five, you give up the value to get x2 number of skills to tier two. We must decide how to best utilize the value we have.

In a world of increasing specialization, it is important to remember that being well rounded requires interest in disparate skills. It is worth noting that the leaders portrayed in media are often not the people at the top tiers of skill. Odysseus, like Captain Kirk and George Clooney in the Oceans series, was not the best at anything in particular. Odysseus was not the best fighter, navigator or strategic threat the Greeks had. He was however, competent in every skill required. It was his competence across this broad spectrum that generated his value. Just like George Clooney’s character, his ability to see all angles of the situation without preconceptions was the ability that resulted in millions of dollars of income. This is a skill itself. The ability to draw connections and correlations. Connections and correlations of this nature are like free knowledge. It is knowledge and value that you have, not because you learned it by rote, but because you were able to apply existing knowledge in such a way that you did not have to bother learning it. The weekend softball outfielder who realizes that the apogee of the ball is the place that it appears to pause in the air is simply applying a little geometry to the problem. This person will rarely over run a fly ball. She did not have to spend hours on the field to learn this fact. This is what I mean by free information. It is internally self-generated and is more likely in an individual who has lower tier knowledge in multiple areas than a person who only specializes in a couple of skills.

The graph below shows this relationship. You will notice that the Value required for each step increases exponentially. In other words, the gain from tier 1 to 2 requires very little value but pays huge dividends. This jump from four to five requires a huge amount of energy with very small amount of return. The result line in red is only linear because I have adjusted for the value exponent in the requirement on the Y-axis. Otherwise, the result line would be a bell curve.

Assume that you have the energy to move from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. Assume that point ‘A’ is 20 ft from point ‘B’. Assume that each step you take will cover half the distance remaining from your current location to point ‘B’. Our table would look like this.


Distance Remaining

Total Distance Covered

Distance this Step


















This is something we all instinctively know. If we only move half way from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ at each step, then we will never reach point ‘B’. This is an infinite set. The set of all half way points between point ‘A’ and point ‘B’ is infinite. In fact, the value of this infinite set can will always be less that 20ft. Let us look at steps 15 through 20.

As you can see, the distance per step at this point gets very small.

Now for the correlation I have been building. Imagine the ‘Steps’ are ‘Level of Skill’. Let us also assume that that ‘Distance this step’ has an inverse correlation to ‘Time required in attaining this level’. Now let us throw some arbitrary requirements.* Let us assume the following:

  • Tier 3: Conversational
  • Tier 5: Amateur
  • Tier 7: Low end professional
  • Tier 10: Mid professional
  • Tier 12: Good professional
  • Tier 20: Thought leader

I do not like magic thinking, and I do not like chalking skills up to ‘natural talent’ or ‘divine providence’. It is certainly true that some of us are naturally better writers, artists, musicians or ball players; however, the contribution from biology is not sufficient to render anyone incapable of attaining a high level of skill in any endeavor. If I want to be an outstanding painter or singer 10 years from now, it is within my grasp. The only question is do I spend the ‘personal value’ to do it. I use the term ‘personal value’ here as an aggregate of Time, Money, Psychic Energy, etc.**

So let us say that I, Micah, need to be:

  • An acceptable writer to support this blog.
  • Have the ability to Illustrate and cartoon my own posts.
  • Help guide IT Policy and Procedures.

This will require:

  • Tier 5: Writing
  • Tier 5: Illustration
  • Tier 20: Governance

We all have 2000 of my made up ‘Personal Value Coefficient’ to spend per month and I would like to attain all my goals within a year. Notice that we lose a very small percentage of available times from the 1,3 and 5 tiers. Look at what happens in tiers 7 and up on IT Governance. Note the exponential increase in value requirements as the requirements increase. With my made up model, the requirements I listed are not doable within a one-year period. Yet in that same time, I could have gotten another 10 skills to Tier 5. This is what I mean by the tradeoff.



*These requirements are arbitrary. I have not researched this table. I am just putting it out there to make my point.

** These coefficients are made up for the purposes of this post. I do eventually want to try to quantify and qualify the requirements in a true model.

Micah Norman



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