T-Shaped Knowledge: How to Jump to the Top 10 Percent of Your Field

By AAwosika07 | creativity

Mar 22
t shaped knowledge

“I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.” – Charlie Munger

You’d be surprised at how successful you can become if you commit to life-long learning. Sometimes people ask me how I seem to be wise at a young age (30). I don’t think I’m wise at all. I just read a lot, try to implement what I’ve learned, and share my findings. That’s it.

Like Shane Parrish at Farnam Street says, I’m sharing things that “other people have already figured out.”

All the wisdom is already out there. You just have to find it and use it. You don’t even need to be all that smart.

Maybe school ruined your love for education, but you can get it back. Once you start learning for the sake of it and developing a specific type of skillset, few people in your field can touch you.

One, learning for fun is unusual and makes you rare. Two, other people don’t have access to this freely available knowledge, which gives you another unfair advantage.

You can build the type of knowledge and skillset that’ll allow you to do pretty much whatever the hell you want.

Most successful people in the world have this type of knowledge, the T Shape, and if you cultivate it in your own life, you’ll exponentially grow the number of opportunities available to you.

You see that better life ahead of you — the successful project, business, or career — but you don’t know how to piece together the exact steps necessary to pull it off.

Stick with me, and I’ll show you exactly how to do just that.

Become Amazing at One Core Competency

“You must understand the following: In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious.” – Robert Greene

You’ve heard of the 10,000-hour rule. If you want to master your craft, spend a decade of your life getting good at it. Some dispute the rule and say “specialization is for ants.” Others say “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

What if the answer is somewhere in the middle?

T-Shaped knowledge means you ave a deep level of knowledge in one area and a wide array of knowledge in many areas to support that deep core competency.

I built my career this way.

I focus on a narrow range of skills — writing, speaking, talking on video, etc — involving my ability to communicate with words. I’ve focused on that small handful of skills for a half-decade. Had I bounced around from field to field without ever getting good at anything, I’d still be stuck in the same spot — perhaps the spot you find yourself in.

You have many interests. You think you have the potential to be a polymath. In reality, the person with ‘many interests’ is usually just scared to commit to learning a skill.

Why? Because of the underlying fear we all share when it comes to starting something new.

What if you try and fail? What if you pour blood, sweat, and tears in your craft only to find you’re not good enough?

You just have to take that risk. And if you’re smart about it, that won’t happen to you.

How to Build a Foundation (Without Wasting Time)

Use this process, stay consistent,  and you’ll know relatively quickly if you have a chance at mastery.

Focus on playing a game you can win by taking these steps:

  • Take time to investigate your potential talents and strengths – There’s a free checklist at the end of this blog post that’ll help you do just that.
  • Use a 90-day sprint – For 90 days focus on your craft or skill with reckless abandon. If you were to actually do this (most people don’t) you’d know whether or not you’re cut out for it long-term.
  • Work toward an inflection point – Once you know this path is going to be ‘your thing’ settle in for a while, maybe a year or two, before you make a big splash in your career — for me, publishing books made that splash.
  • Follow the 5-year rule – If you work hard on a craft, skill, or business for five years, one you’re already predisposed to being good at, your chances of failure are almost zero.

As you develop your core competency, you can begin to form the rest of your ‘T’

How to Develop True Knowledge

“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” – Charlie Munger

I don’t count how many books I read because I’m not lame, but I’ve read at least 100 books in the past five years while building my writing career. I’ve watched countless videos, listened to podcasts, have taken courses on a wide variety of subjects including:

  • Basic self-improvement
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • The psychology of persuasion and human biases
  • Sales and marketing
  • Biology
  • Eastern philosophy and spiritual growth
  • Economics, behavioral economics, game theory
  • Investing and personal finance
  • Relationships
  • Philosophy
  • Fiction

I’m pouring all this knowledge into my brain without knowing exactly what I’ll do with it in the future.

When you have a basic understanding of many subjects, you can make better decisions.

Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet, who both have an extremely deep level of knowledge as investors, spend up to 8 hours per day reading about any and every subject.

Why? Because, even though there are tried and true rules to successful investing, there are so many variables involved in the economy and what makes a successful business.

Building this T-shape helps you stand out because you have a skill many other people in your field don’t have.

The Power of Interdisciplinary Knowledge

Many who become successful in one field suffer from domain dependence. They can only understand the world through the narrow lens of their expertise. “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When you get too set in your ways, you develop a rigid mind that can’t think outside the box because you can only stick to what you know.

Many ‘outsiders’ have made discoveries in established fields because they could see with a different lens. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, famous for their work in behavioral economics, came from psychology backgrounds. They understood the relationship between human behavior and economics, mainly that human beings don’t behave like simple models said they should.

When you build interdisciplinary knowledge, you are unique because you can understand the bigger picture between different fields. If you ever watch an interview with Charlie Munger, he sounds like the smartest person in the world. And he basically is, but really, he has less of a fundamental understanding of each field he dabbles in, which makes him smarter than the top experts in each field.

You don’t need to be an academic genius to outperform other people. If you know a little bit about a lot, you’ll outcompete most people who get stuck in the domain dependence trap.

The Ultimate Goal

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. – Charles Darwin

You don’t need to know everything, but you want the ability to be able to handle anything.

You don’t want to be a genius, but you want the ability to learn how to do anything.

Steven Johson talks about the idea of the adjacent possible:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Building this T-Shape knowledge opens the door to the adjacent possible. You have more options than someone who specializes and more follow-through than someone who just dabbles with no foundation.

I will write for the rest of my life, but I’ll branch out into other businesses and projects. The core, the pillar of my T, will never go away. With a skill, and essentially a job, for life, I’ll be able to toy around with other ideas without risking too much.

In your case, don’t be scared to commit to a deep level of knowledge. And don’t be so lazy that you only stop at that point. Get the best of both worlds.

You have access to so much information. The internet is truly the cheat code to life. The only thing separating you from the life you want to live is the knowledge to go after it and the discipline to stick with your education.

That’s it.

You are the one in your own way.

You’re also the solution to the problem.



About the Author

Ayodeji is the Author of Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement and two other Amazon best-selling titles. When he's not writing, he enjoys reading, exercising, eating chicken wings, and occasionally drinking old-fashioned's.