Build Personal Moats

My favorite career advice

My favorite career advice is to develop a “personal moat.”

A personal moat is a set of unique and accumulating competitive advantages in the context of your career.

Like company moats, your personal moat should be a competitive advantage specific to you that's not only durable, but compounds over time. 

This should be something that's:

  • Hard to learn and hard to do (but perhaps easier for you)

  • Impossible without rare and/or valuable skills

  • Unique to your own talents & interests

  • Legible, in the sense that your expertise should be easy to describe, easy to share, and makes people want to do both for you

Some examples include:

Tyler Cowen: He specialized as a generalist, spending decades writing & reading all day. To recreate his encyclopedic brain would take 1-2 decades of deep work.

Elad Gil: He invested in more than a dozen unicorns and then wrote the "High Growth Handbook" to teach others about scaling startups. To match his track record would take 1-2 decades of hard work plus luck.

Tim Ferris: He has garnered a massive loyal following by posting unique content for years. Building the same following would take hard work plus luck, at a minimum.

There's no playbook for how you could invest in 10+ unicorns like Elad, build a loyal & captive audience like Tim, or become a walking encyclopedia like Tyler. All of these take decades. You must find something special—specific to you—that drives increasing, compounding value overtime.

How can you find your personal moat? 

Ask others: What’s something that’s easy for me to do but hard for others? What's something I have that’s very difficult for people to reverse engineer?

Another concept is Ikigai: the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.

It’s important to know that moats change over time as conditions change. Before the arrival of recorded music, what used to be scarce was the actual music itself — required an in-person artist. After recorded music, the music itself became abundant and what became scarce was curation, distribution, and self space.

Similarly, in careers, what used to be (more) scarce were things like ideas, money, and exclusive relationships. In the internet economy, what has become scarce are things like specific knowledge and rare & valuable skills.

Here's a quick litmus test: If there is a solid Quora post with step by step instructions on how to do something, or if thousands of people have done it, then it’s likely not a durable or a unique personal moat. If there’s a playbook for it, then how defensible is it? (Unless you're the world's best at it. But if you’re trying to build a moat, don’t enter the rat race unless you’re the fastest rat!)

Ideally you want this personal moat to help you build career capital in your sleep. 

We talk a lot about “passive income,” but not as much about “passive social capital” or “passive knowledge gaining” — that’s what you gain if you build an asset that grows over time without intensive constant effort to sustain it (h/t Andrew Chen). A few examples include starting a company, an angel portfolio, a newsletter, or a podcast (Don’t mind if I do…)

How can you find your personal moat? 

Ask others: What’s something that’s easy for me to do but hard for others? What's a skill or asset I have that’s very difficult for people to reverse engineer?

You want to build a competitive advantage that will endure over time. You don’t want to build a competitive advantage that is fleeting or that will get commoditized.  Some awards, for example, may have been impressive early on, but as they have expanded significantly they’ve become more diluted and thus no longer as impressive. You want to have skills and accomplishments that are undeniably valuable and indisputably impressive.

Some other hacks to build moats include picking something that isn’t big now, but will be in the future (e.g. crypto in 2016), something that relies on exclusive relationships that you can access (e.g. enterprise healthcare, access to LPs), or something that is legibly impressive or valuable but has no playbook. (e.g. Tyler Cowen, Tim Ferris, Elad Gil examples)

If you were magically given 10,000 hours to be amazing at something, what would it be? The more clarity you have on this response, the better off you’ll be.

It could be the intersection of a few skills. Scott Adams popularized the idea of finding the intersection of 2-3 things you’re best at even if you’re not best at any of them individually. He wasn’t neither the best cartoonist nor the best writer nor the best entrepreneur, but he was the best combination. It could be a combination of expertise, relationships, sensibilities, and skills that you’ve accumulated over the years. If you’re just starting out, ideally it picks up where your childhood left off. Now, I spent my childhood trying to make the NBA. So if like me, you misallocated your childhood in the skills department, you have to be more creative. Later on, I realized I could apply the self-discipline and systems thinking I deployed when trying to be good at basketball into other fields, and found some that better fit my natural abilities.

Should you specialize or generalize? Either could work, but you have to actually be good at something. That’s a key concept.  If you’re a generalist, you want to be the best at the intersection of a few different skills, even if it’s a few disparate things. The challenge is it's easy to lie to yourself & say that you're a generalist when in reality you've tried a bunch of things and you've flaked out when things got hard and then tried something else. You want to be at least great at one thing, and then apply that lens or skill to other categories. Some people who you think are generalists have also specialized. Malcolm Gladwell for example writes about lots of topics, but he's mastered the art of translating academic work for a mass audience. Tyler Cowen self-defines himself as specializing as a generalist, but he spent a couple decades going deep on economics.

In future pieces, I’ll write more about more specifics of moats and how to build them, detailing examples and how they relate to other aspects of career building. For now, I wanted to explain the concept as I’ll be referring to it regularly.

In conclusion, discover what’s easy for you but hard for others, then get so good they can’t ignore you, and then leverage that to accrue social and financial capital. Don’t skip steps 1 & 2.


Read of the week: Get So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Listen of the week: Matt Ridley on the Naval Podcast. I also went on Pomp’s podcast.

Watch of the week: Craig Stewart Youtube channel on Rene Girard.

Cosign of the week: Dani Grant. Follow her and check out Jam. Let me know if you want beta access.

Until next week,

Erik