A Fourth Career Moat Pattern

Skills that don't normally appear in a single person are likely to be rare. Unfortunately, they might also be impossible to acquire.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://commoncog.com/a-fourth-career-moat-pattern/

Isn’t this similar (but not analogous) to Scott Adams career suggestion (in his book How to fail at almost everything and still win big) of becoming very good (1st quartile) at 2 or more abilities?

This is what he considers himself to be, not a great cartoonist, not a great humorist, a decent “manager” (office dweller?). But combining all of them was of course larger than the sum of its parts, because it becomes unique.

Adams doesn’t consider it a moat per se, but the similarity of the approach seems to be there.

Edit: correction to book title

I’m familiar with Scott Adam’s idea! :slight_smile: This is indeed similar to that, though with two differences:

  • Adams gives his prescription, IIRC, with little discussion about the market. Job markets are two sided; the point of a moat is to be unique, and uniqueness is relative to the job seekers (the ‘labour supply’) you are competing with. This isn’t a knock on his conception of competitive advantage, but …
  • The focus of this piece is on the barrier. Some combinations of skills are far more common than others, depending on industry. But as with economic moats, a career moat is only a sustainable advantage if you have a reason for why it is hard to acquire.

I find ‘combination of skills’ to be less useful. In practice it is possible to face competition for your combination of skills. A more precise idea is ‘your combination of skills is rare because it doesn’t usually co-occur in the same person’.

I agree combination of skills is less useful, but co-ocurrence is not enough either. They need to work well together, to be of any worth as a moat or as a competitive advantage. For instance, I can make bespoke shoes (worked at that for a while a long ago) and I have a PhD in Mathematics. These two are very “top 25%” qualities, and I’m probably one of a very small amount of people with exactly these two “properties”. But the competitive advantage of having them is close to nil: there is no market for mathematically inspired shoes or theorems to be had related to shoes (if there was any money in Math research, of course).

There is another case where good top skills appear though. Some countries require that companies hiring a person from abroad place a job offer for the position at home before. In many cases, the job offer is tweaked so it only fits the foreign candidate, this is another case where having first quartile skills can appear: how unique is your top skill combination?

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I agree! But do remember the context of my argument: I’m arguing from within the context of ‘rare and valuable skill’. I didn’t explicitly mention it, but the point of this post is to explore a fourth pattern, apart from the other three I’ve already explicated elsewhere.

tl;dr: you get a moat through rare and valuable skills; this breaks down to roughly two paths: you can get a moat by being the best in one skill, or you can get a moat by being the best at a rare and valuable combination of skills. The second bucket breaks down to three categories (and now possibly four): a) it’s a rare and valuable combination because the path to acquire it is opaque, or b) because it’s distasteful, or c) because you’re early or d) because the combination is rare in a single person.

In the interest of full disclosure — while this is the best I’ve got, I’m still not perfectly happy with it. For instance, I know people who derive power from their network, and I think there might be something there. I’ve also noticed that reputation counts for something. And I’m sure we all know one or two people whose entire career strategy is “become unfireable to some company, but be stuck in that company forever”. That’s a moat, though whether it’s an attractive one is hard to say.

I’m still actively investigating all of these forms.

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