Updated on 05.19.15

The Value Line: Building More Skills for a Better Life

Trent Hamm
jumping on sidewalk

The more skills you learn that can put you even a hair’s breadth above the ‘value line’ — the threshold where you no longer need to pay someone else for expertise but can actually offer it yourself — the better off you’ll be. Photo: Jenny Downing

My father was always a “jack of all trades” kind of guy. He was an absolute stellar gardener. He was a very good small-scale commercial fisherman, able to catch hundreds of pounds of fish in a single day. He held down a fairly technical job at a factory that involved computer operation and diagnosing problems with a part picker (a machine that would pull parts out of storage bins and send them on conveyor belts to other sections of the factory), among other duties. He could repair a lot of different things as well.

Some of his friends and relatives had those skills to an even greater degree. He had friends that were functional carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and many other things. He had friends that could hunt and forage for food and find all kinds of valuable treasures just walking around in nature. They ran strange little microbusinesses and always seemed to be dabbling in something different.

The thing is, I often couldn’t figure out for the life of me what some of his friends actually did for a living. A few of them were farmers, I suppose, and a few of them worked in the same factory where he worked. Others? To this day, I’m still not sure what they did for a living. They always seemed to be working on projects of some kind or another, usually things that seemed to make them happy, and they seemed to be able to put food on the table.

As I grew older, I viewed going to college and building a career as essential. I tended to view my father and particularly his friends as oddities in terms of their professional approach. They really didn’t have a career in any clear way that I could see. They just did … things … and seemed to make ends meet.

So, I went off to college. I built a career. And, before too long, what did I find myself doing?

I built a side business. Eventually, I walked away from that career and started focusing on the side business. I built several other side businesses and income streams as well.

Today, how do I spend my day? I work on projects of some kind or another, usually things that make me happy, and I’m able to put food on the table.

So, what happened? What caused that transition? I attribute a lot of the shift to something that I call the value line.

The Value Line in a Nutshell

For every skill that you could possibly have in life, there is a level of skill for which people will pay you. Below that, there’s a level of skill where you pay others to do these things. The line that divides the two is what I call the “value line.” (It’s also worth noting that right around that value line is a gray area of “do it yourself.”)

Let me give you an example: plumbing. An experienced plumber is one who could handle basically any home plumbing problem without much problem. Water is flooding the basement? A plumber can figure out that problem and fix it. Obviously, an experienced plumber can handle their own home plumbing problems.

On the other hand, a person who knows little about plumbing will often see a plumbing issue and simply call one of those experienced plumbers to solve the problem. This person is below the value line when it comes to plumbing, while the experienced plumber that they call is above the value line when it comes to plumbing. The experienced plumber makes money from plumbing issues; a person without plumbing skills spends money because of plumbing issues.

You can make a similar example from almost anything in life. Some people make popular YouTube videos, while others watch them. Some people make meals that others are willing to pay for, while others order food at a restaurant. Some people change the oil on cars for themselves and for others, while others drive down to Jiffy Lube. Some people catch hundreds of pounds of fish, while others buy them at the grocery store or the fish market.

The people that make money in those situations are above the value line. The people that spend money are below the value line.

Careers and the Value Line

So, how do careers play into this idea? A career is simply one area where you’ve carefully crafted a skill or a small set of skills to be far above the value line, so that people will pay you for that skill.

For example, my earlier career involved computer analysis of research data. This required me to have a handful of very honed skills – some computer programming, the ability to understand the data, and a few other things. In those skill areas, I was far above the value line, and so I was able to be a great candidate for jobs that utilized those skills.

Here’s the thing, though. In many career paths, you don’t have to be very far above the value line to make decent money, and only people way, way over that line make a lot of money.

The fact that I was even above the value line at all in those skills at the same time made me valuable to the people that hired me. I was (and still am) far from the best computer programmer in the world. I was (and still am) far from a true expert in the areas of research that I was required to understand. Still, I knew enough to know what the big sets of data meant, how to organize them, and how to help other people use those big data sets to answer questions that they might have in a (reasonably) intuitive way.

I had a few skills that were somewhat honed – but not world class – but those few skills were enough to be the foundation of a career.

This is true of almost every career path out there. Almost every career path is made up of a fairly handful of similar skills that a person has honed. They stand out within that career pack by honing just those skills even further.

Now, within that career field, honing those key skills more and more is a bright strategy. The more certifications you earn, the better. The more projects you complete, the better. The more career-specific skills you can list on your resume, the better.

A Diversity of Skills

However, for every other field in the world, it’s not all that good of a strategy. A construction firm is probably not going to hire a systems analyst, for example. A manufacturing firm isn’t going to care about your skills if they’re not manufacturing related.

This factor, along with the idea that you don’t need to be too far above the value line to earn money in a field, points to a completely different strategy for earning income in your life. Rather than putting all of your eggs in one career basket, learn a lot of different skills that you can bring to the table to make money in a lot of different situations.

You’re no longer chained tightly to the same job because you have a wide skill set that can find you employment in a number of areas. You have countless opportunities to start up a side gig or do some freelance work to earn some additional income. You’re also primed to move to a completely different career if that’s the way the wind is blowing.

Not only that, you become a better asset in your current career path, especially if your skills are of secondary use in that path. Almost every career can use people who have skills in public speaking, presentation, and project management and organization. Many, many more skills crop up over and over again in careers, making people who have them more valuable to their employer and just a little more marketable in their career path.

The more skills you have that are above the value line, the better.

Five Strategies

How can you use this knowledge? How can you effectively build up skills that are above this so-called “value line” while still working on your current career path and enjoying life? Here are five strategies I employ for building up value line skills in my busy life.

Strategy #1 – Spend Time Every Day Learning Something

Every single day, you should spend some time learning something significant that builds toward a real skill that you’d like to learn. A good day is one where you know something when you go to bed that you didn’t know when you woke up.

Of course, for this to make sense, you have to identify at least one skill you’re actively trying to build (you might be trying to build several at once). That way, whatever it is that you choose to learn that day, it fits in with that skill.

Maybe you can learn that knowledge by reading a book chapter or watching a YouTube video or viewing a website or even using an app like Duolingo. The key thing is to bite off a significant enough chunk so that you feel like you’re actually acquiring real knowledge that you didn’t have the day before.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.

Let’s say I’m trying to learn Spanish, which is a perfect example of the type of skill one might want to learn. Being conversant in a language is a great example of an “above the value line” kind of skill.

For learning a language, I cannot recommend Duolingo highly enough, as it breaks language learning down into a number of lessons that challenge you with both reading, writing, speaking, and matching words with images so that you learn the language in many directions. For me, picking up a new idea or a set of ideas would be working on a group of lessons for half an hour or so.

Another example might come from learning to play the guitar. There are a lot of good YouTube video series that can teach you how to play the guitar, or you can pay for lessons in person or via Skype. For me, finishing a full lesson and running through the exercises to both add something new to what I’ve learned and reinforcing the old stuff would be key.

Strategy #2 – Spend Time Every Day Applying What You Learned

It’s not just enough to learn new things in a complete vacuum, though. You need to continually apply what you’ve learned in real-world (or approximately real-world) tasks. It’s that ability to apply what you know into things that others will find useful that builds up a true “above the value line” skill.

For example, once I’ve done a Spanish lesson, I might then try to read and translate a simple Spanish document to test my skills. Can I actually use those new skills in the context of doing some simple translating with the training wheels off? With the guitar lesson, I might try to play a song using the chord or the fingering technique that I learned today, working through that song several times until it’s passable.

This whole strategy works for almost any skill you might be trying to pick up. Learn something new about that skill each day, but then apply that new thing you learned along with what you’ve already learned to do something practical with it.

Strategy #3 – Focus on Project-Oriented Things

At first, applying what you’ve learned is going to come down to really simple things. It’s very hard to put your first crude steps of skill learning into any bigger context.

However, as soon as you can, you should start applying the things you’ve learned to some kind of larger project.

For example, rather than just working on the opening riff of a song on the guitar, start focusing on mastering a whole song as early as it seems feasible to work through it. Rather than just working to master a few random words in a language, work on translating something from that language to your own, or vice versa. Rather than just writing a “Hello world!” computer program, work on writing a piece of software that’s useful to you.

There are two reasons for this. First, having something to work towards makes the “applying” strategy (#2, above) much more clear and obvious. Second, if you’re working on a project, you’re going to be producing something that’s actually compelling and interesting eventually. You’re taking steps toward that every time you work on it.

Strategy #4 – Complete, Complete, Complete

No matter what skills you choose to build and no matter what projects you decide to take on, don’t just leave them in a partially finished heap and move on. If you choose to take on a project, carry that project to completion.

Why? There are two reasons why people abandon a project. One is that the project proved more difficult than they thought. That’s a perfect reason to keep pushing, as it gives you a gauntlet to work through to improve your skills.

The other is that they feel their skills and time are better used elsewhere. In that case, sticking with the project and carrying it through trains you in the fine art of perseverance, which is one of the strongest personal skills that a person can have. Being able to stick with something and carry it through to the end is an invaluable skill.

Not only that, it’s the completed projects that you genuinely want to polish up and share with other people.

Strategy #5 – Sell and Share What You Make

This might not be a good idea for the very first (or second) product you make with your budding skills, but you should transition into sharing and selling what you produce as quickly as possible.

Let’s say you’ve decided to make informative videos on a particular topic of interest to you. This allows you to learn video production skills as well as dig deeper into your topic of interest. Rather than simply making the videos and hoping someone buys them, put them on YouTube as soon as you have a video that isn’t a complete disaster. It doesn’t even need to be good in your eyes, as long as it conveys the message.

Don’t be afraid to try to share the skills you have before they’re razor sharp, because to a self-critical person, their own skills are never razor sharp. I still don’t think I’m all that great of a writer (I think what talent I have is writing okay stuff in high volume), but I decided to just start putting it out there anyway with a few ads attached to make a few dollars.

Start offering up your skills and the products of your skills sooner rather than later. You’ll be glad you did.

The Middle Ground – Do It Yourself

If your reaction to this is that it sounds good, but it’s an insecure professional leap, I completely agree. It’s not a secure professional leap.

Instead, the value it provides to you is that you no longer have to hire skilled people to take care of many ordinary things in your life – or at least not nearly as frequently.

If you work on building plumbing skills, you can fix your home plumbing emergencies. You can do things like replacing a faucet or fixing a leaky sink.

If you work on building electrical skills, you can do things like installing an outlet or installing a ceiling fan without breaking a sweat.

If you work on building cooking skills, eating out becomes a significantly less interesting option most of the time. Trust me – I’d rather make food for myself at home than eat out because the stuff at home tastes better.

Not only that, with such a diversity of skills, you’ll often stumble upon opportunities to use them to earn a few dollars. Someone might pay you $40 to fix their toilet or to take a look at their car. You might write a book in your spare time and make $20 a month with the completed book sitting on the Kindle store. These aren’t life-changing things, but they can really add up to make a difference.

Final Thoughts

If there’s one take-home message you should learn from this, it’s this: You can create a lot of financial stability and a lot of financial opportunity in your life by building a wide variety of skills in your spare time.

Having a lot of skills widens your horizons in terms of things you can do to earn a living. It can save you a lot of money in your day-to-day life. It can also open the doors to side businesses which, as I’ve learned in my own life, can sometimes grow up much bigger than you expect.

Whenever you feel bored or have some spare time, devote that time to learning a new skill or honing an old one. Read about it or watch videos, then put in the time to put that skill to the test by tackling real problems with that skill. Not only will you build a skill, you’ll also create something useful for yourself along the way, and the more you hone your various skills, the better your results will be.

Soon, you might just find yourself spending your days working on projects of some kind or another, usually things that make you happy, and you will be able to put food on the table along the way. The source of all of it is having a healthy set of skills above the value line.

Good luck in exceeding the “value line” as many times as you can.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Simple Share Buttons
Simple Share Buttons