The Secret to Success? Be a Contradiction

Talent stacking, as impressed upon us most recently by Dilbert‘s Scott Adams, is the symbiosis of disparate skills — even if it seems a contradiction at first glance.
[Photo by Marcin Cajzer]

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

If you’ve been listening to S-TOWN, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life, then you know John B. Macklemore, the bizarre and captivating savant who invited a reporter down to Alabama to investigate a murder in his small hometown.

(If you haven’t heard the podcast, what are you doing with your life? Go and download it asap. But don’t worry, there are no major spoilers ahead.)

Macklemore’s an enigma. A college drop-out from a tiny city, he nevertheless becomes a brilliant chemist, climate-change expert, and horologist. He despises his regressive town but refuses to leave. He admits to being “mostly” gay, but generally shies away from romantic relationships. He’s generous with his considerable wealth, but hoards information and secrets. He cherishes his friendships, but alienates the people who love him the most. He’s complicated and funny and tragic and wise, which explains why people are so interested in his story (and why S-TOWN received 16 million downloads in one week).

By the end of the series, I felt like I had spent years with one of the most fascinating people I’d ever met. But I can’t say I understood him. At the end of the day, Macklemore’s contradictions were so extreme that I couldn’t really put my finger on who this guy was. I was both fascinated and confused.

And that’s when I realized that those two reactions were connected. I was fascinated because I was confused.

Our listeners and students often ask us how to become more interesting. “How do I make people like me?” “How do I develop a more magnetic personality?” “What should I do to become more attractive to employers?” “How can I hook people’s interest?”

Which are all great questions.

Now I realize that Macklemore had the answer, even if he wasn’t fully aware of it.

The key is to become a contradiction.

The Talent Stack

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Scott Adams on the podcast. Scott is most famous for creating DILBERT, but he’s also a celebrated speaker and author who has carved out one of the most unusual niches in the publishing and speaking world.

Scott talks a lot about the talent stack, which is basically a way of combining unusual skills in a valuable way.

He points to himself as a great example. Scott’s the first to admit that he isn’t the most brilliant artist, and he’s never taken an advanced writing class — but very few people are good at both drawing and writing.

“When you add in my ordinary business skills, my strong work ethic, my risk tolerance, and my reasonably good sense of humor” he explains, “I’m fairly unique. And in this case that uniqueness has commercial value.”

I actually never realized how much the talent stack explains my own story until I talked to Scott. I’m an entrepreneur and coach who also happened to develop the skill of broadcasting through the podcast. That, combined with my stint on Wall Street, my adventures abroad, and my lifelong study of psychology makes for an unusual but compelling stack. I definitely wouldn’t have succeeded at just being a lawyer, and the world has plenty of self-development coaches, but there aren’t many social-dynamics experts who can host, interview, and broadcast.

What I love about a good talent stack is that it can turn a mixed skill set, a wayward life, and a set of disparate interests into a compelling, commercially valuable asset.

Which is really another way of saying that you can be a contradiction and still succeed. More to the point, you can succeed because you’re a contradiction — because your paradoxes are actually your greatest strength!

I now see these marketable contradictions everywhere I go.

One of our listeners, a stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been shooting comedy sketches for years. She’s also obsessed with dessert. After pitching some jokes to her favorite ice cream company, she’s now been hired to write and produce funny commercials for the brand. Another AoC alum, an investment banker who always loved to write, is now trying his hand at fiction. His first story? A novel about a corporate takeover.

The funniest part is that both of them used to compartmentalize or even dismiss their varied interests. Banks don’t tend to reward number jocks for moonlighting on a novel. Comedians don’t usually think of a sweet tooth as a professional calling. But once they started connecting up their different talents, they had themselves a killer stack. And as they developed that stack, people starting paying them for their special constellations of skills.

In other words, they got paid for being great at their contradictions.

And the same principle applies in your personal life.

Hooking Curiosity

A screenwriter friend of mine recently told me his secret to writing compelling characters.

“It’s easy,” he said. “Just make them contradictions.”

I thought about it, and he was right. Every single character I loved on TV or in movies was some sort of paradox.

He’s a serial killer, but he only goes after the worst criminals — plus he works for the police. And that’s why I watched every season of Dexter.

She’s a desperate, aspiring entrepreneur, but she’s angry, hard-headed, and pathologically independent — which is why I was drawn to Girlboss.

He’s a ruthless, manipulative outcast who films accidents, but he wants to be of value in an indifferent world — which kept me on the edge of my seat throughout Nightcrawler.

These personality contradictions are like the talent stack. On their own, they don’t mean much. But once they’re connected up in pursuit of a goal, they become a killer asset. We could call our personal paradoxes the personality stack. And if the personality stack works in fiction, it definitely works in real life.

Think about the people who intrigue you the most. Think about the colleagues you admire, the friends you cherish. Isn’t it always their contradictions that endear us to them? Don’t their contradictions make us want to be around them?

“She’s the most driven person at the company, but she’s super nice.”

“He used to be a Navy SEAL, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“She can code like it’s nobody’s business, but she still coaches the new guys.”

“He teaches Russian literature, but he’s a sucker for Forensic Files.”

This BUT that — that’s the structure of a great personality stack.

Just as the talent stack compels the market to pay attention to us, the personality stack compels people to pay attention to us.

So when people ask me how to be more interesting — on dates, in job interviews, at parties, while traveling — I immediately try to understand their contradictions. What’s your this BUT that? What are the unusual — maybe even bizarre — things you bring to the table?

Pretty quickly, the contradictions emerge. And just as they do with the talent stack, most people shy away from them, at first. They think their kindness is a weakness at a cutthroat job. They think being ex-military means they can’t be gentle. They think being brilliant means being inaccessible. And so on.

But then we explore the contradictions. We talk about what they mean, what opportunities they create. And slowly, we realize that the paradoxes they were running away from are actually their greatest strength. More than that, they’re unique. They’re rare.

Which means they’re exactly the assets they should be competing with.

Becoming a Contradiction

Once you see how compelling your contradictions are, you’ll start to celebrate them more and more. So how do you cultivate your stacks?

There are two ways.

First, you can deliberately cultivate your talent or personality stack. You can round out specialties, complement skill sets, and develop adjacent talents. You can take a coding class, dabble in cooking, start a blog. You can cultivate kindness, learn to listen, make an effort to support people around you. These are all excellent ways to create your this BUT that.

But in my experience, the best contradictions tend to develop organically. Why? Because it’s what we naturally do as human beings. To be human is to be a contradiction — to not be easy to categorize — to seek out a corner of this world that only we can inhabit. We might not live our lives in accordance with those contradictions every single day, but the instinct is there. We just have to nurture it.

So begin by taking inventory of the various qualities and skills you already have, right now. I recommend doing it in that order — qualities first (your personality stack), then skills (your talent stack). Write them down. Notice the ways in which you already contradict yourself. Notice how you defy your categories. Trust that these exist in you for a reason. Know that people will gravitate to you because of these qualities. Notice that they already do.

Once you’ve done that exercise, start putting your contradictions to use. For many of us, that will simply mean being more aware of them. If you find yourself ignoring or hiding some of your contradictions, find out what happens when you offer them up. How do your friends respond? How do your colleagues react? Do your results change? How do you feel? Better, worse — different? (I already know the answer, but I want you to find out for yourself!)

But at the end of the day, the sine qua non of a good stack is you. A constellation of talents is just a laundry list of skills until you decide to put it into action. A combination of qualities is just a personality until you use it to navigate the world.

The key to developing a killer stack is to a) be aware of it, b) cultivate it consciously, and c) apply it in pursuit of a personal goal.

So I have two questions for you, and I’m excited for you to answer them.

What are your contradictions?

And what are you going to do with them?

AJ Harbinger - author of 1150 posts on The Art of Charm

AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality. Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.

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