‘If a talent comes naturally, you conclude that it’s nothing special. And so you gravitate toward whatever it is you can’t do’
I don’t have much patience, generally speaking, with the ideas of economists like Murray Rothbard, a free-market extremist who thought the government shouldn’t run the police or the army, let alone hospitals or schools. (For a while, he was a follower of the high priestess of wrongness, Ayn Rand.) Still, we owe him gratitude for the tongue-in-cheek observation he called Rothbard’s Law: “People tend to specialise in what they’re worst at.” He was thinking of his fellow academics: “[Milton] Friedman is great except on money, so he concentrates on that,” he once said.
Other examples may spring to your mind: the comedian intent on being taken seriously as an actor; the religious figure who can’t stop making pronouncements about science; the manager with zero people skills who nominates himself to run the corporate retreat. Given his views, I’m tempted to suggest that Rothbard himself was a victim of his law. But he’d seen that cheap shot coming. He was immune to the law, he liked to say, because he’d failed to specialise in anything.
At first glance, Rothbard’s Law resembles the similarly half-serious Peter Principle, which describes how, in organisations, people tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. They keep getting promoted until they’re in a role where their performance is too mediocre to merit further promotion – so that, over time, a company gets filled with staff who can’t do their jobs. But Rothbard seems to have had a different problem in mind: if a talent has always come naturally – or if it’s been decades since you last found it difficult – you conclude that it’s nothing special. And so, in your efforts to achieve something impressive, or to gain a feeling of accomplishment, you gravitate toward whatever it is you can’t do. You stride out into exactly those fresh pastures in which you shouldn’t be setting foot.
Rothbard was exaggerating for the sake of humour. Yet his insight adds an interesting twist to the time-honoured debate about strengths and weaknesses. If you want to improve, should you focus on developing what you’re good at, or on patching things up where you’re bad? In a series of bestselling books, the consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a persuasive case for a strengths-based approach: it’s both more effective and more enjoyable, he argues, than struggling to plug your weak spots.
But Rothbard’s Law raises two complicating thoughts. One is that you might not perceive your strengths at all, imagining them instead to be run-of-the-mill capabilities possessed by everyone. The other is that focusing on them might feel boring, even meaningless, compared with the thrill of the unknown.
The trick – easier to talk about than to do, as ever – is to pick challenges adjacent to your existing skills, not diametrically opposed to them. The more profound difficulty is to learn to see your unique skills for what they are – and, when it comes to salary negotiations and suchlike, to resist undervaluing them. All this might sound like the cheesiest sort of self-esteem-boosting advice: “Everyone’s good at something!” I’m sure that mushy conclusion would have appalled Rothbard (and it’s empirically untrue, anyway, because there’s Ashton Kutcher.) The more down-to-earth, more genuinely cheering implication of his law is that you may well be more talented than you think.
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