I’m standing in a very large bookstore. I couldn’t have been here for more than ten minutes, but the clock on my iPhone is eager to disprove my hypothesis— it says I’ve been here over an hour. Time always seems to move at hyper-speed in book stores.
In my arms are five books I’m debating between. There’s the new fiction novel from one of my favorite authors, Steve Berry—that’s a guaranteed buy. Another is a book on Plato and the philosophies he taught. The rest are how-to guides with topics ranging from beer brewing to lock-picking to boat building. Development books, as I’ve come to call them. Each a new skill, a new challenge, a new perspective.
This is a common occurrence for me, seeking out these random skills and uncommon topics. More accurately, I should say it’s become a common occurrence— a far cry from the high school me who was interested in little besides sports, women, and my next (often naive) take-over-the-world scheme.
But why is this important and how did it begin?
Rewind about a year and I’m standing in my friend Harry’s kitchen chopping vegetables while he busily prepares tonights protein. On the balcony chatting away are his girlfriend and a girl I met while traveling who flew in to visit. I know a few dishes that make me look like a better cook than I am, and Harry is studying to be a professional chef, so when we planned this double date, we decided to show off.
Over an expertly prepared dinner, which upon seeing it on the table I quickly realize I can take little credit for, my visiting friend tells us a few stories about the frequent and outrageous run-ins with Sultans and other faraway royalty that vacationed in her university city of Marbella, Spain. Casually, Harry asks her a question about the city. The kind of specific question only a local would know. Then he carried on the conversation— in perfect Spanish.
I’ve known Harry well over a year at this point and we’ve become good friends, yet I had no idea he had been to Spain, nor that he spoke a word of Spanish.
The night continues, as they do, and while the girls are talking over wine he pulls me aside to show me the newest knife in his collection, knowing I also admire a good blade. It’s a beautiful folding knife of balanced weight and obvious quality with a nearly perfect mirror finish on its edge. Knives are not sold this way, and immediately I know my friend has spent a good deal of time skillfully running this steel across his various Japanese sharpening stones and stropping pads. A skill he taught me just a few weeks earlier, after hearing I relied on a hand-held sharpener.
Over time I came to learn Harry possessed a great number of these unexpected niche skills, many of which I shared but considered far to esoteric to mention in casual conversation.
We have all seen or known these individuals at different times in our lives. Existing in direct contrast to the cookie-cutter what-you-see-is-what-you-get people of the world. Every deeper layer seems to reveal an unexpected interest, talent, expertise, or skill-set. Exposing only a small percentage of who they are, keeping the rest buried below the surface to be discovered.
They are the icebergs among us.
My first encounter with one of these people happened years ago in the form of my high school varsity basketball coach. A very successful lawyer-turned-venture-capitalist with a beautiful family and casually optimistic way about him. On the long drives to many away tournaments throughout the season I’d listen to his stories as the rest of our starting-string slept in the back of his Ford Expedition. He had a seemingly inexhaustible well of experiences and lessons learned from places he had traveled, businesses acquired that failed or succeeded, and skills he struggled to master. Even the act of coaching our team revealed his willingness to follow his interests for their own sake, while he did have a daughter who attended our school, but had no son to speak of and no obvious connection to our team.
By the end of that moderately successful season, an impression had been left on me. I slowly began to develop a habit of finding and learning new skills and topics that grabbed my attention— becoming my own iceberg, so to speak.
I’ve been fortunate to encounter a fair number of these people in my life, many of whom I now proudly call friends. I’ve even found myself gravitating toward authors who share these characteristics like Neil Strauss and Tim Ferriss, whose books chronicle the often difficult (and at times hilarious) journey toward mastering new skills. I’ve noticed that, while not exempt from day-to-day stresses, typically these types of people lead rather fulfilling lives. They do something they enjoy, make the most of their free time, and people tend to be drawn to them. ‘Top guys/Top girls’ you might refer to them as.
They achieve this ‘Top’ status, because they take the time to invest in themselves and do more than simply what is required. Each new skill acquired or topic learned adds another dimension to who they are, making them more dynamic, unexpected, and subsequently exciting to be around.
It dawned on me that there was an inherent lesson in all this observation. If you want to be a ‘Top’ guy, get a ‘Top’ job, woman, or lifestyle you must invest in yourself. No one, not even the heroes you respect or look up to, came into the world the way you see them now. They understood the value in continuing to grow, learn, discover passions, and challenge themselves in areas of their own choosing, instead of the ones others told them to pursue.
This perpetual skill and knowledge development is something I incorporate into every day. It happens to be a lot of fun to be able to teach buddies a random skill (like beer brewing), bring up a unique talking point (”have you heard of Aristotle’s three paths to persuasion– ethos, pathos, and logos?”), or see someones eyes light up when they realize you actually know a thing-or-two about a hidden passion of theirs.
The way I see it, when you’re not getting the results you want out of your job, relationships, or life you’ve got to figure out if you’ve been making the effort toward achieving ‘Top’ status. Take a hard look at yourself and ask:
Are you investing in yourself— Are you an iceberg?