Books Future-ready Personal development

Podcast: How to win in a winner-take-all world

My guest this week is Neil Irwin, senior economic correspondent at The New York Times and the best-selling author of The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire, about the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Irwin has written a new book titled How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers. It’s a fascinating and important book, given the changing and complex world we live in.

In this conversation, we cover:

  • How has work changed over the past 10 years, and why?
  • How can we be the people who are driving changes, rather than the victims of them?
  • Why we should all strive to become “glue people.”
  • What is a T-shaped professional?
  • The Pareto Optimality.

Listen to my conversation with Neil Irwin here.


Be a 'glue person' This stuff about skills, about competencies, about what we’re going to need to know to succeed going forward — it’s so important, and I don’t think enough people are paying attention to it.

In almost every industry, there is a mindset that has been prevalent for decades: We've spent four (or more) years in college studying our craft and we know what we need to know.

And you know what? That mindset is wrong. Dead wrong.

In a world that’s changing and evolving as quickly as this one, the only way we can hope to succeed going forward is to be nimble, flexible, willing, and able to unlearn what we know and then learn completely new skills that will help us change with the times.

Look, not to toot my own horn here, but here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I’m a journalist by trade. I got my start back in the early '90s in print journalism. But it wasn’t long before the writing was on the wall for journalists. The Internet was where it was happening, and if we didn’t learn to adapt, we’d be history. So I taught myself HTML. I taught myself the coding skills I’d need to put my content online. That helped me take the next step in my career. And granted, HTML ain’t all that relevant anymore. But that’s the point. Things are changing really fast these days, and that willingness to forget what I knew and learn something completely different has carried me forward ever since.

That's the mindset we all have to adopt if we want to succeed going forward. What got us here ain't gonna get us there.

Irwin wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “It’s a Winner-Take-All World, Whether You Like it or Not," in which he says:

“It’s important for even low- and mid-level workers to understand how their work fits into the broader corporate strategy of their organization — understanding the shifting economics of a business isn’t just for senior executives anymore.

“And, relatedly, there is particular value in being a ‘glue person,’ someone who understands how their specialty fits together with other types of technical expertise, who can ensure that teams containing people with diverse skills can work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

“People also need to cultivate adaptability — to stretch themselves into areas that are uncomfortable rather than just doing more and more of what comes most naturally. This adaptability, I argue, is a skill that you can develop, just as you can work at becoming better at public speaking or data analysis — it just requires overcoming the natural instinct to keep doing what you’re already good at.”

Strategic thinking, flexibility, anticipation, communication, story-telling: These are the skills that will make all the difference going forward. In an age of exponential technological advancement – when all the talk is about A.I., cognitive computing, blockchain, and automation – the skills that will keep us relevant going forward are decidedly non-technical. They’re, for lack of a better term, human skills. They’re skills that help us connect with other people, to create networks, to collaborate with others. The more technical things get, the more human we have to become.

Former Fast Company editor Robert Safian said we live in a time when “the most important skill will be the ability to learn new skills.”

Futurist Peter Sheahan puts it this way: “Humans should only do work that only humans can do.”

There are our marching orders: Learn the skills that will set you apart going forward, and realize that those skills aren’t the ones we’ve fallen back on for our entire careers.

It’s time to get uncomfortable: To unlearn what we’ve known and to learn new skills that will drive us forward.



William D. Sheridan