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Why mastering one skill is better than failing at five

Shane Cubis has evidence that mastering one skill is always better than performing multiple ones poorly. Here he explains why the old notion rings true – in life, business and burger joints.

There’s power in doing one thing well, which is why I only know one joke. If you’re a fan of comedy, you might remember Steve Martin’s advice to showbiz newcomers:

“Be undeniably good. Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Instead being reasonably okay at a range of different skills or ventures, it’s better to focus on one thing. Master that one thing. Make the commitment, make it your own, or risk being mediocre. Risk being ignored. This is as true in business as it is in life.

There are a few different fields of human endeavour that work well as analogies here – sport stars switching codes, actors putting out albums of cover songs, comedians putting on their serious faces – but it’s lunchtime, so let’s talk about food.

You may have gone to one of those eateries with a menu as long as War and Peace. Maybe your first instinct was to marvel at the sheer variety of options spanning multiple cuisines, cultures and cooking styles. How fresh are those ingredients going to be?

What’s a polymath chef who’s mastered all these dishes doing here? Didn’t you see this on an episode of a Gordon Ramsay show? You did. On every episode, actually. One of the first things our shouty hero does, after sampling the gross food in these failing businesses, is pare down the menu to a few options.

It’s not just on TV that this works. In Melbourne, you see queues out the door for places that specialise in very particular things: portable chicken schnitzels, ridiculously good hamburgers or sublimely good croissants.

If you’re launching a start-up, it’s easy to get overexcited – in fact, it’s probably mandatory. That excitement is going to have to fuel you through a whole range of setbacks, after all. But when that excitement is infectious, you start to see scope creep happening.

A meeting begins with the intention of hammering out your brand bible and somehow ends with a completely new set of goals and dreams. Before you know it, you’re all wasting time, energy and capital on fringe issues that steal from your core purpose.

It can also happen in established businesses, especially if you’re trying to refresh what you’re doing and remain relevant. My old magazine files are filled with dumb ideas to bring in a younger audience, as if we could’ve competed with online offerings – when we should’ve been focused on keeping the readers we had.

I was working in the video game arcade Timezone when they installed a video jukebox in the hopes of pivoting to a cool teen hangout, instead of hiring a security guard to deal with the violence. The fish ’n’ chip shop around the corner from my place has tried offering vegan options, playing the AFL grand final on its TV and installing a pinball machine but people only want scallops, battered flake, minimum chips and to not be food poisoned.

The answer is staring you in the face. If you’re struggling to figure out what your next move is, bring everything back to basics. What’s your core business? How can you make that better instead of throwing the kitchen sink at your market?

Start with one thing; it might be a product, a customer or sales channel. Pick an experiment based around that core business, corral it off from everything else and see what you can learn. Iterate your improvements instead of throwing resources at a long shot.

That’s a better way forward than spreading yourself too thin and being the back-up option when the line’s too long at the chicken schnitzel joint.

Read next: The essential life skills you need to succeed in business

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