How to Build Skills That Are Valuable: Lessons Learned From Selling Matches

Our society values skills, but everyone is obsessed with results. The problem with this is that it can become easy to get trapped focusing on results when you should really be building your skills.

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By James Clear

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In the early 1940s, a young boy was growing up in the small county of Almhult in southern Sweden. Within a few years, he would impact millions of people. At the time, however, nobody knew his name.

The boy was occupied with a small and relatively simple project. He had recently discovered that it was possible to buy boxes of matches in bulk from Stockholm, which was a few hours away from his small town. He could get the matches for cheap and then sell them individually for a nice profit, but still at a reasonable price.

Pretty soon, he was riding around town on his bicycle and selling matches one by one to anyone who needed them.

Related: 5 Steps to Building a New Habit

Once the matches began selling well, the young boy expanded his tiny operation. Before long, he added christmas ornaments, fish, seeds, ballpoint pens and pencils. A few years later, he started selling furniture.

The young boy's name was Ingvar Kamprad and when he was seventeen, he decided to name his business. He called it IKEA.

In 2013, IKEA made over $37 billion dollars. It's amazing what you can do with a few matches.

Selling Matches and Building Skills

Everybody is obsessed with building their IKEA. Nobody is focused on selling a few matches. We live in a society that values skills, but everyone is obsessed with results. The problem with this is that it can become really easy to get trapped focusing on results when you should really be building your skills.

It's really easy to focus on the dream of building a successful business. What entrepreneur wouldn't want a company that makes $37 billion per year?

Related: How to Solve Big Problems: Start Small

But that's not how Ingvar Kamprad started. He started by building his skill set. He started by selling one book of matches at a time. He focused on a small problem and then used the skills he developed to solve a bigger problem (just like cancer researchers do).

Focus on Getting Good, Not Making It Big

Ingvar Kamprad focused on getting good at business before he tried to get big at business. Think about that for a moment.

Many people (and I've been guilty of this as well) want to get big more than they want to become good. The new photographer wants to be published in National Geographic or win that big photo contest, not shoot in relative obscurity while mastering his craft. The new writer wants to hit the best-seller list, not become an expert of prose. The young basketball player wants to be in the starting lineup, not become the best dribbler on the team.

But if you only focus on these results, then it can be very easy to get distracted from doing the volume of work required to build the skills you need to succeed. And it's the volume that matters. The process is more important than the goal. This is especially true in the beginning. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

Related: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones

In fact, most of what you create early on — even if it's good — probably won't be that good. In a previous article, I shared a research study that analyzed over 70 famous composers and revealed that not a single one of these musical geniuses produced a famous musical piece before year 10 of their career. This period of little recognition and hard work was referred to as the "10 years of silence" and it's very similar to the period that Ingvar Kamprad spent selling matches. Different industries, same dedication to developing skills.

Think about what you want to be good at. How can you start selling matches?

A version of this article first appeared on For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free weekly newsletter.

James Clear

Writer, Entrepreneur and Behavior Science Expert

James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of the no. 1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Clear is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work has been featured in places like Time magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on CBS This Morning. His popular "3-2-1" email newsletter is sent out each week to more than 1 million subscribers. You can learn more and sign up at

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