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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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.
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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?
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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.
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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 JamesClear.com. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free weekly newsletter.