In Scott Adams book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: The Kind of Story of My Life, he talks about a concept called a skill stack.
A skill stack is a series of skills that are okay individually, but combine to something greater. In Scott Adams case, being “okay” at drawing, writing, humor, and business created the million dollar brand that is Dilbert.
Filmmaking is a skill stack. Directing actors and cinematography are two different skills, but if you’re going to direct you need both. Even individual skills like cinematography have their own skill stack (lenses, lighting, framing, etc.).
Whatever success I’ve had with my film American Circumcision is the result of a skill stack. In addition to the skills of filmmaking, I also needed to understand marketing, crowdfunding, basic film business stuff, public speaking, interviewing, etc.
I’m not the best in the world at any of these skills, but I’m good enough at each of them to take an entirely independent film from concept to Netflix.
As I’ve started to explore activism, I’ve realize activism is a skill stack.
Many activists I’ve spoken to are looking for the “one thing” that will change the issue they are working on. However, if the skill stack theory is correct, it’s actually a combination of things that will create change, not one in isolation.
Skill Stack Examples
Imagine for a minute you have a media outlet. Owning a newspaper or digital outlet would be a useful for an activist cause, right?
However, the distribution of that information is also important. If you knew about social media, advertising, how to market your writing etc. the reach of that outlet would be increased.
Say you publish a big story in your paper. Now what? You want people to act on that information, right? So you also need an activist network to take action on your story. If you can’t organize your audience to take collective action, no change will occur.
Note that if you only have one of these things, the effect decreases exponentially.
If you just have an activist network, but no media or information gathering service, what are you going to tell people to do? How will those activists spread their ideas or know what to focus on?
If you just have the news outlet, people will read it, say “that sucks,” and move on with their lives, or worse – they’ll contact you, ask “what should I do?” and all you’ll be able to tell them is “share our information!”
American Circumcision is moving film, but the impact of the film is significantly increased due to Netflix distribution. If I just had the film, but no distribution, it would not be as effective. If I had access to Netflix, but didn’t have as good film, it would also be less effective. It’s the combination of those skills that creates the impact, not any one in isolation.
The impact is also increased by the fact I can write and do public speaking. Many people have heard about the film through podcast appearances I’ve made. However, I would never have appeared on any podcast if I didn’t have a film to promote. My public speaking skills are only useful because of other skills in my stack.
If I wanted to increase my impact, the question to ask would be “what skill could I add to this stack?” For example, if I was writing this in a nationally syndicated column rather than on my own blog, that would increase the impact, right?
(In this case, the speed of being able to come up with an idea and deliver it to my audience in a day is preferable to the distribution of a paper. Plus, it’s intended for my existing audience, not to expand my audience.)
I already have the skill of writing. Becoming a columnist would require adding the knowledge of the newspaper and publishing business, understanding their needs, and making connections with editors who could distribute my writing.
The Missing Stack
I built my skill stack as I went. When I was working on the film, many activists asked me “how are you going to get anyone to watch it?” It didn’t occur to me that activists had not built many meaningful distribution channels for their information. I had to learn the skill of marketing and work backwards to get my film on major platforms as I was finishing it.
When trying to figure out what to create for activism, the thing to look at is: what is missing from the stack?
I think many activists have an idea that they can create change by just focusing on one part in isolation. “If we just get the information out there loud enough, it will change!” “If we just do lawsuits, it will change!” “If we just protest, it will change!”
Media, lawsuits, and protests are all useful tactics. However, if you had all three wouldn’t the impact be greater? Could you use media to tell people about the lawsuits and protests? Could you use lawsuits and protests to create coverage in the media?
Plus, what if you added additional elements to that stack? If you’re going to do a lawsuit, don’t you want people with investigative research skills? If you’re going to do a protest, isn’t an organizer useful? Or a network of chapters around the country?
There may be tactics that are very effective that haven’t been tried because the prerequisite stack has not been created. (For example, getting material into the school system might require already having educational connections.)
Many activists think mass protests are the way to create change, but you won’t get mass protests unless you have mass contact lists. If your goal is a million person march, start figuring out how you can get ten million emails and phone numbers from people likely to protest.
By the way, you’re more likely to get that contact info if you have media you can persuade people with, an organization they can join, and…
Starting to understand the stack?
Thankfully, you do not have to create the entire stack alone.
If there is a piece of the stack you are not good at – collaborate.
I can’t write music. When I did my film, I hired John Graves, a composer, to do the soundtrack. He did amazing work, and my film has a bigger impact because of it.
Likewise, I didn’t create Netflix or my distributor. Those platforms already existed, and needed content. Distributing with them was a win-win, where each of us benefited.
Note that Netflix is way bigger than me, but their platform still benefits from collaboration. Don’t assume that just because someone is bigger, you can’t reach or benefit them in some way. Every publication still needs people to write for them and things to write about.
If you’re looking to make a difference, look at what is missing from the stack, and then look what what unique talents you have that could fill it.
The solution to any issue will not come from “one thing.” It will come from people bringing their unique skills together to create a full stack of complimentary things.
Read More: How To Start Your Activism