The Harder a Skill is To Learn, the More Income You Can Earn

Earn skills to increase your income
7 min read

There is a reason that cashiers earn minimum wage: most people can learn how to operate a cash register in under 30 minutes with no prior training.

And there is a reason that neurosurgeons earn starting salaries of $300k or higher: it takes over a decade of formal training and studying to acquire the knowledge and experience to become licensed. 

In terms of how much income you can generate from holding a certain set of skills, here’s the rule of thumb: the harder a skill is to learn, the more income you can earn.

If anyone can learn skill A in under an hour with very little thought or effort, then it’s unlikely that you can earn a high income with skill A. However, if skill B takes hard work, practice, and serious effort to understand, it’s likely that you can earn a high income with skill B.

Today I want to share four different skills I have learned over the past few years that are generally considered hard to learn that have directly helped me boost my income.

1. Statistics

I earned my master’s degree in applied statistics two years ago and only six other people at my university graduated with that specific degree that year. The reason that this was such an unpopular field was twofold:

1. Most people avoid statistics because of the confusing-looking formulas and intimidating course names. This means very few people choose to pursue this degree in the first place.

2. The curriculum is fairly hard. In particular, theoretical statistics is a nasty beast of a course. For the small group of people who decided to pursue a master’s degree in stats, this course proved to be the one that prevented the most people from graduating.

At most universities, statistics is one of the smallest departments for these exact two reasons: it’s intimidating and it’s hard. But this is why students who are able to overcome the intimidation factor and who are willing to do the hard work of understanding statistical concepts get rewarded with high salaries.

Personally I was able to leverage my own master’s degree and land a job as a data scientist with a salary of $80,000 when I was only 23. This high income helped me accumulate over $100k by age 24

In addition to using my degree to land a high salary, I’ve been able to use my knowledge of stats to tutor students for $40-50 per hour. During my most lucrative month, I earned over $1,000 purely from online tutoring.

The reason I’m able to charge such a high hourly rate is because there is a high demand for stats tutors and a low supply.

On the supply side, very few people know enough about statistics to actually teach it to others. On the demand side, there is a boatload of college students who are required to take one introductory stats course to fulfill a math/stats requirement for their degree, even if their degree isn’t in a math/stats field.

This combination of low supply and high demand is what allows me to charge a high rate for my time.

In addition, tutoring is one of the best side hustles that exists. There are virtually no startup costs, the income potential is high, and existing clients often refer new clients.

Personally I have been able to find people to tutor in person through posting ads on Craigslist (although now you have to pay to post ads in certain cities) and I’ve found people to tutor online through cold messaging people on Facebook.

I’ve found success through stats tutoring, but I imagine that tutoring works well in other niche topics as well like organic chemistry, foreign languages, computer programming, math, physics, etc.

If you have knowledge in a subject that most people are intimidate by, you can use that knowledge to earn some serious income.

JavaScript

The second skill that I’ve picked up that has helped me boost my income has been the programming language JavaScript. 

I first started dabbling in JavaScript while I was still in high school because I wanted to learn how to make interactive websites. The first few sites I made were clunky and ugly, but over time I got better.

Eventually, I created a stats educational website called Statology. That site includes interactive calculators and graph generators, which are coded entirely in JavaScript.

Creating that site had a direct impact on my income because it actually helped me land my first corporate job. I included the site as a side project on my resume, which got the attention of the hiring manager since very few college students actually do side projects outside of classes

Learning this programming language took several months of practice, but I picked it up fairly quickly because I was using it to directly build something online. This brings up an important point: I’ve found that the fastest way to pick up new skills is to attempt to build something using those skills

It sounds odd, but this approach to learning works and here’s why:

When you have to build something, your learning is both (1) need-based and (2) outcome-oriented.

(1) need-based: you only learn skills that you will need to build that thing you’re working on. 

(2) outcome-oriented: that thing you’re building is tangible. It will be seen by you and possibly others.

This guarantees that you only learn the most relevant and necessary skills because you literally need to know them to build that thing. And because that thing you’re building is tangible, you’re more likely to remember how you built it and the struggles you faced when building it. This makes the skills you learned more likely to stick in your brain.

D3.js

The third skill I’ve picked up that has helped me boost my income has been D3.js, a JavaScript library for producing interactive data visualizations. This is what I have used to create interactive maps and other dynamic visualizations on this site. These visualizations are some of my most popular posts and tend to drive serious traffic to my site, which ultimately leads to higher blog income.

D3.js is a difficult language to learn and I still consider myself to be an amateur. Naturally, due to this inherent difficulty, very few people actually know how to create interactive visualizations which helps set my blog apart. This is yet another example of a skill that’s hard to learn that leads to more income to earn.

R

The fourth skill I’ve picked up that has helped me boost my income has been R, a programming language for statistical computing. Learning this language is what helped me make the jump from a data analyst with a $52k salary to a data scientist with an $80k salary. 

Most data scientist jobs require that you know R, Python, or a similar programming language. Unfortunately, my university offered no R programming courses which meant I had to learn it on my own time. So, that’s exactly what I did.

Although I believe that building things is a better path to learning that taking traditional courses, I found the course The Analytics Edge to be helpful in learning R. In addition, I found it helpful to download RStudio, a free software environment where you can write and debug R code easily. 

R is a programming language with a steep learning curve, but this is the exact reason that you can earn a high salary if you have an understanding of it. 

The Fastest Way to Learn a Difficult Skill

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” -Richard Feynman

One of fastest ways to learn a difficult skill is to apply it to something you find interesting. Here is how I have done so with all four of the skills I listed above:

1. Statistics – To be completely honest, I pursued stats in college because I knew it was a field that offered a high income. When I started building my stats educational website, though, I become much more interested in the field because I had to learn the concepts thoroughly in order to write tutorials about them, which I found to be both fun and challenging.

2. JavaScript – I have always loved building websites. Since JavaScript is such an important skill when it comes to building sites, learning the ins and outs of it turned out to be fascinating to me because I was directly using it to build something interesting.

3. D3.js – Although this JavaScrript library has a steep learning curve, I was able to grasp the basics of it fairly quickly by using it to build cool visualizations like this one that visualizes the net worth of Americans by age. Since this was such a fun visualization to build, it made learning D3.js more of a game than a chore. 

4. R – I have always loved following the NBA and reading about the stats of different players and teams. So, when I first started learning R I would go online and download datasets from basketball-reference.com and then use R to summarize player stats and create visualizations using R libraries. Through working with data I found to be interesting, I was able to learn R much quicker than if I had simply followed the boring tutorials from textbooks.

Combine Your Skills

When you learn a difficult skill, you put yourself in a position to earn a high income for your expertise. However, when you learn more than one difficult skill and then combine those skills in unique ways, you put yourself in a position to earn an even higher income because your skillset is so unique.

For example, data scientists are rare because they need to know both programming and statistical concepts. There are tons of programmers out there and there are a decent amount of statisticians out there. There aren’t, however, very many people who know a bit about both programming and statistics. This is why data scientists earn high salaries: they possess a rare combination of skills.

This idea of combining two skills to become even more unique and in demand comes from Scott Adams, who was able to combine his ability to tell jokes and draw pictures to create the comic strip Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time.

Scott Adams Dilbert comic strip
One of my favorite Dilbert comic strips

In Scott’s own words:

“My combined mediocre skills are worth far more than the sum of the parts.  If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest. When it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.”

So, don’t just learn one difficult skill. Try to learn two or three. Then, see if you can combine those skills in unique ways to earn an even higher income.

The Takeaways

Here are the main takeaways from this post:

1. The harder a skill is to learn, the more income you can earn. Keep in mind that most people quit easily when they’re faced with problems they don’t know how to solve. This is especially true when it comes to learning a new programming language or any other difficult skill. That’s an advantage for you. More quitters = less competition.

2. You don’t need to take a course or read a textbook to pick up a new skill. Instead, I suggest trying to build something with that skill that you find interesting. When you get stuck, simply use the power of Google and YouTube to find the answers to your questions. 

3. Combine your skills to boost your income even more. When you learn a difficult skill, you become more valuable as an individual and can command a higher income for your time. When you learn two or more difficult skills and combine them, you become even more valuable and can command an even higher income for your time.


My favorite free financial tool I’ve been using since 2015 to manage my net worth is Personal Capital. Each month I use their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track my investments and ensure that I’m on the fast track to financial freedom.

My favorite place to find new personal finance articles to read is Collecting Wisdom, a site I created that collects the best personal finance articles floating around the web on a daily basis.


Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Terms & Conditions page for a full disclaimer.

11 Replies to “The Harder a Skill is To Learn, the More Income You Can Earn”

  1. A very good post!
    I’m self learning JavaScript as a hobby now, but working my way towards being a developer of sorts.

    May I know some of the resources you used to pick up this skill?

    Thanks for being inspiring.

    1. I’ve never found it easy to learn programming via YouTube videos. I like a more hands-on approach where I can actually type code and simply use Google when I get stuck. That’s not to say that other people may learn better with videos and guided instruction, though.

  2. Great post! I will prove your point: I actually abandoned my initial business major in favor of an English degree in large part because of that required intro statistics class!!! It all worked out for the best. You are a rare combination of analytical and communication traits, Zach; both sides of your brain are firing. You will go far in life!

    1. I know many people who also altered their college courseload/major to avoid stats classes as well! It seems pretty common haha. Thanks for the kind words, Lin! Always appreciate your feedback 🙂

  3. Exactly why I chose chemical engineering, there just aren’t many people with the particular mind slant to succeed in getting that degree but industry needs a lot of them. We aren’t as exciting at parties as you statistics guys though. Consequently I had my pick of dozens of companies that wanted to interview me before I graduated. The idea of combining skills worked for me too. I used my ability to write, act and speak to become a lobbyist and influencer in DC for my industry. And after I early retired I still take on both technical engineering and government regulations side gigs to stay sharp. Having multiple skill sets really can result in synergies that separate you from your peers. Really enjoyed this post. I think far too many people focus too narrowly in life, your success shows how mad skills in more than one area are priceless!

  4. Love the article and I’m so glad that your forward thinking and foresight made a huge income impact!
    I think the key word is “demand” for whatever you’re learning. A lot of skills can be learned and combined but without demand, it may not be a income source. It may be useful in your life, but research it and see if it may be substantial in someone else’s life so you can make some $.

  5. SO MUCH GOLD in this post. Mostly, it can apply to anyone young or old. Of course, the younger the person who applies the lesson from this post, the more return they’ll reap.

    I remember my office’s “secret weapon” (aka a programmer hired specifically in-office/in-house) to create IT solutions for operational efficiency. He was hired for a v. special/niche department whereby the apps/programs he created could be implemented at the office level without having to go thru the numerous, bureaucratic, national IT levels for approvals.

    His bargaining power is so strong, he once quit because he disagreed with how smthn should be done, and the company begged him to come back. Pretty unheard of right?

    Oh yea, he also automated his first job that was primarily data processing.

    Like my “secret weapon” colleague told me over lunch once, “the higher the barrier to entry, the more job security there is, the less replaceable, and naturally the higher pay for the job”.

    One of the challenges for technical ppl my VP mentions tho is their lack of people management skills. As you move up in pay grades, you’ll eventually reach management pay grade. No co will keep paying you manager pay grade for just taking on senior staff’s responsibilities.

    Many technical employees find a lot of challenge coaching, mentoring, deploying human capital resources most efficiently, and handling with politics (all in a manager’s day work).

    Many technical ppl (data scientists, programmers, engineers, actuaries, accountants) HATE the ppl management side of things. They’re great at understanding difficult concepts few ppl comprehend, but lack patience in translating difficult, technical concepts into easily understandable language for everyone else.

    If you can grasp this skill set early on, which I absolutely think u can based on your work on this site, your career is pretty unstoppable (think C-suite) my young, bright friend. You’re going far friend!

    Thank you for your fantastic posts!

    1. “The higher the barrier to entry, the more job security there is, the less replaceable, and naturally the higher pay for the job”. Love that quote! It’s exactly what I’m getting at in this post. The more you can differentiate yourself from the field with valuable skills, the more income you can earn and often the more flexibility you can have in your job because you’re such a valuable asset. Glad you enjoyed this post and thanks for the feedback 🙂

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