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The third Rice Mountain Trade

I’m trying to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain. Get caught up here.

Trades so far

So far, I’ve made two trades:

I’m excited to announce trade three below.

This week’s trade

I have traded the books with Paul Sommer for an incredible grab bag of collectible items.

Here’s the full list:

  • Mint condition 40th-anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, autographed by Richard Dawkins
  • Fully intact half-billion-year-old Ediacaran fossil
  • 150-million-year-old dinosaur toe bone
  • A 5,000-year-old planting spade of a North American native
  • Hardcover, mint-condition book: Darwin, Portrait of a Genius

Check it out:

But wait, there’s more…. There are two other surprises that will be included in the package, but I’ll wait until next week to share those (assuming a trade hasn’t been locked in yet).

All-in, this stuff is probably worth $300-$400. We’ll split the difference and call it $350.

This trade represents a 6.3x return on the last item and a 12.1 million times return on the grain of rice.

Let’s make a trade

So… who’s next?

Hit “reply” and let me know if you’d want to swap something for this museum-worthy lineup.

Maybe you have an old Mac, or a smartphone, or a P.O.S car you want to get rid of. I don’t know, just hit me up and let’s make something happen.

As a reminder, anybody who offers to help (even if your trade isn’t accepted) will be invited to a huge opening party on the mountain.

See you on Rice Mountain.


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The second Rice Mountain trade

A couple of weeks ago, I announced a plan to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain.

The idea is not completely new. In 2004, a blogger traded a red paperclip all the way up to a house and he did it in less than a year, making just 14 trades in total.

I’m convinced that because the internet has matured so much since then, the scale and scope of trades you can make today have gotten much bigger. It should be easier than ever to find people willing to exchange value.

Trades so far

So far, I’ve made one trade: the grain of rice for a paid Trends.VC report (retail: $20).

That represented a 689,655x return on the grain of rice.

This week’s trade

I’m thrilled to announce that this week I finalized a trade with Josh Thompson for a grab bag of classic books.

Feast your eyes:

A collection of classic books

Here’s the full list:

  • Liar’s Poker
  • Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb
  • Getting to Yes
  • M.D.: One Doctor’s Adventures Among the Famous and Infamous from the Jungles of Panama to a Park Avenue Practice
  • The Child In The Family
  • Kon-Tiki 

If you went on Amazon and ordered the cheapest used copies of each of these, it’d cost $56 all-in.

This trade represents a 2.8x return on the last item and a 1.93 million times return on the grain of rice.

Let’s make a trade

So… who wants to trade next?

If you’re not familiar with any of the books above, Josh put together a brilliant summary on how he chose each.

Email me at stew@stewfortier.com if you want to swap something for the books.

As a reminder, anybody who offers to help will be invited to a huge opening party on Rice Mountain.


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The first Rice Mountain trade

I am using the internet to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain.

I’m doing this because I think we vastly underestimate the power of the internet.

If opportunities flow from the networks that we are a part of, then using the internet in clever ways gives you access to a network of over 4 billion other human beings who you can exchange value with.

Last Sunday, I offered to trade this grain of rice, valued at about $.000029, with the tiny corner of the internet that reads this newsletter.

You all did not disappoint.

Within 24 hours, I locked in a trade for something worth $20.

That’s a 689,655x return.

And while those types of returns make the average hedge fund manager look a chimp hurling feces by comparison, the best part was that the trade was a win-win for both parties.

I traded the rice for an information product, which didn’t cost the creator anything to replicate.

He gets a piece of history (or a delicious, tiny meal) and I get a badass product that I know other people will want.

Drum roll, please…

I have traded the grain of rice with Dru Riley for a paid Trends.VC report.

I’ll share a bit more detail at the bottom of this email.

Every single one of you who replied has been added to a “Rice Mountain” spreadsheet and will be invited to the opening party.

Let’s get this mountain.


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I want to trade this grain of rice for a mountain

I’ve been writing a lot about how the internet creates spectacular leverage for people willing to share their ideas publicly.

I’ve also written a ton about how storytelling is a valuable skill.

But nice-sounding ideas are cheap. I want to start running some experiments to see how they hold up in the real world.

How much value can be created out of thin air using purely storytelling and the internet?

Here’s the plan…

I have a grain of rice.

I got it from the big-ass bag of rice in my pantry.

It’s a fantastic grain of rice

I want to trade this grain of rice with you for something slightly more valuable.

Then, I want to trade that thing for something more valuable.

And I want to keep doing this until somebody trades me a mountain. Like, a literal mountain.

Maybe it will be a cheap mountain like this one in Kentucky or a big one like this in North Carolina.

Regardless, getting a mountain is the end goal.

I will attempt to use the internet, a narrative about why it would be dope for this to work out, and the goodwill of humankind to make this happen.

If you offer to help in any way, I will write down your name and you will be invited to a huge opening party when we get the mountain.

So… take 10 seconds to look around you right now. 

Do you have anything you’d be willing to trade me for this grain of rice?

Email me at stew@stewfortier.com and let’s work something out (I’ll cover shipping/logistics).

And I’ll start sharing a progress update in Stew’s Letter each week.

To Rice Mountain,
Stew


I’ll be sharing an update each week in Stew’s Letter below:

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How To Quantify Your Storytelling Skills

(or how to sell $129 worth of crap on eBay for $3,613)

I’m convinced that storytelling is one of the most overlooked skills on the planet.

So, naturally, I was amped up when I stumbled across the work of Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker last weekend.

In 2009, they designed a brilliant experiment to measure the value of great storytelling in a more objective way.

They bought a bunch of cheap, random crap from thrift stores and hired some professional writers to write a story about each object with the goal of “[attributing] significance” to it.

Then, they posted each item on eBay (using the story as the item’s description) and started the auction at whatever price they had paid for the thing.

The result?

From Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work!:

By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of trinkets for $3,612.51.

Glorious.

I hope to see the day where storytelling moves from being a “soft,” nice-to-have skill to something with more quantifiable value.


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Robert Smalls: A Badass American

Portrait of Robert Smalls
By the time he died, Robert Smalls owned the home where he had been born a slave. At one point, his former master’s wife had even become one of his tenants.

Over a campfire this weekend, my fiance told me the story of Robert Smalls. If you’ve never heard his story, prepare to have your mind blown…

Robert Smalls was born a slave in South Carolina in 1839. When he died 75 years later, he owned the home where he was born. At one point, he even allowed his former master’s wife to move back in as his tenant.

Here’s an insanely short summary of the life of a larger-than-life American.

Robert Smalls outsmarts the Confederate Navy

A young Robert Smalls
A young Robert Smalls

When Robert Smalls was in his early 20’s, the Civil War had just broken out. He was assigned to work on a confederate ship, the USS Planter.

The Planter was stationed in Charleston, just a few miles south from a blockade of Union ships.

To slaves like Robert Smalls, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote, the Union blockade wasn’t a threat but rather “a tantalizing promise of freedom.”

If Smalls could get to the Union ships, he knew he stood a chance at gaining his freedom.

One day in May 1862, Smalls decided that he would steal the Planter from the Confederate navy and head north to freedom or die trying.

An insanely dangerous gamble

Late one night, he shared his plan with some of the other slaves on board while the white crew slept ashore. Within just a few hours, they decided to make their escape.

Smalls put on the white captain’s straw hat, ordered the crew to hoist Confederate and South Carolina flags, and left port — a black captain with an all-black crew, steering a Confederate naval ship towards freedom.

Smalls played the part of a white naval captain brilliantly and tricked a series of Confederate checkpoints on their way North.

From Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Smalls blows the ship’s whistle while passing Confederate Forts Johnson and, at 4:15 a.m., Fort Sumter, “as cooly as if General Ripley was on board.” Smalls not only knows all the right Navy signals to flash; he even folds his arms like Capt. Rylea, so that in the shadows of dawn, he passes convincingly for white.

USS Planter

The Union navy nearly kills Small and his crew

By sunrise, Smalls and his crew had nearly reached the Union blockade. Freedom was mere yards away when it struck him:

Oh, s***. I just sailed a Confederate ship directly into enemy territory. These Union ships are going to blow us to bits.

His wife, who he had snuck on board, came up with a brilliant plan…

She frantically scrubbed some sheets with soap until they took on a white-ish color and then hoisted the improvised surrender flags within seconds of the Union opening fire and possibly killing everybody on board.

From an eyewitness account that day:

Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, ‘I see something that looks like a white flag’…

When [the crew of the Planter] discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping… [one of the] men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’

From slave to naval officer to U.S. congressman

Not long after the surrender of the ship, the Union Navy paid Smalls and his crew half of its appraised value — around $40,000 in today’s dollars.

The naval officers who got to know Smalls described him as “superior to any who have come into our lines — intelligent as many of them have been.” 

The Navy appointed him captain of the Planter, where he fought the Confederacy for years. Smalls even helped convince Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to let black Americans fight for the Union.

Following the war, Smalls bought his old master’s home in South Carolina. He launched a series of business ventures, including a small railroad company and a local newspaper.

He then turned his energy towards politics, eventually becoming a state senator and a U.S. Congressman.

This quote from an 1895 speech Smalls gave summarizes the central theme in his life’s work:

My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.

In Conclusion

I’m embarrassed I didn’t know about Robert Smalls until today.

He is as pure an American hero as any other towering figure from U.S. history.

I can’t help but wonder, earnestly, where is his statue?


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You can pretty much always destroy value

Towards the end of the cruise I took through the Galápagos Islands in 2017, Richard Dawkins sat down next to me on the back deck.

“Stewart, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this cryptocurrency stuff. What’s the deal?”

For the entire trip, I hadn’t shut up about what was going on in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space (it was late 2017 during peak madness). Finally, I had caught Dawkins’ attention.

With an enthusiasm only possible during a huge bubble, I gave him a layman’s explanation of blockchain and why it mattered.

I told him that Ethereum, not Bitcoin, was where the real opportunity was (highly debatable!).

Buy some Ethereum now, I said, and it will be like buying Google early.

He asked how somebody would go about following my advice, so I gave him this note:

I felt a deep sense of satisfaction after handing it to him.

Ah, what a treat. For all the value Dawkins has brought to my life, I finally get to repay the favor.

At the time, Ethereum was trading around $750.

Today, it traded at $226.

Goddamnit.

You can always add value, but I guess you can pretty much always destroy it too.


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You can pretty much always add value

In 2017, I spent a few days traveling through Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with Richard Dawkins.

If you don’t know Dawkins, he’s a famous writer, atheist, and evolutionary biologist.

He’s written more New York Times Bestsellers than most writers have written books.

He’ll be remembered as one of history’s most influential thinkers.

So you can imagine my surprise when one afternoon he passed around a manuscript of his next book and asked a few of us on the trip for feedback.

What on Earth could I tell Richard Dawkins about how his next book could be better?

The book was a beginner’s guide to atheism written for kids and young adults who were having doubts about the Bible and religion in general.

It was meant to be a sort of guide to help them articulate their doubts.

And after I read the first couple chapters, I realized something…

Yeah, these chapters are absolute fire, but what’s the point if the kid never brings it up to their parents? If they’re going to build confidence in their new beliefs, they need to ask adults questions and then see how bad their answers are.

The rest of the group chimed in with suggestions, but it was mostly just one form of praise or another.

Dawkins politely nodded along…

“You should add questions at the end of each chapter that a kid can ask their parents at the dinner table,” I told Dawkins.

He lit up.

“That’s a wonderful idea. Yes, I love that,” he said. He asked his girlfriend to write down the suggestion.

It was the only one he wrote down.

“Damn,” I thought to myself. “I guess I can pretty much always add value if I just try.”


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Why You Should Share Your Ideas Online

To share your ideas with the world, share them online

A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet’s Opportunity Machine

The internet is a money printer for smart people willing to share their ideas online.

Like any printer, it can take lots of trial and error to get it working. Sometimes it runs out of ink. It can jam. But when it works, it’s pure magic.

If you have an internet connection and a basic impulse to share your ideas, then you picked a great time to be alive. You can take advantage of two unprecedented opportunities:

  1. Building a profitable one-person media company around you and your ideas
  2. Pouring gasoline on your career by sharing your ideas online

Neither opportunity is “easy,” but the upside for each is huge.

Also, these opportunities didn’t exist for the entirety of human history — until now. Lucky us.

1. One-person media companies

A one-person media company is a profitable media company built around the ideas of a single person with at most one or two full-time employees — and often none at all.

This only became possible relatively recently.

Why Today Is Special

  • It’s now pretty much free to distribute media thanks to the internet
  • Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers (i.e. always-on and always-online media devices) are affordable and most people have one on them at all times
  • Because the internet and internet-connected devices have been widely adopted, it’s now possible to reach nearly any niche on Earth (lots of new audiences!) 
  • Production software and hardware have become wildly affordable and accessible

The internet has created an opportunity to build a media company powered by the ideas of a single person, a payroll smaller than a convenience store, and revenues large enough that the company could trade on the NASDAQ.

It’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of competition. It can take a long time. But this is a post about possibilities, not probabilities.

Let’s have some fun and look at the upside potential of one-person media companies.

The podcast that could trade on the NASDAQ

Tim Ferriss and Tyler Cowen

In 2007, a relatively unknown Tim Ferriss published The 4-Hour Workweek.

The book sold well and, year after year, Ferriss continued to blog and publish books and amassed “a monthly audience in the millions or tens of millions.” (source)

In 2014, he was burned out from writing books and decided to launch a podcast as an experiment.

He used less than $1,000 worth of equipment and distributed the podcast for free across major podcasting platforms.

He was able to acquire an early enthusiastic following thanks to the audience he had spent years building, but it didn’t take long before the podcast reached far beyond his existing blog and book fans.

Today, The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes.

What you might not know is that The Tim Ferriss Show generates enough revenue from advertising that, were it to make a few structural and governance changes, it would be eligible to trade on the NASDAQ as a stand-alone company.

In the last three years alone, his podcast has generated nearly $17 million in revenue.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of The Tim Ferriss Show’s estimated revenue over the past few years:

Absolutely buck wild.

And it still costs next to nothing to produce the show… 

He still uses just $1,000 worth of production equipment and famously leverages internet-first tools and services and a personal assistant to manage the minutiae of his media empire while he’s largely free to focus on content production.

If he took the podcast public, its biggest expense would be the legal and regulatory overhead — not the operational costs of the underlying business.

While the top-line revenue of his podcast wouldn’t blow many NASDAQ companies out of the water, its margins would.

How do one-person media companies make money?

Not everybody can or wants to launch a wildly-successful podcast, and that’s fine.

There are plenty of ways to use the internet to build a profitable media company around your ideas. I’ll break down three popular strategies below.

The first two mostly require building a big audience like Ferriss, but the last one doesn’t and can get to profitability quickly.

1. Advertising and affiliate marketing

Tim Ferriss makes a mountain of money from advertising.

Companies want to pay to get in front of the big audience he’s built and they’re willing to shell out $54,000 for a single ad slot in a single episode of his podcast.

He’s also made a killing with affiliate marketing…

He’ll partner up with a company and get paid whenever his readers or listeners purchase one of their products. You’ve probably noticed these links embedded throughout his blog and email newsletter.

If you can build a huge audience using the internet, you can have an extraordinary, low-overhead advertising business.

It’s not rocket science. 

And, thankfully, it’s far from the only way to get paid to share your ideas online.

(p.s. if you don’t want to build a one-person media empire, you can skip ahead to how sharing your ideas online can help accelerate your career)

2. Book sales and paid speaking gigs

Many writers or semi-public figures make an envy-inducing living combining book sales with paid speaking gigs.

This used to only be a possibility for people who were already well-known or influential, or an incredibly lucky handful of promising writers who managed to land a book deal.

But now people are using the internet to build their own influence and let the publishers flock to them.

James Clear is one example.

A few years ago, he was a nobody.

Here’s one of his first tweets:

Just a handful of likes. Sad!

But he used an aggressive SEO and email list-building strategy to go from unknown to internet-famous in just a few years.

Over 715,000 people now subscribe to his weekly newsletter alone.

Wild.

But despite having a big audience, he’s shunned advertising and has largely optimized his business around book sales and speaking engagements.

He leveraged his email list to get a book deal with a major publisher and launch the NY Times bestseller Atomic Habits (over 1M copies sold). 

And his speaking fees are now approaching that of some former U.S. presidents.

It costs tens of thousands of dollars to get him to show up to your next event — a fee that he’s been able to increase in lockstep with his audience growth.

If there’s a formula here, it goes something like: 

  1. Use the internet to build an audience and momentum around your ideas
  2. Roll that momentum into a book deal
  3. Use your book to make money and build your credibility
  4. Use your credibility to increase your speaking fees and help grow your audience even more 
There’s a compounding effect of putting out great work

The one big drawback of the book/speaking and advertising models are that they typically need a big audience before they start working well.

There’s a third business model, though, that doesn’t require an army of enthusiastic fans and is filled with success stories…

3. Paid content and online courses

The internet is filled with people you’ve never heard of who are making a living, and in many cases a killing, sharing their expertise on a narrow, deep topic.

They’ll likely never make as much as a Tim Ferriss, but I mean who cares? There are some stunning success stories of no-name people striking gold within a niche.

Adam Wathan is one. He’s built a one-person media company around his programming tutorials, online classes, and e-books.

Check out his sales over the past 4 years (the 2nd tweet below):

He did not hire legions of full-time employees to help him hit $4 million in sales. He just kept pushing out educational videos and PDFs that he produced and distributed himself.

And, by the way, he’s no Steven Spielberg. Many of his videos are him just recording a screencast for 30 minutes as he debugs some obscure programming issue.

Another well-paid expert is Ben Thompson, whose paid newsletter Stratechery brings in over $2,500,000 each year from tech investors and entrepreneurs who pay for a subscription. (source)

The headcount for his multi-million-dollar-per-year business? 

Himself and a personal assistant.

Pure madness.

Here’s the rough playbook:

The internet gives you an unprecedented opportunity to turn your knowledge into information products that you can sell to nearly any company or person on Earth who needs it.

4. The swiss army knife approach

In reality, many one-person media companies use a combination of business models.

Despite shunning advertising, James Clear embeds affiliate links for any books he recommends. He also sells an online course about habits.

But therein lies the beauty of the one-person media company…

There are tons of creative ways to turn your ideas into money. You can use whichever ones make the most sense for your particular goal or situation.

2. Pour gasoline on your career

Maybe you don’t want to quit your job to start podcasting, blogging, or recording videos for 40 hours each week.

Thankfully, there’s a much more practical reason why some of us might want to start sharing our ideas online (and you can do it in your spare time):

Sharing your ideas online is one of the fastest ways to gain visibility as an expert or leader in your industry.

I’m not talking about crappy “thought leadership” content…

I’m talking about sharing good ideas that will earn you the respect of your peers and will make other people want to work with you.

Your public writing (or podcast or YouTube videos) are like a calling card for like-minded people to find you.

There are mountains of success stories here…

Holly Whitaker leveraged her blog to close a $10M round of funding for her sobriety school, Tempest.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used Twitter to help go from bartender to the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Fred Wilson routinely points to his blog as paving the way for his success as New York City’s leading venture capitalist.

Nick Caldwell, an executive at Looker (recently bought for $2.6 billion), recently tweeted that not writing publicly sooner in his career was a mistake:

And while it typically takes a while to start gaining visibility online, I’ve seen plenty of exceptions… including a few up close.

When my friend Dan Li started writing a newsletter about venture capital in the pacific northwest last year, it only took a few months before other VCs and entrepreneurs began obsessively reading his work.

From the CEOs of local companies:

To other local entrepreneurs and investors:

He now has over 1,000 high-profile people in his industry waiting to hear from him each week.

You’ve already done the hard work to learn some important stuff. Why not invest some extra time to share it?

Your knowledge becomes exponentially more valuable when other people know you have it. Take it from this 19-year-old who just landed a dream internship after the CEO of Zoom saw one of his tweets:

Oh, and there’s one other thing: by forcing yourself to commit your ideas to paper, you’ll inevitably learn much quicker than your peers who don’t.

It’s a beautiful one-two punch: you become more knowledgeable and you become known as somebody with that knowledge to the people you want to connect with most.

Forget a big audience. You can pour gasoline on your career by building a small, targeted following made up of people who can help catapult you ahead.

Less lucrative (but still valid) reasons to share your ideas online

There are two less lucrative, but still-very-valid reasons to share your ideas online.

Both are worth a quick honorable mention.

3. Sharing your ideas online makes you accountable to create

I launched Stew’s Letter primarily as a way to keep myself accountable to write more in general.

I needed a creative outlet and this blog has been a wonderful way of keeping myself accountable to produce something every week.

There is something about having an audience at the other end of this that keeps me more productive than other creative outlets where I’m only accountable to myself.

Publicly commit to share your ideas, start building a small audience, and you’ll produce more than you could have ever imagined.

4. Sharing your ideas online helps you stay in touch with interesting people

Another big benefit of sharing your ideas online is that you get to keep in touch with interesting people at scale.

Every weekend, I sit down, huff and puff and write blog posts about god knows what, and then send my thoughts directly to people that I like and want to stay in touch with.

Some of them inevitably hit reply.

These aren’t people I plan to work with immediately, they’re just interesting people who I would normally run the risk of falling out of touch with.

Maybe there are more efficient ways of keeping in touch with people, but I haven’t found one better than sending out an email to all of them at once every single week.

So… now what?

If you like sharing your ideas, you picked an unbelievable time to be alive.

If you’re willing to put them online, you’ll have access to enormous opportunities.

From building a profitable, low-overhead media company to getting ahead in your career by attracting the people who can help you most… the upside is just silly.

The costs are mostly just your time.

So… open up Twitter, Medium, WordPress, iMovie, TikTok, or whatever, and get to work.


Thank you to the Compound Writing members who provided feedback on early drafts of this: Bhaumik Patel, Chris Sheffield, Dan Hunt, Dan Li, Diana Hawk, Gary Basin, Jesse Evers, Joel Christiansen, Julia LaSalvia, Nick Drage, and Richie Bonilla.

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Hunter-Gatherers Value Storytelling Over Hunting Skills

The Agta hunter gatherers value storytelling over hunting skills
Members of the Agta hunter-gatherer society in the Philippines

I recently stumbled across a study that was done on the role of storytelling in a hunter-gatherer community in the Philippines.

The researchers found that the presence of talented storytellers was associated with greater cooperation amongst tribe members.

Storytelling seemed to set expectations of how everybody was supposed to act, which resulted in more cooperation.

Seems reasonable, if not obvious…

But then the researchers did something clever: they asked tribe members who they’d most like to live with.

Those viewed as skilled storytellers were twice as likely to be nominated than their less-skilled counterparts.

Storytelling ability was more predictive than fishing and hunting skills, medicinal knowledge, and reputation or status.

…the Agta prefer to live in camps with skilled storytellers, who are even more valued than good foragers.

So even in a primitive culture where a hard skill like hunting might seem more important, a “soft skill” like storytelling was valued more.

Do with this information what you will, but I feel like it contains some wisdom for those of us encouraged to specialize and focus on “hard skills.”

Why not also become a great storyteller?