What’s the difference between having an opinion, making a living, and dedicating one’s life to something? What about saying one baseball team is better than another at the water cooler, betting on a game with a disagreeing friend, and elaborately cataloging every match in a rivalry over the years? The difference is having no skin in the game, having skin in the game, and having soul in the game.
According to Nassim Taleb, skin in the game is for practitioners but soul in the game is for artisans. Artisans are people who “do things for existential reasons first and for financial or commercial ones later.” Warren Buffett says he “tap dances to work” and having his net worth tied up on his own company makes for a good example of what it means to have soul in the game. Artisans, especially wildly successful ones, are rare.
The distinction between the three matters because we can use it to understand incentives in any situation. Don’t just look for the upside either – people are loss-averse so their attention to the downside often tells us the most about what is going on. If a person is giving advice we can ask ourselves if they are just offering a token opinion, if they’re charging for the opinion but have some downside exposure if they’re wrong, or if they’re charging and also somehow deeply invested in the view
These don’t actually alter the odds of the opinion necessarily (an obvious risk with artisans is crazy-good and crazy-bad are sometimes hard to distinguish if the person is passionate), but they give us an idea of where and what the underlying motivations are behind their guidance. Generally, the higher the stakes, the more we want someone shoulder to shoulder with us in a situation. Financially, reputationally, emotionally – we want some level of commitment. The more artisanal, the more creative they’re likely to be if and when additional effort is needed. This applies across all walks of life.
From a marketing perspective, the story we tell about what we do should at a minimum include how we have skin in the game. To whatever degree each of us is comfortable, and to the degree to which it’s authentic, we should be able to express and show how we have some soul in the game too. Moving from the efficient industrialization of “we do this professionally” towards the craftsperson who “really loves their work” is part of how mass markets divide into niche markets. The more soul in the game we present, the clearer our value proposition becomes.
For the important things, remember:
Friends > acquaintances.
Personalized > cookie cutter.
The more artisanal we truly are, the more we stand out. Not from being loud, but from our work and efforts speaking for itself over time. Strive to have some soul in the game.