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What “The Rock” can teach us about cashing in on your transferable skills

Last Updated:

November 17, 2023

Table of Contents

Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? Your strengths might come in handy somewhere else!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? “The Rock” used what he learned on the football field and turned into the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.

It’s 1991. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the only first-year student on the University of Miami football team. The team had a "brash culture,” Johnson recalls, ”Where the s*** talking was an art form.”

Johnson was, as his coach reminisced, "a helluva football player.” But one day, he was injured and required surgery: a full shoulder reconstruction.

Though he kept playing, Johnson was unable to catch up. Unfit to be drafted by the NFL, Johnson joined the Canadian Football League in 1995, only to be cut two months later. With only $7 to his name at the age of 23, Johnson went to the only place he could: back to his family in Florida.

It was then that Johnson met WWF (now WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment) recruiter, Jim Ross. Ross knew Johnson’s father—who was also a wrestler—and had “kept tabs” on Johnson’s track record of “start[ing] goals and accomplish[ing] them.” Over lunch, Johnson made his next plans clear: “I’m going to be your No. 1 guy.” Ross signed him on the spot.

Fast forward, and Johnson became The Rock, a 275-pound wrestler. But The Rock wasn’t just a wrestler—he became “the most charismatic superstar in WWE” thanks to his catchphrases like “roody poo, candy a**”, which were directly recycled from his college football days.

Fast forward some more, and Johnson went on to use the stage crafting he learned from football and perfected in WWE onto the big screen through films like Fast and Furious 6, Moana, and Jumanji. Today? The Rock is one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.

So, the next time you find yourself at a career dead end, remember The Rock, who took his transferrable skills and brought them elsewhere.

“The Rock” (L to R) on the football field (circa 1991, age 19), in the WWE ring (circa 1998, age 26), and in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019, age 47). (Images via Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and EW.)

(2) A study of the present

Did you know? No matter who you are, you have skills that are in demand.

The Rock has what are called “transferable skills”, or, the skills that can serve you well regardless of your industry or profession. Yes—as The Rock showed, humor and a big build can be transferable, too! And no—you don’t need to have big biceps and a bald head to be valuable. This past March, Fortune released a list of today’s top transferable skills. This list includes

  • Computer and technology fluency
  • Leadership skills
  • Verbal communication
  • The ability to take initiative
  • Business management skills
  • Customer service skills
  • Thoroughness and attention to detail
  • Flexibility and an openness to change
  • The ability to accept criticism and work well under pressure, and
  • The ability to work well with others

Y’all have probably seen these lists before, or one like it—but The Rock shows us that these jargon-filled lists aren’t useful on their own. It’s easy (but also ineffective) to just let our eyes gloss over the jargon. It’s harder (but far more effective) to think abstractly about what each of these skills means.

Take the case of “leadership skills.” What is leadership? If we define leadership as the ability to motivate others to get something done, then you don’t need to have been a manager to demonstrate “leadership”; if you were ever a camp counselor and babysitter, you were demonstrating leadership every single day. 

So what? You’re more valuable than your job title. You just need to sell yourself like The Rock.

(3) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Get comfortable selling yourself. Your future depends on it!

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “This is BS!” The Rock also had a well-connected dad!

Trust me: I had the same reaction! Sure, The Rock wouldn’t have gotten his big break had his dad not known that WWE recruiter, but consider this: Knowing a recruiter may have been necessary (to land a meeting), but it wouldn’t have been sufficient (to secure the job).

The Rock’s successful transition also required that he (A) leave behind a positive reputation (even in childhood!) and (B) sell himself. This week, let’s talk about (B):

(1) Think about your current job (or your most recent job, internship, or extracurricular activity).

(2) Recall the most frustrating or stressful experience you had.

(3) Fill in these blanks: “When I was a ______, I had a situation where ______. The stakes were high because ______. So, I took it upon myself to ______. Knowing how to ______ would also serve me well in any situation that involves ______.”

(4) Repeat this exercise as many times as you can.

…And just like that, you just gave yourself a solid collection of stories with which to sell yourself!

I know it because I’ve experienced it: In my former life as a consultant, I spent hours compiling data, and then synthesizing what I’d learned. There were things I had to unlearn (like how to not use corporate jargon), but who knew those transferrable skills would come in handy when I wrote The Unspoken Rules!

Keep refining your skills!

Gorick

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