Bill Gates once wrote that "The most meaningful way to... put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage, and use information," Gates wrote, "will determine whether you win or lose."
What's hard is that the information modern professionals need is always changing. Simply stockpiling facts and knowledge won't get you anywhere. Rather, you need to know how to access the information you need, when you need it.
This requires a skill so fundamental that we need a new definition of the word "literate."
For centuries, literacy was just the ability to read and write. Those who could read books -- and write them -- held the power in society.
Then the Internet came along and vastly multiplied the amount of information available on a daily basis. Power shifted to those who could enter the right terms into a search engine and wade through the results to the best links. Tech visionary John Battelle called this search literacy.
But today, not even that is enough. You need network literacy: knowing how to access the information and perspective flowing through your social network. You make better decisions when you can tap the unique, real-time intelligence of the people you know.
First, you need to map your social network. Ask yourself, "Of the people I know, who knows what?" You probably have acquaintances who are experts in different topics, as well as close friends who are experts in you and your personal preferences.
Next, you need to know how to ask questions that elicit helpful information. When talking to people in your network, consider: Should your questions be open-ended or narrow? Should you ping someone online or ask in person?
Finally, you need to synthesize the different perspectives you receive. People have biases; smart people may tell you different things. It's up to you to evaluate multiple points of view and come to a judgment.
If you do these things, you'll be on the path to becoming network literate. And as Gates predicted, you'll be putting distance between yourself and the competition.