Stop Overlooking These Essential Skills

Do not neglect the small skills for the flashy ones

“Most people never find God because they don’t look low enough.”
— Carl Jung

Most people think that success comes from doing big things, all of the time.

If you do one big thing, then you have made it. If you just had one big victory, then that would eliminate the need to win ever again in life. If you just had one big achievement, then you would never have to worry about doing anything well ever again.

But that is not true.

A big victory cannot solve every problem that may occur. Significant wins do not remove every obstacle. Often, big wins lead to bigger problems.

Small things matter. And sometimes, the small things make the biggest difference.

The truth is that the small, boring, or sometimes even basic skills are the ones that can lead us to great success — or even prevent the greatest failures.


The First Step: Fingers and Toes

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
 — Confucius

Years ago, I practiced martial arts. One of the first things that I learned still resonates today.

When I first started watching karate and martial arts in general — whether it be in movies, in person, or in a class — I remember being awestruck at some of the physical feats that the individuals performed. Some of the kicks, punches, and throws amazed me.

When I walked into my first class, I anticipated that I would need to learn the basics before I could perform any of those movements.

However, I did not anticipate some of the other beginning lessons. One lesson, in particular, still affects and informs my learning process.

I thought I knew what a punch was. I had seen people punch in the movies. I had watched a little bit of boxing. I even had played Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out on Nintendo as a kid.

I also thought I knew how to kick. You just stick your leg out and the person in front of you flies backward, right?

In the first class, my instructor told me that injuries will happen to the weakest area of our body.

I had to strengthen the weakest parts of my body so that I could develop the ability to train and practice over long periods of time — both in individual training sessions and also over weeks and months.

All of this sounded great to me. But then she told me the two areas that were weakest on my body:

My fingers and my toes.

And I had to train them before anything else.

Is that right?

I wanted to be Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. I did not want to spend time strengthening my fingers and making my toes stronger. That was boring and tedious and not very fun. What happened to practicing punches and kicks?

Looking back, my instructors were absolutely correct. An injury will always occur at the weakest spot. I have the scars to prove it.

In learning anything, there are certain areas that, if weak, will not allow us to perform.

I have begun to search for these areas in my life. Below are nine essential skills that I have realized are boring and uncool. But I have found these skills to be essential and impactful in my own life. They are the equivalent of training fingers, wrists, and toes so you can fight like Bruce Lee (or Donnie Yen or Jackie Chan or Jet Li).


1. How to Run a Meeting

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.” 
― Dave Barry

Nothing halts daily momentum like a poorly planned meeting. After one particularly painful meeting many years ago, I left the room, walked directly to my computer, and immediately typed into Google: “I hate meetings”.

The first result was a book called “Death by Meeting”. I thought the God was sending me a message so I bought the book immediately. I purchased so quickly I did not even realize that I bought the audiobook. It didn’t matter. The book was amazing and changed my life. I learned why I hated meetings so much. And I learned what I could do to change.

A few other books have been helpful in combating horrible meetings: Meetings Suck and No Fail Meetings.

If you don’t have time to read those books, here are some of the key principles that I’ve learned:

  • Agenda. Never attend a meeting without an agenda, if you can help it. This includes meetings that you organize.
  • No distractions. If you are running a meeting, do not permit the meeting to get off track. Stick to the agenda.
  • Start with 80%. Do not use meetings for brainstorming sessions. Every idea presented at a meeting needs to be fleshed out to at least 80% of a solution prior to the meeting, or it does not get discussed. Someone needs to apply his or her best thinking to an idea before presenting to others.
  • End Early. Always end early. Time is valuable. The more people that are in the meeting, the more you need to value each minute in the meeting.
  • Accountable. The person running the meeting must keep people accountable. If someone makes a commitment at the meeting, then there must be follow through.

Please stop crushing people at meetings.

Running a great meeting is an underrated and essential skill.


2. How to Read a Book

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
— Mortimer Adler

Most people do not read books.

Others read everything but books.

And there are people who read books but never get anything out of those books. For many years, this was me.

One of the best lessons that I have ever learned is how to extract the best information from a book. And then use that information in my life.

  • For nonfiction books, I take notes in the margin of the book. While reading, I mark passages that I could use as illustrations or examples in my writing or speaking.
  • I always mark quotes or passages that I want to share or memorize.
  • I have developed a method to capture my notes and quotes. I do this in a way that is outside of the book so I do not need to carry the book around with me to benefit from it.
  • My favorite books are marked up and highlighted so that all I need to do is open the book to instantly remind myself of the best principles.
  • For fiction reading, I make notes about powerful passages, jokes, and stories that I might be able to use later.
  • Certain books are so influential on me that I create short summaries that I review periodically.
  • Re-reading the best books is one of the best tips that I can give anyone.

My wife still makes fun of me (in a wonderful way) for reading a book called How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler. It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.

Knowing how to extract the best information from a book is an essential skill.


3. How to Be a Student

“You cannot add water to a cup that is full.”
— Zen proverb

Everyone wants to be a master. No one wants to be a student.

I wrote an entire article about this.

In essence, students need to (in this order):

  • Stop talking.
  • Listen.
  • Ask questions.

Stop always trying to be the master. Embrace being a student.

Knowing how to be a student is an essential skill.


4. How to Ask Questions

“If you do not have a question, you were not paying attention.”
— My dad (John Mashni Sr.)

How many times have you heard:

There are no stupid questions.

But that can’t be true. You know that you have heard questions that are less than informed.

But what is the real problem? No one teaches how to ask questions.

My dad is right.

If you don’t have a question after you listen, then you were not paying attention.

But how do we ask good questions?

Here is a guide: ask to learn something. Do not just ask simply because you do not know. There is a difference.

The difference is determined by whether you have done your homework before you ask the question.

Asking questions is an essential skill.


5. How to Use Google

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”
―Seth Godin

I am amazed at how much I can learn just from searching on the Internet. Google is truly amazing.

Google has eliminated the excuse of “I don’t know” from nearly every vocabulary. You may not know, but you can certainly find out, right?

During job interviews, we always tell the interviewee which attorney is interviewing them the next morning. The interviewees get the names around 9 or 10 pm the night before the interview. Interviews start at 8:30 am. There is not much time, but there is enough time to do a few Google searches about each person who will interview them.

I always ask questions that check to see if the interviewee has done any searches about me or my firm. I want to know if the interviewee cares enough about the job to dig in before meeting me.

Obviously, there is power in search.

But the smartest people use Google differently.

They use it to tell their story before anyone else does.

We can all anticipate that some people will search for us, or our companies, or our organizations, before they meet or interact with us.

We have an incredible opportunity to create and tell the story about us that we want people to know before we even meet.

Knowing how to use Google is an essential skill.


6. How to Know When Google Isn’t Good Enough

“Information is not knowledge.” 
―Albert Einstein

You can learn an incredible amount of information on the Internet.

But you can’t learn everything.

There are some things that you will never learn no matter how long you search on Google. There are some things that cannot be learned by searching online.

Information is becoming commoditized, but it is not there yet.

Some information is rare enough that you cannot learn it on your own. You need someone else’s help.

Sometimes Google is not enough. Sometimes Google will lead you astray.

There are some things you cannot (or should not) rely on Google to tell you:

  • High-level training in a field
  • Most legal advice (I am a lawyer)
  • Mentorship

The above list, however, is my list. Your list might be different. But you should be able to discern what you cannot learn on your own.

This is an essential skill.


7. How to Be New in an Organization

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
 — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Most people have no idea how to be the new person in an organization.

Some people learn, over time, how to integrate and participate.

But some people never learn.

There are a select few, however, that get it right from the very beginning.

A friend of mine, John Elieff, served as an assistant pastor at a church for over 25 years. When he stepped down, he told me he was looking for a new church to attend with his family.

I suggested that he check out where my wife and I attended. A few weeks later, I saw him at our church.

I loved seeing him, but what he did amazed me.

  • John sat in the first few rows, right in the center.
  • John was greeting people and introducing himself to nearly every person around him.
  • I even saw John opening doors for people and welcoming them to the church.

As I saw all of this, John looked like he knew almost everyone in the place! He must have been here before without me knowing.

I told him after the service, “Why didn’t you tell me that you have been here before?”

Then John said, to my amazement, “I have never been here before. Today is my first time. You are the only person I know here.”

I was amazed.

John’s attitude in a brand new place shaped how I think about being new. He did not look around to see how everyone else was acting. He decided to be someone that could contribute to the organization on the very first day — when he was only visiting!

  • He acted like an owner.
  • He was responsible.
  • He introduced himself to people.

Being new in an organization happens often. And doing it well is an essential skill.


8. How to Small Talk

“Always say ‘hi’ to anyone within 10 feet of you.”
— Sam Walton

Many people hate to engage in “small talk”. They hate to talk about things that do not matter to them. They despise having to “invent” conversation just to avoid awkward silence.

Most people leave before the silence strikes.

The truth is that small talk can lead to bigger conversations.

Most relationships develop by starting a conversation. Even if the conversation is mundane, at the beginning.

Isn’t it a little odd when you are close to someone and you do not say a single word?

Yes.

The friendliest people I know all have the ability to fill the gap of silence with some words. They destroy the barriers between people with a greeting and possibly a conversation.

And more often than not, the short conversation can turn into an opportunity: an opportunity to help or to be helped.

Small talk leads to big opportunities.

Small talk is an essential skill.


9. How to Accept a Gift

“Presents are made for the pleasure of who gives them, not the merits of who receives them.”
―Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I was right in the middle of the phase that many people go through — where you want to become more responsible and look like a professional.

I wanted to look good when I performed on my job. But sometimes looking good is expensive.

So I asked my parents for a blue suit for Christmas. If only I had a blue suit, I would look professional, feel great, and people would love and trust me.

I remember being very specific about the type of suit that I asked for.

But on Christmas Eve, when my family opened gifts together, I was shocked.

I pulled a suit out of a bag, but it was pinstriped.

I did not ask for pinstripes.

What do you do in this situation? You asked for a specific gift and then you don’t receive exactly what you asked for.

Well, there are a few things that represent the right way to respond.

And I did none of those.

I made a snide remark that hinted that this was not what I wanted. I certainly had a look on my face that showed disappointment.

As I made the remark and the look on my face expressed my inner feelings, I saw the look on my parents’ faces change from anticipation and excitement to sadness.

I crushed my parents for a moment. And I realized it immediately.

I made a mistake.

I was ungrateful.

And I felt horrible.

Those brief moments taught me one of the most valuable lessons about gifts that I know:

There is a right way to receive gifts as well as to give them.

When you give a gift, you have invested your time, energy, money, and self into the gift. It is painful for someone to completely ignore your sacrifice and to express disdain or disappointment.

Here’s the right way to receive a gift:

  • Express thanks — do not express any feeling except gratitude.
  • No disappointment — even if disappointed.
  • Immediate honor and respect to the giver — including sincere praise
  • Look them in the eye, and
  • Smile.

We are certainly blessed to be able to give.

But do not steal someone else’s blessing by poorly receiving a gift.

Receiving a gift is an essential skill.


Don’t Stop Now

“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy.”
 — Khalil Gibran

These essential skills are not the end game. Developing these skills will not necessarily lead to complete victory.

But they can prevent pain and help you avoid traps. They can solve problems before they even begin.

You still need to develop strengths. But some strengths will never appear until the small, basic, and (sometimes) boring skills are developed.

Stop overlooking the small skills.


Call To Action

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