Have you been held back by weakness in a fundamental skill?

A couple years ago, I took a flight from a small regional airport. You know the type: One story terminal, small parking lot, three check-in desks. Typically, these airports will have one or two airlines that have cornered the market for short flights to the next closest hub.

On this particular day, the airport was operating a single check-in desk. This was understandable given the fact that no more than one hundred people were likely to depart on that day. Most of these one hundred predictably arrived at the same time. Following one of the most pleasant security checks (that’s one advantage to small airports), we were then queued up at the sole check-in counter.

The line moved abysmally slow. This too, was predictable. As any know-it-all-Medium-writer types would do, we began to diagnose the issue. Here are several of the holdups our group thought plausible:

  • Dated, error-prone airline software
  • Excessive bureaucratic burdens (Passport checks, customs forms, consent forms, security documents)
  • (Staff has) Limited problem solving skills
  • (Staff has) Poor work ethic
  • (Staff & Customer) Foreign language & translation issues
  • Airline gimmick to keep people in line and delay the flight

In another context these observations could serve as a motivation behind a think-tank white paper and other opinion pieces pushing grand initiatives: “Airlines should be required to upgrade their dated software!” OR “Airline workers should be required to speak a minimum of three languages!” OR “Bureaucratic burdens must be lifted from the airline check-in process!” It’s easy to nod confidently and turn toward the next person in line and suggest that the current software and regulatory systems are inexplicably broken.

And while it is true that the near-freezing of the line was caused by a problem that affects the entire system, it was a small problem as we know it. Eventually, we made it to the front of the line, and the problem was quite clear. This is what we saw at the desk:

That’s right. The polite, pleasant, clearly intelligent person working the counter that day spoke excellent English, as did the customers. The ID checks and consent forms were limited. The check-in software seemed straight forward and error free. Work ethic was strong, problem-solving skills equal. Finally, the airline was not trying to delay people for inexplicable reasons. No, at the end of the day, the airline employee was an extremely slow, two-fingered typist.

Compounding Growth

In a prior article, I posited my view that smart dev team leaders should compound growth for their teams through improvements that help developers, not necessarily help the product itself. This time, I would like to apply that idea to personal development.

What are the fundamental skills that power your waking existence? Have you gone back to do any evaluation on these skills? What bad habits have you developed since you first learned these skills?

Today I would like to suggest three that I have focused on in my own life.

Smart Phone Etiquette

It’s no question that innovation and the pace of social change moves a bit faster than manners and mindfulness. We’re usually addicted to the drug before anyone finds out that the drug is addictive.

My new take on smart phone etiquette is in the spirit of staying present at all times. Who and what am I staying present for?

  • The people with me
  • My spouse
  • The author of the book I may be reading
  • The author of the article I may be reading
  • The stranger asking me for directions
  • The cast, crew and creators of the movie I am viewing
  • Really, anything that matters more than a Twitter notification

In order to be present, I must grant my subject my full and undivided attention. I will grant, there are times you will need to pull out your phone. Sometimes you’re waiting for test results. Sometimes you’re monitoring a story out of fear or interest. Sometimes, you’re just resolving a disagreement in conversation. Whatever the case, it’s easy to say:

“Do you mind if I pull out my phone real quick?”

This is so much better than jumping in and apologizing after the fact. What you’re doing here is giving the decision power to those in your presence. You are elevating these beings above your smart phone. You are elevating these beings above your right to look at a smart phone. My goal is to make this practice universal in my life, and that includes my family and people who know me the best (why do they always get your worst performance, anyway?).

As for books, movies, and articles: turn off notifications. If you sit down to read something, read it. If you sit down to listen to something, listen to that. If you sit down to watch something, watch it. Give someone’s hard work the honor of a better rank than Groupon notifications.

Personal presence is a gift, it is something you give to your customers, employees, or your family. If you can master self-awareness in this arena, it will benefit you as much or more than typing lessons.

For some higher-depth scolding on your possible smartphone addiction check out this article from Randall Jay.


John Dickerson of CBS’s Face the Nation: expert historian, habitually polite, and habitually civil. Dickerson is a master of pacing, he is a master of vocabulary, he is a master of speech.

Check it out if you do not believe me.

The most dreaded word of all for a seasoned newscaster: LIKE

That’s right, I’ve like totally, tried to like get like out of my speech altogether (unless I am comparing the likeness of two things).

The results have been amazing. I sound more mature, thoughtful, and my pacing has improved. Here’s a few other good ones to take a look at:

‘Uh’, ‘um’, ‘you know what I’m saying’, conjunctions with not (don’t, isn’t, ain’t), ‘cool’, and ‘yeah’… My wife and I maintain accountability. This is essential when you’re first knocking the habit. She calls me out, I call her out, it’s a very healthy process.

We aim for a grammatical center that is relatively internationalized. These days we work with more and more people who have learned English as a second language. I am always amazed by their proper use of the language, given their rigorous discipline in learning it.

Regional slang, internet shorthand, virtually anything uttered on reality TV should be used sparingly, at best.

For specific thoughts on LIKE, check out this article from David McQueen.


I spend a ridiculous amount of time at my computer. A large percentage of that time is spent typing. As typists go, it’s possible I am above average. Despite that, speed is not everything. The bulk of my issues come from typos and the costly process of backspacing through sentences. Thus, speed and accuracy is my new goal.

So, I am studying and practicing. I am taking my time, because I have time (another great thing about practicing core skills).

I use typingstudy.com to practice for 15 minutes, daily. I am aiming for 50 word per minute with a 95% measure of accuracy.

Like most people who have been typing for years, I have more than a few bad habits to work through. This fundamental skill pays huge dividends when writing articles, responding to emails, coding, writing documentation, giving live presentations, and receiving dictation (very useful).

Clive Thompson has some great thoughts on the higher cognitive value and experience of rapid typing here.

In Conclusion

Here is my take on a well-worn aphorism to describe what I think about fundamental skills:

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But, bad and mediocre are definitely the enemies of the good.

People that struggle with perfectionism in high-level tasks are regularly willing to accept mediocrity in fundamental tasks. Maybe it’s a good time to ask: Is good enough a mantra that will carry me into occupational mediocrity?

For developers there are plenty more good ones. Some I will be experimenting with in the future: algorithms, git, bash shell, IDE shortcuts, VIM, arithmetic, SQL.

If you like my ideas, leave me a comment, or feel free to tweet something over to @pearofthweek.