The soft truth about hard skills

Vered Zimmerman
Jan 16, 2020 · 5 min read

What makes a skill useful to your long-term career?

My biggest fear growing up was that I would end up useless.

I couldn’t see why anyone would pay for doing things I considered fun. I didn’t feel like I knew anything particularly useful either. What if I wouldn’t be able to earn any money? What if I would end up a drifting outcast ?

I don’t know if anyone else felt like that as a child. But lots of people must have, because I see how many are worried of the very same things as adults. It’s just dressed in better vocabulary, with people troubled by unemployment and struggling with self-fulfillment.

Very rarely did I share these worries as a child, because I thought people would laugh. I thought adults would find it funny, and other kids would think I’m weird. This gut feeling was probably spot on, given how people get called “entitled” for daring to voice hopes and fears about jobs.

What’s odd, though, is that traditional advice (suck it up, buckle down) hasn’t been particularly helpful. The economy has been changing so fast, and it’s the people working at manufacturing, menial, or repetitive jobs who are hurting the most. And not just them, even in cushier professions:

Everywhere I look, I see jobs either materially changing or outright vanishing. It seems few people can count on doing what they do for a living today, the way they do it today, in ten years’ time.

Economic resilience is the term used for the capacity of an economy to resist a shock and rapidly recover to previous growth levels and above. I’m no economist, but it’s clear that improving personal economic resilience is just so important today.

And if ‘just doing what you’re told’ isn’t helping you achieve economic resilience, the only thing left is finding a way to keep getting better. Since nobody wants to get better at things they hate, this leaves us with finding what’s both fun for you and that adds long-lasting value to others.

Just look at Warren Buffet, who can do whatever he likes, and who chooses to read 500 pages a day. Like interest, he says, knowledge compounds. The more you’ll learn, the more you’ll earn.

Whether those earning come from a job or a business hardly matters. Either way, economic resilience is very much about gaining new skills that you can enjoy practicing.

Here’s the problem with new: people don’t like new. In fact, most people hate new. New is uncomfortable. New means you’re back to your first day of school. New means you’ll probably fail at first, except baby steps are for babies, and you’re an adult who’s actually seen things and done stuff.

That’s you.
That’s you.
Do I look like a baby? Didn’t think so.

No, better than new is Like-New.

Like-New is really stuff you kind of know, but in shiny wrapper. It’s tweaking your knowledge base at the margin. It feels good, you’re reading and absorbing, but it doesn’t accumulate to any meaningful shift in abilities. If it’s December and what you can do looks a lot like what you could do back in January — that’s a lot of Like-New learning.

One way to think about Like-New skills, is by imagining a factory floor. A guy working one machine can learn to operate a different one. But most of the value in machine-operating skills is conditional on the existence of a factory.

Like-New doesn’t build economic resilience.

The best investment in yourself is learning how to pick up new, genuinely new, skills. Which ones though?

For starters, if you try something and it makes you absolutely miserable, just stop. Without fun there’s never going to be a skill. Just check yourself, before deciding something’s not for you. Make sure it’s not fear or embarrassment that’s keeping you from trying.

But with so many things to try and master, you still need a way to tell what makes a skill worthy of your time. I believe it boils down to three criteria a skill needs to meet:

This is purely due to supply and demand. A market that’s over-supplied will inevitably value a service less. Of course, rarity is always relative to demand: there aren’t that many unicycle riders out there, but the skill doesn’t command an explosive pay because no one but circuses needs it.

There are lots of things you can learn to do that make your personal life better. Skills like cooking and cleaning, for example, can make a huge positive impact on your personal well-being.

But for the purposes of economic resilience, it matters how much of an impact a skill can make on other people’s lives. Sometimes it’s the same things you like to do anyhow, just applied differently:
Writing in your private diary, you’re only influencing yourself; writing for an audience, the very same thoughts can influence many.

It’s easy to see why a transferable skill would be valuable, since it doesn’t bind you to a specific setting. Except, people often use the same words to describe completely different things, and over time we begin to question what that word actually means.

For example, Bob and Mary might both say they are in sales, except Mary sells software solutions to large corporations and Bob sells vegan sushi at a downtown popup.

The easiest way for two people to agree that they think of a skill similarly is through social proof. If Bob points to securing a corporate client for his veggie rolls, that established a common ground with Mary.

Rare. Impactful. Evidently Transferable. That’s the acid test.

The imperative to upskill is soft as a whisper — easy to ignore and defer. Nonetheless, it’s a high-risk strategy to keep stagnant. Personally, I also believe that keeping stagnant is also painful; we’re born inquisitive and eager to experiment. It’s a really precious thing to lose.

And we lose it because of fear and discomfort. Being an expert feels much better than being an utter novice, so it’s tempting to spend time cultivating Like-New skills instead of developing new knowledge.

To test whether you’re doing one or the other, just ask yourself these three questions:

1. What’s fun enough for me that I can keep playing with it for at least a year?

2. If I keep at it for a year, what will I be able to do that I can’t do today?

3. Is what I’m learning rare, impactful and evidently transferable?

I’m an investment writer who codes. Skill Strong is my personal sandbox, sharing tools and ideas on upskilling for a lifelong enjoyable career.
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