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‘Skills we need’ and ‘skills we have’

We do tend to focus, a bit too much I believe, on the skills we need. Here I use ‘skills’ very broadly so these can include competencies, knowledge and narrow technical skill sets. This is part of our obsession with control and the illusion we want to create that we are really in charge of our destinies. To exert such control, or the appearance of it, we plan, strategise and develop scenarios; we want to ensure that we have covered ‘all bases’, so to speak.

In my daily life, I am as guilty as anyone of doing this: as my long standing readers know, I have opted for ‘planning from the future’ and use a technique following where I am on the way involving back tracking over five years, a year, three months and a month. It is working, and I am going forward; I am making large strides towards the five year ‘promised land’. But when I looked at my list the other day I noticed something very interesting: the biggest strides came about not as a result of planned actions and expected competencies but as a random outcome of serendipitous events where completely different, and at a glance not relevant, skills came to play.

This made me think that we place too much emphasis on developing ‘planned skills’ but don’t seem to be so good at recognising the importance of the skills we already have. This needs some examples, it seems.

What makes an outstanding physician?

Naturally, what makes a good physician or even an excellent one are the ‘narrowly’ professional skills – knowledge of the human body and how it works, and keeping abreast with new knowledge, methods and cures. But what makes a truly outstanding one is all that goes under the label of ‘bedside manner’; this is the ability to converse with people from different backgrounds, to empathise and project reliable confidence.

The first set of skills and knowledge are the ones we can plan and we know we need; the second set of competencies come from ‘life’; these are skills that we learn whilst growing up.

My friend’s daughter is ferociously clever and able; she read medicine in Cambridge and now is on a very steep career path in the health service. She told me, she was very lucky to go to the local comprehensive high school because this is where she learned to relate to different people. What makes her an outstanding physician is not what she learned in Cambridge, though this helps; what makes her so are the life skills she mastered on the playground of a large school where children from different backgrounds went.

What makes a top class writer?

Well, a writer should be able to write; this is kind of obvious. A writer ought to have talent and training, although there have been voices proclaiming that talent is somewhat overrated.

Probably because in writing we see only the finished product, we don’t seem to realise that astounding effortless texts are normally a result of many re-writes. There have been studies looking at the sequential drafts of very famous novels (by very famous writers). Guess what? The first draft is very rarely much better than something that I, or you, would draft. The difference is that most of the time I leave it at the second draft; great writers get up to 10 or more.

So what makes a top class writer is talent and training but there is also the critical ear/eye, patience and determination to keep going until there is nothing else to take away or change.

You may think that doing the Rubik cube is useless but…

Couple of weeks ago my eleven years old son decided that he will learn how to do the Rubik cube. Because we are talking about a child who learned to knit from YouTube he spent days mastering the sequence and learning how to do the cube. Once he was able to do it he started timing himself – and every so often he will burst in my study and shout:

‘I did it in four minutes!’

‘I did it in three minutes and ten seconds!’

Soon he burst in and shouted:

‘Under a minute! Can you believe this?’

Ok, I know that whatever I do he will end up in therapy – remember my principle for raising children? I still try to minimise the time he spends in therapy, though. So, I was engaging in the Rubik cube affaire, being sufficiently impressed. Underneath it all, I was thinking: ‘Why can’t he get so determine about something useful? Like learning to solve simultaneous equations or something!’

Then I remembered! If the ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ is to be believed, Chris Gardner got on the training programme for stockbrokers because he could do the Rubik cube.

This leads me to three messages:

Being outstanding is always a combination of planned skills (technical) and broad skills we already have.

Big breaks sometimes come because of skills we have but never thought would be useful.

Develop skills although they may seem useless; you never know.

Do you have any skills and competences you don’t consider particularly useful and have you used these recently?

4 thoughts on “‘Skills we need’ and ‘skills we have’”

  1. Well I know the guy who held the world record for Rubik’s cube way back when – and he is now an uber-successful journalist writing about “Playing”

    His speciality is gambling and how it relates to life, to money, to the stock market and how we make decisions.He gets paid to travel the world and write about his passion.

    What your boy has been learning is how to set a goal, how to research solutions, how to create an action plan of activities that gets him closer to solving his problem, how when he finally succeeds (solves the cube) he moves his own internal goalposts to refine the goal to make the goal more difficult (time) and how to celebrate his steps to success.

    Mmmmm!! You know if our PHD students would use this model – they (and us LOL) would be less frustrated by the whole process.

    You see I think time spent meta-learning (learning about how we learn) is never wasted as you are building coping skills for the future.

    As for me – well I colour in for a living (LOL) But I won jobs because I can cook well, read aloud brilliantly and can sew with panache – none of which I ever studied in school 🙂

  2. @Elaine: Yep, you are right about this one – my boy did well. You know that I am agreat believer in getting formal education as well, right?

  3. I agree that “book learning” can only go so far when you are dealing with real people. Being able to read between the lines and understand backgrounds are critical to healing others.

  4. I like that idea that the best things have come out of the unplanned. It is the same with financial stuff, we think we can account and plan for everything, but things end up working out in a way other than what we expected.


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