A question of skills

One of the first books I can remember reading was A Wizard of Earthsea. I was seven or eight, and it scared me to my core. That dark ocean was real and menacing in ways I couldn’t fully appreciate until later.

Beyond fear, one of the things that stuck with me from that book was the idea of true names. David Mitchell’s love letter to Earthsea paints the picture:

Knowledge of a thing’s true name brings mastery over the object, and as this applies to people as well, to tell someone your true name in Earthsea is an act of intimate trust.

I remember reading that tweet, and how violently I agreed with it. Hard/soft always felt jarring somehow. Ok, gone. I’m warming my hands on the smouldering embers of the dichotomy.

“So, what do we call them instead?”

Back in January, Seth Godin proposed vocational skills and real skills:

Let’s call them real skills, not soft.

Yes, they’re interpersonal skills. Leadership skills. The skills of charisma and diligence and contribution. But these modifiers, while accurate, somehow edge them away from the vocational skills, the skills that we actually hire for, the skills we measure a graduate degree on.

So let’s uncomfortably call them real skills instead.

Before we anoint a replacement, let’s take a moment. Why are we making that distinction? How does this benefit us? How does it help us to achieve our aims?

Almost everyone I’ve spoken with, and every post I’ve read, agrees that hard skills are easier to measure. That soft skills are more difficult to pin down, but equally important (I’d argue even more so). I can buy that. So what?

Dividing skills into types is an attempt to be more precise that costs us clarity instead of adding it. Our every instinct tells us that precision is valuable. Language is an evolving, imperfect attempt to describe the universe. When we reach for precision, we’re hoping to get closer to the true name of things.

There’s a trap here. When we spend time and wit seeking a more perfect description of the different types of skills, we’re working at the wrong level of abstraction. Precision only helps us if it changes how we act.

There doesn’t need to be a distinction. Skills are skills. We can teach them. You can learn them. There’s no meaningful difference in the steps you take to develop a ‘vocational’ skill or a ‘real’ skill, a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ skill. An authoritative taxonomy of skill types doesn’t change how you approach things.

What do we need to pick up a new skill? Well, some combination of the following:

  • Time
  • Desire
  • Access to knowledge
  • Practice
  • Observation
  • Making changes in response to what you observe
  • Support

Measuring success is the same whether you are learning HTML or practicing sincerity. You observe outcomes. You need to understand what you are trying to do before you do it, a core part of mastering any skill.

Making this change is pretty straightforward. When you are working on a job post, you already don’t mention hard or soft skills. You talk about the skills and experience you’d like an applicant to have. If you are working on a training plan for yourself or a team member, you can list the skills you want to focus on. Save yourself the mental overhead of working out if a skill is vocational or real. You won’t need it.

We can discard the distinction without guilt. Chipping away at gendered stereotypes is reason enough. Part of the evolution of language is recognising when words are no longer true, or shouldn’t be. We should seek a more comfortable level of abstraction, a truer name.

The names we choose matter.

With endless thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin, who influenced me more than I ever realized. A huge thank you to Erika Hall for prompting this in the first place. Thanks also to Mathew Cropper, Chase Clemons, Brad Stott, Elliott Hilare and Yechiel K for talking with me about this and helping me to see beyond my limits. 💚 to Chase Clemons, James Glazebrook & Wailin Wong for editing.