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.

Time to toss resumes on the rejection pile

Ten years ago, I was unemployed. For fifteen months I tried and failed to find a job. I scoured the internet, the newspapers, asked friends, acquaintances, strangers for introductions or hints at where to find somewhere.

After a while, it was hard not to take the rejections personally, to value myself less with each “sorry, we’ve decided to go with someone else” or “we’re looking for someone with more experience”. To burn through savings, face the mounting debt and poverty and think that I deserved it.

To despair.

Well-meaning friends, advisors at the local Job Center and internet sites would give the same advice.

Focus on your resume.

Take the time to tweak your employment history here, edit your interests there, adjust your presentation to suit the company you are applying to. Tell a compelling story which makes it easy for the company to hire you for that job. It all makes sense that this is the way to go if you are going to be successful at landing an interview.

There’s an unchallenged assumption at the heart of this well-meant advice. That the resume is the best tool to market your skills, and no application is
complete without one. For many people, that assumption is actively harmful.

A resume is an effective delivery method for bias.

Take this study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, which discovered that white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks. Or perhaps this study by Devah Pager, Bruce Western and Bart Bonikowski:

black applicants were half as likely as equally qualified whites to receive a callback or job offer. In fact, black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison.

Terence Tse, Mark Esposito and Olaf Groth discovered that racial bias isn’t the only form of bias in play when assessing resumes.

CVs have led recruiters to focus too much on grades, university reputations, and prior work experience. The problem with these hiring criteria is that they’re biased toward applicants from more wealthy backgrounds. These families usually have better connections and networks, can provide better education opportunities, and can afford to pay reputable universities’ tuition fees. In addition, children who have grown up in the upper echelons of society are also much more used to the social norms that guide successful “acceptable” behavior

This bias works even if you know about it.

A resume is optimized to make it easy for hiring managers and recruiters to eliminate candidates. There’s a whole market of applicant tracking software designed to automate the process of easily discarding candidates which don’t fit certain criteria, based solely on their resume.

A resume is ineffective at finding the best employees.

There’s an excellent essay by Reginald Braythwayt, I don’t hire unlucky people, which includes this fable:

Bertram smiled. He grabbed a pile of resumés from his desk, then started dealing the resumes out, first one back onto his desk, second into the recycle bin, third onto his desk, fourth into the recycle bin. When he was finished, he had thrown half of the resumes away. “It’s simple.” Bertram told Ernestine. “Just don’t hire anybody who’s unlucky.”

I’d hope that businesses take the search for talent more seriously than that. And yet, we look at a resume as proof that past success leads inevitably to future success. If you want to find the best people, you have to dig deeper than that. What someone has done is not as interesting as what they are capable of doing. Hire for the person they’ll become:

A lot of future perfect people are stuck in current mediocre positions. They just haven’t had the chance to do their best work.

So what do we do instead?

I’m not suggesting that if you are looking for a job, you should abandon your resume. Work the system, send it in. Get paid. The onus for this change lies with employers. If we’re serious about finding the best candidates, whoever they are, then it’s time to reject resumes. Not just the unlucky half, but all of them.

What would happen if the next time you are hiring, you ask for no resumes?

Provide some simple instructions as part of your job post. Ask for a cover letter, not a resume. Describe what you are looking for in the cover letter, and what you don’t want to see. This almost certainly means that you’ll need to do more interviews. Expect that. Spend that time having good conversations about the skills and qualities you are looking for, and give your applicants the chance to shine. Consider structured interviews and create a rubric for scoring them, to further reduce the impact of bias on your hiring.

Give it a try. Maybe you’ll find a way to a more diverse, talented workplace.