Asking and Doing The Only Skills that Matter Anymore

Last week my son set himself to the task of building a computer. He’d heard that kids did this, and he wanted a powerful gaming computer and his (evil) mother had told him that the price of the computer he wanted was (way) too high. So he either had to earn the money or build it himself.

He thought that building it sounded cool.

He sat on the project for months. Maybe a year. After several false starts, he found a viable parts list for an inexpensive computer. I ordered them up.

He sat down to build it. Within 30 minutes he had hit his first problem. He gave up (noisily). He gave up because he had a problem. He did not know how to solve the problem, and he “knew” deep in his heart that if he were one of the “smart” kids he would know how to solve it.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Lawrence Lessig was warning us about in the first TED talk I ever saw. (At first I found his hypothesis absurd. But by the end, I was convinced.) Nate believed that he was not of the class of people who were permitted or expected to do this kind of thing, and as a result, he convinced himself his efforts were unworthy.

After an hour or so, and some coaching from me (which may or may not have lengthened this cooling off time) he sat back down with Google and his pieces and started again. He got it about 99 percent done and asked someone, whom he knew to be an expert, about the one remaining thing that was confusing him. The problem was very quickly fixed, and my son, who believed himself incapable, is now the proud owner of a very capable gaming computer and a little more pride than he had before.

The beauty of this is that it taught him several of the new critical workplace skills. Perhaps the only ones that really matter anymore.

1. The ability to work on problems that you do not know how to solve

More and more of our daily work is devoted to figuring out how to do things we don’t know how to do.

Experience brings many things. It brings perspective, an arsenal of tools, and with luck, it brings the balance of humility and confidence -- the equipoise -- that is the most important tool for addressing unfamiliar problems. If you are lucky, and have had some good mentors or some natural affinity, it will have taught you to ask really great questions. And it will have taught you to create organization and process for dealing with complexity.

But experience is otherwise all but useless to you. The most critical part of nearly every job -- in tech, in service, in education, government and medicine -- is to figure out how to do what has not yet been done or not done well.

2. The ability to learn from others

In this time of post-expertise, where we need to learn quickly -- even more quickly than the textbooks can be written, let alone brought into the schools or office buildings -- we rely on our co-workers and the internet for a great deal of our education. We ask questions and get answers -- probably partial answers, and we must figure out the rest and then share it with the next person. It’s a cycle.

Nate had a good instinct here. He didn’t turn to the expert first, he researched. It's hard to ask good questions when you have no idea what to ask. So the best way to start is to do some general reading and exploring.

Perhaps the key thing here though is that you have to get over the fear of looking stupid. We are all stupid. Just as we are all genius. Stupid and smart are not relevant. There are only two things that matter when learning from others.

First is the ability to adopt a “seeking” mentality. To get over the fear and ask honest questions where the only goal is to learn something. You’re not trying to ask “smart” questions. You aren’t trying to only ask them of influential people. There is no politics or ego here -- just seeking the answers. This is a profoundly liberating approach. When you stop squelching your own curiosity, you will be amazed how creative you are.

The second is discernment -- the ability to recognize the value in the people you’re talking to. That is not the same as judging. I have a knee-jerk judging instinct. But truly great learners discern the unique value that each individual brings. A person may not be exactly what you want, but by being discerning rather than dismissive, you have a much better opportunity to learn what you were seeking as well as possibly some other things.

A dear friend of mine once said that an expert is anyone who knows one thing that you do not. Hard to imagine a human being alive who does not know something you don’t -- as long as you ask the right questions.

3. The ability to discern whether you are moving closer or farther from your goals

We focus on data more than ever before to tell us if we’re moving closer or farther. But data can only reveal answers when you point a very sharp question at it. No question, no answer. No matter how much data you have.

In the past, more of our work was focused on hard, but straightforward problems. Does this widget work? Yes or no? Sometimes these are hard problems -- how do we land a person on the moon? But they still have answers. You know when you’re done, because the person is either on the moon or they aren’t.

Increasingly, our work has no real answers. In marketing we ask, “Am I telling the right story?” “Am I getting heard by the right people?” The only question we can answer is, “Is what we’re doing now making things better or worse?” And even that isn’t always so easy.

I’ve written in the past on the fallacy of metrics worship, and it's worth quoting again. This quote is from Charles Handy's “The Empty Raincoat” which attributes this quote to former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.”

McNamara’s drive to quantify the progress in the Vietnam war turned out to be highly misleading. (Note that this quote has been attributed to Daniel Yankelovich, but I have the Handy book in my hot little hand, the quote is in there, attributed to McNamara, with no footnote, and I can find no real evidence that Yankelovich was ever involved. My research into the authentic source continues.)

Metrics are diagnostic clues that help you determine the health of the system. They are neither the goal nor the system itself. Think of them like body temperature. It can help you see that someone’s ill, but it is only the broadest indicator of what the problem is.

The age of experimentation needs doers above all

This has left us smack dab in the age of experimentation. So what are the skills and temperaments we need to value now? Curiosity. A profound lack of self-consciousness, which frees you to make a fool of yourself as needs be -- we may also call this humility. The ability and inclination to respect others enough to ask them questions and listen to the answers.

We also need tenacity, or the willingness to fail and try again. And of course the willingness to accept that the world is ambiguous. Rarely if ever will we have all the information we’d like.

We are learning to ask questions, get answers to those questions and ask additional questions. If your business, your team and your natural inclinations are not aligned around that, you are going to have a very long cooling off period indeed.

The skill we need now is the ability and willingness to do stuff. The people who just try and do will be miles ahead of those who hesitate and worry.

For most of us, (and my computer-building son) the best is yet to come.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  toehk