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Expanded Skills

A False Dichotomy Between Hard & Soft Skills

Why this artificial divide lead to limiting beliefs that are holding you back.

What The “Soft” Labelling Leads To

Let’s unpack why this divide is happening in the first place. In a nutshell, the “soft” label is usually assigned to a skill because it is harder to define and measure.

Intuitively, we know that “soft” skills are equal if not more important than “hard” skills. In fact, there is consensus that soft skills are increasingly important the further you progress in just about any domain.

  • Example: Let’s decompose “Tech Leadership”

    • The “Tech” part is often associated with “hard” skills
    • The “Leadership” part is often associated with “soft” skills
    • It’s widely accepted (almost trite) that the latter overtakes the former as you progress in your career (i.e. a CTO is spending a disproportionate amount of time cross-functionally vs. an individual contributor working mostly on the “tech”)

Given that we know what’s typically categorized as soft skills are increasingly important, the right response is to devote more time to better define and measure it.

Unfortunately, the “soft” label does the exact opposite.

  • If we follow the path of least resistance, which we assume to be the default, most will retreat to the comforts of overly focusing on “hard” skills.
  • Due to this imbalance, soft skills will be in even shorter supply and likely remain poorly defined and dismissed as immeasurable.
  • Soft skills typically have a negative connotation associated with them. The association originates from people without any “practical skills” hiding behind the ambiguity of “soft skills” — aka charlatans and bullsh*tters.

A better reframe: put skills on a spectrum of being less vs. more “tangible”.

My guiding principle: The more important the skill is to your situation and goals, the more effort you should put toward making it tangible.

In turn, this causes your mind to gravitate toward better defining the skill and making it easier to measure, which is exactly what we want!

3 Principles To Make Skills More Tangible

(1) Get specific using the “Context-Problem-Solution” framework.

If you start with a skill that’s very vague without adding the context, problem, and your current solution (i.e. approach) as “communication”, it will feel like a ball of fluff and you won’t get anywhere.

Let’s break down each component of the framework.

Context: Start with adding more context in order to get specific. What situation are we trying to navigate here?

  • Communicating during a contract negotiation will look different vs. delivering a speech at a conference vs. when you’re teaching your 10 year old math.
  • Define contrasting scenarios until you cure yourself of the “one size fits all” syndrome.

Problem: Once you’ve isolated the general context, define the problem in terms of getting something from “point A to point B”. Iterate until it can be framed as such. This makes it easy to find a metric to measure progress.

“Point B” is your desired outcome, which should come naturally if the problem is defined with the right level of specificity. Using your “communication skills” to land on a specific set of terms and conditions on a contract will feel extremely different compared to enabling your 10 year old to divide fractions on autopilot.

Solution: Now the stage is set where it’s easy to identify which tangible skills you are missing. It’s revealed through actual attempts to reach “Point B” combined with honest and consistent reflection.

Broadly speaking, the skill gap falls into two categories — it’s usually a combination of the two.

  • Your plan is suboptimal, or you cannot come up with an approach signalling a knowledge gap.
  • Your ability to execute the plan is suboptimal signalling an application gap.

At this point, the missing “soft skills” should feel more like “hard blockers” that need solving.

(2) Decompose into micro-skills.

After applying the “Context-Problem-Solution” framework, you’ll likely realize it’s a series of micro-skills you’re missing rather than one vague skill such as “communication”.

I’m going to borrow a page from how competitive athletes and gamers train here.

In athletics, using basketball as an example, nobody who plays professionally or even half-seriously improves by just playing entire games of basketball without dedicating a significant portion of time to work on micro-skills in isolation.

Playing basketball is a combination of hundreds of micro-skills including:

  • Physical conditioning to get up and down the court, absorb physical contact, and not have weak legs when it’s crunch time — this brings back some horror stories from my basketball days.
  • Shooting from various spots on the court facing different types of defenders. Players will simulate various types of defences during practice to get ‘realistic reps’ in.
  • Defense breaks down into protecting the rim, guarding an explosive wing player, help side defence, guarding in transition, etc.

To drive this point home with another example for gaming (i.e. eSports), a competitive MMO like League of Legends needs many small things to happen to win a match and blow up the Nexus.

  • Laning: CS, trading, warding, jungle tracking, finding optimal times to reset
  • Team Fighting: positioning, ability usage, cooldown tracking
  • Objective Control: balancing risk/reward, map awareness, tempo

If we systematized our improvement process in our professional career as knowledge workers and treated it with a fraction of the seriousness that pro athletes and gamers do, the only variable left to solve is getting your reps in.

(3) Complete the feedback loop.

Almost home free, onto the last piece of the puzzle.

When trying to maximize the number of reps you get after isolating how you train each micro-skill, ensure there’s a complete feedback loop.

I’ll use content creation as an example.

An incomplete feedback loop would be writing in isolation. You may make some improvements without publishing, but you are flying blind. I have a full breakdown of my content creation process here, where I go much deeper on this topic.

*Jump to the first few paragraphs under the “Reasons for creating and publishing content“ section if you don’t want to slog through a +6,000-word guide.

To use a more extreme example, it’s analogous to writing code, but you’re NOT allowed to run it — pretty scary when framed that way.

A Mindset Shift For Lasting Behavior Change

Fundamentally, you have to believe that every skill can be systematized into a process for accelerated learning.

Aim to make a “soft” skill more tangible.

There are many examples of this happening in other disciplines such as athletics and the trades, but there’s still a long way to go for knowledge work, especially in very new domains such as AI and crypto.

Remember, like building any sturdy foundation, one brick at a time.

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