Skills, Knowledge, or Talent – Debunking the Great Myth of Role Fulfillment

Well, there went the first two months of 2020. My bad… Busyness has been afoot and it’s been more of an exercise in survival and getting through the day rather than planning ahead. Hopefully that is about to change as we get ready to enter March with race season right on its heels.

Inspired from chapter three of First, Break All the Rules, the functional foundation of any person is built on skills, knowledge, and talent. While seemingly similar in nature, those three functions are drastically different, with skills and knowledge having much more in common than talent. Teachability is the name of the game on this one! Skills and knowledge can be taught – talent is inherent. Let’s dive in!

Skills – Think of skills as the functional execution of a job or task. Maybe it’s the ability to weld, play an instrument, or ride a bike. Skills are transferrable and require practice, practice, PRACTICE to master. The book cites that skills require a teacher to break down the steps of a process and then have the student reassemble them (aka learning). These would be the “how to” of a role or position. If you’re a valet, you need to be able to drive a stick shift. Chefs need to be able to roll out pizza dough. Bartenders need to be able to make various (and fruity) cocktails for their patrons. Mas tequila! Yum.

Knowledge – Knowledge is kind of what it sounds like – having awareness or understanding simply from absorbing information. Perhaps you’re an expert in the lifecycle of the pangolin, have an amazing grasp of atmospheric physics, or just enjoy doing some digging into the details and battle plans of World War 2. Both facts and experience contribute to one’s overall pool of knowledge, with experience arguably being the more important of the two, simply because it cannot be taught – you learn it by experiencing (doing). While the content of an AP chemistry book is what it is, your experience with how you interact, process, and deal with that information will be unique to you. Experiential knowledge is what we are responsible for acquiring. I recommend doing this through reading, asking questions, and traveling the world (not necessarily in that order).

Talents – Absolutely the most often confused of the three, talents cannot be taught. You CANNOT teach someone a talent, try as you might.  However, that does not mean that talents aren’t even more critical than skills or knowledge. Talents explain the why, the how, and the who of a person. How they operate, function, and thrive in society. Talents are the execution and process that someone experiences while building out their knowledge and skills.

There are three types of talents broken out in the book:

  1. Striving – Our motivations, drivers, and interests for waking up to face the day head on. Why are we waking up, what are we going to use our time for, and what would we like to improve about the world?
  2. Thinking – Our decision making process, whether narrow and deep or wide and shallow, or even the level of self-motivation or carefree attitudes we exhibit. How does our mind work? What are the details that are most important to us? What is our measure of success?
  3. Relating – What types of people do we surround themselves with? Do we lean toward introvert or extroverted tendencies? Are we capable of a slow release of tension or do we favor an epic explosion of stress and frustration?

“No matter how much you might yearn to be different, your combination of talents and the recurring behaviors it creates, will remain stable and familiar to you and to others throughout your life.” (Clifton, 1999)

For me, my talents are lined up very precisely with my five strengths, a blog I have cited time and time again over the years since 2011. As mentioned in the quote above, my talents (strengths) and the resulting behavior have pretty much been rock-solid for my entire life. No surprises here.

You can’t teach someone to love the process of learning (Learner), you cannot motivate someone to practice extracting the best from each and every person they come across (Individualization). It’s not possible to teach someone to keep the bar at a very high level (Maximizer), and you certainly can’t wire someone to always be working towards achieving “something” (Achiever). Similarly, you can’t force someone to dwell on the future, creating both a vision and a plan for executing towards that ideal state (Futuristic). These are tendencies that come naturally, a combination that I was born with, rooted in the depths of my personality and continually enforced by my experiences and decision making processes.

Just like those talents cannot be taught to someone without those innate desires and motivations, I can’t naturally be a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type, spontaneity is a struggle for me, I have difficult moving away from the “calendar” mentality, and taking trips just to relax is also a challenge (I hate going to the beach to just do nothing – blech). A very keen self-awareness is crucial for me to not only understand the strengths/weaknesses that my combined talents creates, but also in how I relate to others and utilize (or avoid) their talents.

Here’s the takeaway: Skills and knowledge are transferable from person to person. Talents are transferable between situations. You cannot force new talents upon someone, but you can always pass along (or learn) skills and knowledge. There seems to be pressure among the workplace to find the perfect candidate with the most amazing skillset perfect for execution within a job role. Well, that’s just not realistic…

The final set of somewhat confusing terms that are thrown around all too haphazardly are habits, attitude, and drive, and all three are still very much related to the topic of the day.

Habits come to us naturally. It’s how we orient our day, set about establishing patterns in our life, decide what we are drawn to and what we want to exclude, and is really the application and execution of our talents. The habit of waking up three times a week for an early swim is partially driven by my love for swimming, but is also rooted in my talent for striving towards continued athletic performance (Maximizer, Achiever).

Attitude also tends to be misunderstood. The desire to naturally exhibit trustworthiness or to always be overly cautious are attitudes, and are rooted more deeply in your, you guessed it – talents. I tend to take everything with a grain of salt, because let’s be honest, your solution isn’t going to solve our problem like the silver bullet that you claim it is, but I’m also very in tune with listening and observing. I don’t feel the need to speak up until I have something valuable to say. We tend to favor certain attitudes over others, but the reality is that any attitude, in the appropriate role, can be incredibly successful. It’s important to have the correct attitude(s) in the appropriate role – a mismatch will spell disaster!

And finally, we come to drive. I cannot change your motivations any more than you can convince me that my dog isn’t the greatest! The book references competitiveness as one of many drivers, but certainly the most relate-able for me. In our family, we’re all pretty competitive. Scoreboard goes up and immediately we’re after each other, trying to one up someone in a brutal game of Sorry! or executing a swift and deadly Draw Four in Uno. We are wired to be savage when it comes to competition, and yet some of our friends are perfectly happy to sit by, idly enjoying a friendly game of “whatever, it doesn’t matter because we aren’t keeping score.” Mind blowing :-) We all have various needs that must be met – teaching young minds, being the go-to problem solver, or simply being a person someone comes to when they need an ear. Those drivers are sourced from our talents!

Be self-aware and yet embrace your qualities as well. We are who we are (and there’s only one you), and we need to execute enough self-awareness to understand how we fit into the world around us, but also to work on the weaknesses that our composition of talents, knowledge, and skills may bring with it.

There are no excuses here, simply the knowledge that we should constantly be learning, changing, and improve ourselves.

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Picture credit 1.

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