Useful and Overlooked Skills

On his way to be sworn in as the most powerful man in the world, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to be lifted out of his car and carried up the stairs.

Frances Perkins, who campaigned with Roosevelt and later became Secretary of Labor, said the most remarkable thing about the president’s paralysis was how little its hindrance seemed to bother him. He once told her: “If you can’t use your legs and they bring you milk when you wanted orange juice, you learn to say ‘that’s all right,’ and drink it.”

There’s a useful and overlooked skill: Accepting a certain degree of hassle and nonsense when reality demands it.

This is not an enjoyable skill, which makes it overlooked. But you realize how useful it can be once you spot someone who lacks it. They struggle to get through the day, upset by the smallest hassle. I was once on a flight with a CEO – he let everyone know that’s what he was – who lost his mind after we had to change gates twice. I wondered: How did he make it this far in life without the ability to deal with petty annoyances outside of his control? The most likely answer is: In denial over what he thinks he’s in control of, and demanding unrealistic precision from subordinates who compensate by hiding bad news.

A few other useful and overlooked skills:

Calibrating how much you wanting something to be true affects how true you think it is. This is magic in investing, where huge rewards for being right correlate with people’s unshakeable faith that they are right. The idea that rewards promote focus and skill is only true to a point; when the rewards get high enough it spins the other direction, because mental bandwidth that would otherwise go toward strategy and reason is overwhelmed by dreaming about the reward. It’s also partly why people spend a weekend researching a new washing machine but 15 minutes researching a new investment. Recognizing that huge rewards require added skepticism of your own reasoning is underrated.

Respectfully interacting with people you disagree with. Confirmation bias gets easier when people are more connected. But connectivity also means you’ll also run into more people who disagree with you. Benedict Evans: “The more the Internet exposes people to new points of view, the angrier people get that different views exist.” Handling that challenge without digging the hole deeper is one the 21st century’s most important skills. If you’re not blessed with perfect empathy, the trick to opening your mind to those you disagree with is to find people whose views on one topic you respect – that checks the box in your head that says “this person isn’t totally crazy” – and debate them on the topics you disagree about. Without the first step it’s too easy to write someone off before you’ve heard their full argument.

The ability to have a 10-minute conversation with anyone from any background. Cursive writing was dropped from the nationwide core education curriculum in 2010. Most people probably think that’s fine; technology took its place. But technology also took the place of many face-to-face conversations. And that has deeper consequences than forgoing curly writing. Sitting with someone you’ve never met, looking them in the eye, and carrying on a conversation – what used to be so common it wasn’t considered a skill – is now a competitive advantage.

Getting to the point. Everyone’s busy. Make your point using as few words as possible and get out of their way.

Diplomatically saying “No.” “No” is often delivered in two damaging ways. One is that a person feels bad saying no even when they want to, so they stall or say “yes” and delay an inevitable “no.” Then you look like a jerk and the other person is let down more than they’d be if you were up front. Another is being unintentionally stern in your “no” in a way that makes the other person never want bring an idea or problem to your attention again. Here again, both sides lose. A diplomatic “no” is when you’re clear about your feelings but empathetic to how the person on the receiving end might interpret those feelings. It’s critical in private investing like venture capital, where the pass rate on potential investments approaches 99%.

Respecting luck as much as you respect risk. Both are the idea that outcomes can be influenced by events outside of your control. If risk is what happens when you make good decisions but end up with a bad outcome, luck is what happens when you make bad or mediocre decisions but end up with a great outcome. They both happen because the world is too complex to allow 100% of your actions dictate 100% of your outcomes. But risk is easy to pay attention to because it gives you an intellectual out when something doesn’t go your way. Luck is the opposite. It’s painful to think that some – maybe most, maybe all – of your success was not caused by your actions. So luck is downplayed and ignored in a way risk isn’t. The ability to recognize that your wins might not signal that you did anything right in the same way your losses might not signal you did anything wrong is vital to learning something valuable from real-world feedback.

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