Why Most Skills are Non-Transferable

The best way to learn how to run a startup is not by getting an MBA, but by getting in the weeds, launching a site and talking to customers. The best way to write a book isn’t by studying literature, but by staring at an empty word doc until your eyes turn red and you’ve managed to spew out a few sentences. The best way to train for a marathon isn’t by riding a bicycle or rowing a boat or sprinting, but by running longer distances weekly.

That doesn’t mean there’s no value in an MBA, or studying Shakespeare, or doing some Crossfit during marathon training. Cross-pollination of ideas breeds strength and innovation, and you can even find a sweet spot of two or more skills to create your own niche (advice from Scott Adams). Having totally separate skills or hobbies, like being a physicist and playing the bongo drums, also comes in handy to keep your mind sharp. 

But if you want to get good at doing the thing, you just gotta do that thing. 

When it comes to your career, the idea of transferable skills is highly overrated. Generally speaking, your work experiences are viewed as objective. You launched a marketing campaign with a 200% ROI, you developed a product that was downloaded by 1 million people, you improved a process that resulted in 25% cost savings. If you said you did those things, you probably did, and they can be verified by digging into the details to see if you know what you’re talking about, and/or with a reference check. 

I’ve seen resumes/CVs list out columns of skills in an attempt to simply state “these are all the things I am good at”! Skills like “great communicator” or “team player” sound nice, but shouldn’t take up too much space. Instead, it’s more impactful to show, in specific terms, what you’ve done to demonstrate those skills. The proof is in the pudding. More tips here

But what about when you’re looking for a job and don’t have the actual skills, what then? Certifications can be useful, but aren’t quite the same as raw experience. The solution isn’t to try and finagle your way into the role, it’s to acquire those skills somewhere. 

You could start lower on the ladder and build the skills over time before moving into a bigger role, i.e., work as a product manager at a startup that will more readily hire you and then apply for a role at Google later on. The other idea is an internship, apprenticeship (for example here) or part time job in the field you’re interested, which can send a powerful signal that you have built some of these skills. 

These are relatively simple solutions but are prudent to think about in terms of your career. This isn’t to dissuade you from applying for a bigger role or aiming high. I think more often than not people are actually too picky about job applications, weeding themselves out on a couple of bullet points in the job description. 

Aim high, be bold and don’t hesitate to chase after your dream role. But in the process consider and be honest about what specific skills you’ll need to get there, and you are much more likely to succeed!

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