Expiring vs. Permanent Skills

Robert Walter Weir was one of the most popular instructors at West Point in the mid-1800s. Which is odd at a military academy, because he taught painting and drawing.

Weir’s art classes were mandatory at West Point. Art can broaden your perspective, but that wasn’t the point.

Nineteenth-century West Point cadets needed to be good at drawing because cartography was in its infancy. High-quality maps of the United States – let alone, say, Mexico – were scarce, if they existed at all. Military officers were expected to draw maps on the fly and record a battlefield’s topography. It wasn’t a niche; it was vital to war. Weir’s favorite student, who passed the time at West Point drawing river bends and mountain ranges, was Ulysses S. Grant.

West Point no longer offers drawing or painting classes. Its sole cartography course emphasizes mapping software and technology, as you might expect.

Drawing was an expiring military skill. Critical in one era, diminished in the next, unmentionable thereafter.

A lot of things work that way.

Every field has two kinds of skills:

Both are important. But they’re treated differently.

Expiring skills tend to get more attention. They’re more likely to be the cool new thing, and a key driver of an industry’s short-term performance. They’re what employers value and employees flaunt.

Permanent skills are different. They’ve been around a long time, which makes them look stale and basic. They can be hard to define and quantify, which gives the impression of fortune-cookie wisdom vs. a hard skill.

But permanent skills compound over time, which gives them quiet importance. When several previous generations have worked on a skill that’s directly relevant to you, you have a deep well of relevant examples to study. And when you can spend a lifetime perfecting one skill whose importance never wanes, the payoffs can be ridiculous. Anything that compounds over decades usually is.

A few permanent skills that apply to many fields:

Not being a jerk. Being a jerk offsets being talented one for one, if not more. They don’t teach this in school, but it’s the single most important career skill. Part of this includes empathizing with jerks who are being jerks because they’re dealing with stress.

The willingness to adapt views you wish were permanent. Accepting when expiring skills have run their course. A lot of what we believe about our fields is either right but temporary, or wrong but convincing. Sam Arbesman’s book The Half-Life of Facts makes this uncomfortably clear. “Medical knowledge about cirrhosis or hepatitis takes about forty-five years for half of it to be disproven or become out-of-date,” he writes. “This is about twice the half-life of the actual radioisotope samarium-151.”

Getting along with people you disagree with. Equally smart people can come to different conclusions. And as Larry Summers once noted, “There are idiots; look around.” Some of these people can be avoided. Many can’t. You have to deal with them diplomatically. People who view every disagreement as a battle that must be won before moving on end up stuck and bitter.

Getting to the point. Everyone’s busy. Make your point and get out of their way.

Respecting luck as much as you respect risk. Acknowledging risk is when something happens outside of your control that influences outcomes and you realize it might happen again. Acknowledging luck is when something happens outside of our control that influences outcomes and you realize it might not happen again.

Staying out of the way as much as you offer to help. You can add as much value by getting out of people’s way and minimizing your burden as you can by actively helping. This is especially important for two groups: new employees eager to get involved, and senior managers eager to get involved.

Accepting a certain degree of hassle and nonsense when reality demands it. The ability to be comfortable being miserable. Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, said the most remarkable thing about the president’s paralysis was how little it seemed to bother him. He 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.” A useful and permanent skill in a world that’s constantly breaking and evolving.

The ability to distinguish “temporarily out of favor” from “wrong.” Endurance is key because every industry is cyclical, and putting up with its dark days is the only way to ensure you’re part of the good ones. Gracefully exiting when you realize that whatever fueled past success doesn’t work anymore is also key. Warren Buffett says his favorite holding period is forever, then dumped $7 billion worth of airline stocks based on a few weeks of data. That might look like a contradiction, but it’s likely an example of being always patient but never stubborn.

Those never get old.