Rare Skills

Three rare and powerful skills:

1. Understanding how people justify their beliefs in a way that makes you respect their delusions.

A rare and useful skill is understanding that people you find to be deluded likely suffer from the same shortcomings you do.

Historian Will Durant wrote in his book The Lessons of History that we should learn enough from history to respect each other’s delusions. He explained:

Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.

I think this boils down to three points:

So everyone has delusions about how the world works. You, me, everyone.

We are all prisoners to our past, products of our generation, and influenced by who we’ve met and what we’ve experienced, most of which has been out of our control. Some are worse than others, and some are more aware of their blindspots. But everyone has a firmly held belief that an equally smart and informed person disagrees with.

Good questions to ask to combat this reality are:

What haven’t I experienced firsthand that leaves me naive to how something works?

Which of my current views would I disagree with if I were born in a different country or generation?

What do I desperately want to be true, so much that I think it’s true when it’s clearly not?

Which of my current views would change if my incentives were different?

But an even better skill is realizing that everyone else struggles with those questions and winces at the potential answers.

You don’t have to agree with others’ delusions or put up with their collateral damage. Just accepting that everyone wants easy and comforting answers in a complex and painful world is a rare skill.

2. Quitting while you’re ahead, or at least before you’ve had too much.

Commenting on how he lived to 97, John D. Rockefeller’s doctor said the oil tycoon “gets up from the table while still a little hungry.” It’s another rare skill, and one that applies beyond eating.

The temptation to exploit every drop of opportunity leads many people to push relentlessly for more, more, more. They only discover the limits of what’s possible when they’ve gone too far, when the momentum of decline is often unstoppable.

Businesses that don’t want to hold inventory push so hard for efficient supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing, stripped of all shock absorbers and room for error. Then a pandemic hits, and supply chains crumble.

Young workers eager for promotion push themselves until they’ve hit burnout, when they physically can’t continue in their positions and quit, which often marks the end of compounding their skills and work relationships.

People on social media push relentlessly for more likes and retweets until their audience is sick of them.

In each case there’s value in saying, “I could have more and do more, but this is good enough.”

But it’s such a rare skill. People don’t like leaving opportunities on the table, and it’s counterintuitive to realize that you’ll likely end up with more than those whose appetite for more is insatiable.

3. Getting to the point.

Perhaps the most critical communication skill. Be brief. Use as few words as possible to say what you need, and everyone will appreciate it.

Mark Twain said kids provide the most interesting information, “for they tell all they know and then they stop.” Adults lose this skill and falsely associate the number of words with the amount of insight.

After writing every sentence it helps to ask “Would the reader still get my point if I deleted that line?” Not “Does that sentence make sense?” Millions of unnecessary sentences make sense. Treating words like they cost you something is the right mindset. A writer once recommended imagining someone pays you $100 for every word you remove from your draft. Another quipped: “Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.”

Poor communicators ramble. Good communicators leave out unnecessary details. Great communicators treat words as the scarcest commodity.