eParachute Blog

On finding the work of your dreams, from Dick Bolles & the team at eParachute.

What’s a “Skill”?

How many skills do you have?


If you think that a skill is a profession, like being an engineer or a lawyer, you might think you have one or two.


If you think that a skill is a big chunk of information, like knowing how to perform brain surgery, or repairing an engine, you might think you have four or five.


But you actually have dozens and dozens of skills. And in an era where robots and software are conspiring with globalization to transform the worlds of work and learning, it’s more important than ever that you know your skills (and especially the skills you love the most).


As Richard Bolles, author of What Color of Your Parachute?, was fond of saying, we need a way of thinking that allows us to break skills down into much smaller elements, so we can assemble them into groupings that resonate with each of us as individuals.


Happily, we have a definition of Skills that goes back more than 70 years, guided by a marvelous man named Sidney Fine, whom I considered an honorary uncle. The research by Sidney’s team showed that there are actually three kinds of Skills: What you Know, what you Do, and How you do it.


What You Know. (Career counselors sometimes call these Special Knowledges, or Rooted, or Work Content skills. But let’s just call them Knowledges) These are your skills that are anchored in a particular field or industry or domain. Like brain surgery, or car engine repair, or website design. Your knowledges are bodies of expertise that don’t transfer well to other arenas: For example, because you know how to perform brain surgery, you can’t automatically design a website. (Not even if it’s a website about brain surgery.) Your Knowledges range from very basic (you read something somewhere sometime), to expert (people read what you wrote on the subject).


What You Do. (These are often called Transferable skills.) Transferable skills can be used in a variety of situations. If you are intuitive about people when you are driving a taxi, you are probably intuitive about people when you’re running a strategy consulting project. Transferable skills allow you to function in a new situation without necessarily knowing everything ahead of time, because you have enough experience from other, analogous situations. Without transferable skills, you would be like an amnesiac, having to figure out most things from scratch. With transferable skills, you’re an adaptation machine.


How You Do Things. (Career counselors call them Self-Management skills; you probably call them Traits.) These are skills that you apply to you, like being punctual, managing frustration, and finishing tasks. Think of these as skills focused on yourself. Traits run from undeveloped (you’re not very practiced at it yet) to high function (nailed it, every time).


How does Experience fit in, you ask? (At least, I thought I heard you ask.) Think of experience as practice using your skills. Experience gives you Knowledges about what actually works - which, stunningly, isn’t always what we learned in school. If you’re good at a particular Transferable skill, like Analyzing, or Communicating, then experience helps you keep on improving. Same with Traits: Practice makes perfect. (Well, at least, practice makes you better, if not perfect, at something.)


You have an absolutely unique combination of skills. Nobody on the planet has the exact same combination as you. And the way you learn what that unique combination is, is to do a skills inventory.


You can learn about your skills by using eParachute, or by doing exercises fromWhat Color Is Your Parachute?” But if you’re really intent on learning about your skills, we’re doing a two-day workshop in Long Beach on October 3-4. You can learn more here.

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