Over the past few years, I’ve noticed certain skills in people I admire, from Paul Graham, Vitalik Buterin, to Ender Wiggin.
These are rare skills, responsible for making them who they are. Most normal people, including me, don’t realise it. This makes the skills powerful — not everyone can see them, and very few people have mastered them.
However, I aim to change that. What follows below are 10 skills sourced from admirable people that I want to develop.
Learn to take compounding seriously
It’s not just your wealth that compounds, but life experience and knowledge, too.
So, learn the most basic, most useful skills first. The longer you wait to learn skills like these, the less time there is for compounding magic. That’s what this entire list is about: powerful skills to learn and use for the rest of your life.
And even though you’ve heard about compounding, this item is first on the list, because taking ideas seriously is hard.
A good way to figure out what compounds is to figure out what’s a platform.
Learn to develop taste
Despite prevalent beliefs, taste isn’t subjective.
While it may seem like it on the outside, when you say “I just love this painting” or “I just love this coffee machine” — all it means is that the defining characteristics are illegible to you. And noticing this is the first step.
Let’s take a specific example. Say you’re designing a high quality clay pot — and you’ve never done this before.
What’s a good way to develop taste for quality here?
If you’ve heard this claypot parable, you know the answer: start by making lots of crap pots.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A,” forty pounds a “B,” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A.”
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay. — Art and Fear
Let others tell you what you’ve made is crap. Learn why. Notice when they tell you something is great. Figure out why.
This transfers to writing as well: Popular advice to get better is to write a lot of junk, do it a 100 times, and pay particular attention to what is received well. Here’s another example — developing taste for design.
In effect, you bootstrap good taste by first learning what others consider good. Then, you see the system behind it. Then you break the rules and still manage to awe.
Then you’ve developed taste.
Learn to sequence things well
Waking up when others are asleep and getting lots done is a super power. It’s born out of a system of learning to sequence things well.
It means choosing the right time for that Netflix binge.
It means being prepared before the meeting, not scrambling to get things done after.
It means reading the coursebook before the lecture, not after.
Learn to see what others see
How well can you understand other people? Can you sense their desires, their concerns, and what events lead to those desires and concerns?
If you can do this, you can understand them. But not before.
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. — Ender’s Game
It’s worth going this far because understanding is powerful. It helps you empathise. It helps you negotiate. It helps you figure out why you don’t have product-market fit. It helps you learn quickly: you can switch through personas and see what will and won’t work.
How do you do learn to see? I know no better way than to practice. Try it a 100 times. Come back next year, and maybe I’ll have a better way once I’ve done it a 100 times.
Learn to make and execute decisions quickly
Most people have a bias towards analysis-paralysis versus getting shit done.
When decisions are reversible — and they mostly are — speed is a super power. Cultivating a habit of making decisions quickly, and then executing them is better than just thinking about it.
Training this skill begins as easily as deciding what to eat on a huge menu. It’s a small step, but over time, even the smallest steps compound.
“Hesitation is always easy, rarely useful” — Prof. Quirrel alterego, HPMOR
Learn to spot a convex or concave world
In the world of viral infections, a 50% lockdown is worse than a 0% and a 100% lockdown, both. The virus isn’t contained, and businesses have to shut down, too.
In the world of immigration policies, letting some specific people in is better than letting no one or everyone in. The middle ground is better than the extremes.
When the best of both worlds is great, you’re in a concave disposition.
When the best of both worlds is worse than either, you’re in a convex disposition.
The world is sometimes concave, and sometimes convex. Knowing your topology can help you make better decisions.
I first noted this when Vitalik Buterin explained it. Read it for more concrete examples.
Learn to tell stories
People donate more to charity when they know a single victim’s story, versus statistics of a thousand deaths. It’s called the Identifiable Victim Effect, but it’s the power of stories over facts. The right framing gets you further than all the facts combined.
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Ideas & facts contextualised by stories are more powerful than either alone.
The Skill of Storytelling
There’s lots to unpack here, and this is the first skill I’ve been working on for the past few months. Watch out for a long blogpost in 2 weeks!
Learn to dive into the source code when documentation isn’t enough
Sometimes, there’s no precedent for what you want to do. Or the people who did it before didn’t write a manual.
In cases like these, figuring things out for yourself is powerful. Research papers and obscure books aren’t just for scientists. They’re freely available on the internet* for all of humanity to use. Learn to use it. Learn about resources like SciHub, LibGen, and hiring researchers. You’re allowed to hire people (specially graduate students!) to satisfy your research concerns.
… and when you’re done, preserve context for future you.
It’s a lot like trying to use an API that has no documentation. Would’ve been easy if there was documentation, but there isn’t. So you got to do it the hard way: read the source code and figure out what you need to make things work.
It’s also like figuring out what you need to build rockets yourself when existing ones are too expensive.
Learn to be specific
Every time I gave an example above, I was training my specificity muscles.
Most of the time, most people don’t know what they’re talking about. Not being specific is a sign of that. The more abstract the word, the harder it is to pin down a meaning.
For example, “negative ramifications” doesn’t tell you what exactly happened, while “the sonic boom from the new supersonic jet destroyed windows in a 100m radius” is a lot more specific.
Learn to be specific, and learn to spot when others aren’t. Here’s how.
Learn to see systems
There’s two kinds of people.
- Bob, who will see this list, find some skills very interesting, and then go about honing those skills
- Alice, who will see this list, and wonder how I came up with these
Alice would then try to understand the system that generated these ideas. Then, she’ll adopt the system, and come up with skills possibly more relevant to herself.