Talents and Skills

Many times on this site, in discussions of how to decide on a business or what you want to do with your life, I talk about your talents and skills. Since most people use these terms interchangeably, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss what I mean by them.

Talents

I use talents in the same sense as First, Break All The Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and Strengths Finder 2.0. That is, a talent is an inborn ability or tendency to respond in a given way. (Actually, they say, your talents are set at a young age. But since I assume anyone reading this post is more than 5 years old, you can think of them as innate.) Some people, faced with someone else’s distress, will automatically try to calm them down; these people should go into medicine or counseling. Some people, faced with someone else’s distress, will automatically tell them to quit whining and get back to work; these people should go into coaching or the military. Getting these two groups of people mixed up will do no one any good: the “coach”‘s patients will feel terrible and the “therapist”‘s platoon will be ineffective.

In this sense of the word, we obviously all have talents — it’s not just restricted to artists and athletes. And since talents are not trainable, it’s important to make sure that your talents are matched up with the job you’re doing. You may have dozens of talents to a greater or lesser degree, but you probably have 3-5 that really stand out, things that you do or handle or learn much better than most people.

My talents, for example, are

  • understanding relationships between things
  • memorizing data (especially what I’ve heard, as opposed to what I’ve seen or read)
  • communication

Skills

Skills, in contrast, are things that you have learned. Although they will often complement your talents, they aren’t things that you were born knowing how to do. You had to learn them, and you could probably figure out how to teach them to others.

Almost any talent can be learned as a skill, although some are more difficult than others. My cousin is enthusiastic as a talent: given a situation, she will automatically start looking for reasons it’s good, and for ways she can jump in and participate. I’m learning it as a skill, by practicing every day, in every situation, to ask myself “Why is this a good thing? What can I do to be part of this?” My boyfriend has adaptability as a talent; he just isn’t bothered by even dramatic changes. I’m slowly learning it as a skill, building contingency plans into my strategies and reminding myself that nothing is set in stone.

And some skills aren’t talents for anyone. Nobody’s born knowing how to ride a bike or balance a checkbook. A talent for athleticism or precision may help you learn them faster, but you still have to be taught.

For example, I have skills in using Microsoft Excel (greatly assisted by my talent for understanding relationships), test taking (aided by my talent for memorization, public speaking (aided by my talent for communication) and building a business (not particularly related to any of my talents).

Knowledge Skills

Knowledge skills are a special category of skills, things that you “know” rather than things that you “know how to do”. The primary difference is that knowledge skills are easily transferable. For example:

If you know how many free throws Michael Jordan has successfully made in his career, you can easily put that knowledge in my head: you tell me the number, and now I know it. That’s a knowledge skill.

If you know how to successfully shoot a free throw, it’s much harder to put that knowledge in my head. Actually, you can’t do it directly at all. You can help me discover it on my own, by making recommendations on my technique and advice as you watch me try, but you can’t put “how to shoot a free throw” in my head. That’s a skill.

Knowledge skills are things that you know that you could write down or easily communicate to other people. They’re encompassed more in data or information than in how-tos or understanding.

Most skills have a host of related knowledge skills that come along with them. So most people who know how to create a trial statement of cash flows can also tell you what a cash flow statement is. But someone who knows what a cash flow statement is doesn’t necessarily know how to make one.

So what?

There are several ways that knowing your skills and talents can help you. The first and most boring is in applying for jobs. Although most HR departments want a traditional resume rather than a list of talents and skills, knowing your talents and skills can help you to communicate them more clearly to the hiring manager. And knowing what your talents are (and are not) can help you avoid jobs that you’ll hate.

Knowing your talents is also helpful in starting your own job, or starting a business. In order to succeed, you’ll need to offer something of value, preferably in a way that your competitors can’t duplicate. And your talents are a great source of non-duplicable value; by definition, they are something that you do better than most other people, and so they point towards things that others cannot or will not do for themselves.

Having a current list of your talents and skills is also helpful in planning for the future or deciding what course to take. What do you want to do with your life? Your talents point towards things that you’re likely to enjoy and be good at. Once you’ve selected something you might like to do, determine what skills would be needed. Any skills that you need but don’t have, start work on acquiring them.

What Next?

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have a source code where you can go to get a list of your talents and skills. There are lots of sources for coming up with ideas, but ultimately you’ll have to decide what terms and definitions fit you best.

The Talents and Skills Worksheet can help you get started. Sit down and brainstorm areas where you have natural talent, and related skills that go with them. Go through past resumes and professional certifications for ideas on your skills; look for repeating themes in your skills and your work history to get an idea of your talents. Sit down with trusted friends, family members, or coworkers and ask their opinions.

Keep this sheet handy, and jot down ideas as they occur to you. Over weeks, months, and years, you’ll start to get a feel for what you have to offer.

Resources for Further Reading
Multiple Intelligence Theory
Disc Communication Styles
Is Your Genius at Work

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