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"Technical" "skills"

If you've ever said "soft skills" and felt weird about it, this essay is for you.

The practice of referring to people as "technical" and "not technical" has annoyed me for more than a decade but it's been tricky to articulate why. It turns out it's an annoyance fractal: there are so many reasons, it's hard to pick just one. For today, let's talk about how it's used to make your life boring, limit your potential, and devalue the work of large swaths of the population. If you've ever said "soft skills" and felt weird about it, this is for you.

The specific moment that forever changed how I saw this came right at the endof the movie Free Solo. It's about the first person to climb up El Capitan without any kind of rope or safety device. As the credits rolled, my friend Sam said something offhand like "it was so cool to see the technical details."

I must have looked blank, because they elaborated: "you never get to see behind the scenes at exactly what it takes to prepare to do something that hard—the mental prep, what he eats, even how he positions each finger."

This was a major 🤯 moment. I'd simply never thought about it, but now I can't unsee it! We're usually fed the summarized, montage-ized success story. Or you marvel at the polished final work. But you so rarely get to see what goes into the final work. That's discussed behind closed doors, between practitioners and their coaches, off the record.

Which, honestly, is such a shame. I want to know! How, exactly, did Steph Curry go from a decent shooter to the best all time in the NBA? Sure, his dad was a pro, he played from a young age, he had access to coaches—but so do lots of other players who stayed average, including (sorry, Seth!) his brother. And speaking of Free Solo, how did the filmmakers keep me all sweaty and nervous the whole time even though I knew he wouldn't fall to his death? So many technical elements must have gone into that—pacing, music, graphics, etc—but I can't even point to them, let alone know how to do them myself.

Software people like to use "technical skills" to mean the skills they use to produce their work (good software). By extension, every field has "technical" skills. They're simply the skills used to produce the work.

Do you know how to frame the story of your product so it resonates, how to figure out what customers want, where and how to put something in a customer's path, and how to tell if it worked? Marketers do.

Do you know how to tell if someone is a good prospect, which people to call first, and what words to use when they're giving you the runaround? Sales people do.

Do you know how to defuse an entrenched argument between coworkers, help a burned out coworker figure out a path back, or tell someone they're not doing a great job without making them furious? Managers do.

Even "conversationalist" can be broken down into component technical skills, that can then be noticed, admired, emulated, then honed:

We don't usually frame the work of marketers, sales staff, managers, and conversationalists as "technical skills" and it's a real shame. Here are a few downsides:

It makes your world less interesting

Seeing great work is nice, but seeing great work and understanding how hard it was to make is better. It lets you appreciate the excellent song, jump shot, or sales call at a new level.

Ignoring the technical skills all around you leads to a duller, more impoverished life. It's simply more interesting to look around with these glasses on.

It holds you back

To learn a new thing you have to know there is something to learn. If you think that being a good conversationalist is something you just weren't born with, why would you ever try to improve?

And if you can't see someone else's greatness, why would you ever think to learn it too? Noticing new skills is a key component of a growth mindset and a prerequisite to learning.

It reinforces unpleasant power dynamics

We often dismiss skills that are not societally valued by pretending they are not skills. Or, sure, maybe they're skills, but they're mysterious and ineffable!

You're part of this dynamic if you say "soft skills" instead of bothering to name them as "interpersonal skills," "leadership skills," or "communication skills." These are all technical skills and they have names.

You're part of that dynamic if you've ever used strategic incompetence, which is when you pretend that doing laundry, taking meeting notes, or organizing a birthday card for a coworker are skills that some people "are good at" and you "are just not good at." I'm sure it's a total coincidence that you "are good at" the fun tasks that will get you promoted.

And consider the "maker movement," which, in my cynical moments, I have been known to call "arts and crafts, but for boys." It's been careful to highlight its technical skills to position itself apart from similarly technical fields, like sewing. You can tell because it's probably easy for you to list their technical skills (electronics, power drilling, etc). But can you list the technical skills for sewing?

There are a lot. Let's look at only structural choices, not even going into aesthetic and design skills. You need to pick the right pattern, then pick the fabric that will work structurally for your particular garment. You need to understand the body you are making it for, and the exact complex 3D shape that will fit and flatter them (which in turn requires a 4D understanding of how they'll move, the physics of gravity, and how all that interplays with your fabric selection). Then you need to set up your sewing machine, an inscrutable piece of technical machinery that comes with mineral oil, a screwdriver, a parts catalog for repairs, and a detailed technical manual with lots of component diagrams. When your thread gets tangled, you need to reason about how the machine works to debug it. Then you need to cut things to exactly the right size and assemble them in the right order, and do it skillfully so they hold together while being worn and washed under duress. And there are advanced little touches that are the difference between "where did you get that?" and "oh...did you make that?"

Oh, wait, did you want to make something out of t-shirt fabric? That's an entirely different set of equipment and techniques!

My point is: sewing is very technical.

And we can ONLY write sewing off as "just arts and crafts" and "unimportant compared to our maker movement, which is totally different, we swear" if we choose to ignore that sewing is very technical.

Likewise, we can ONLY write off marketing, sales, management, design, product, HR, etc etc etc etc as less important because "they're not technical" if we choose to ignore that they are very technical.

This distinction isn't about semantics—it's about value.

Erasing technical skills lets you erase value.

Exercise for the reader

So I invite you to look closer. What's one field that you've always thought of as extremely un-technical? Can you spot any component technical skills you might have missed before?



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