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Your Most Valuable Skill

28 Post author: Alicorn 27 September 2009 05:01PM

Knowledge is great: I suspect we can agree there.  Sadly, though, we can't guarantee ourselves infinite time in which to learn everything eventually, and in the meantime, there are plenty of situations where having irrelevant knowledge instead of more instrumentally useful knowledge can be decidedly suboptimal.  Therefore, there's good reason to work out what facts we'll need to deploy and give special priority to learning those facts.  There's nothing intrinsically more interesting or valuable about the knowledge that the capital of the United States is Washington, D.C. than there is about the knowledge that the capital of Bali is Denpasar, but unless you live or spend a lot of time in Indonesia, the latter knowledge will be less likely to come up.

It seems the same is true of procedural knowledge (with the quirk that it's easier to deliberately put yourself in situations where you use whatever procedural knowledge you have than it is to arrange to need to know the capital of Bali.)  If your procedural knowledge is useful, and also difficult to obtain or unpopular to practice or both, you might even turn it into a career (or save money that you would have spent hiring people who have).

Rationality is sort of the ur-procedure, but after a certain point - the point where you're no longer buying into supernaturalist superstition, begging for a Darwin Award, or falling for cheap scams - its marginal practical value diminishes.  Practicing rationality as an art is fun and there's some chance it'll yield a high return, but evolution (genetic and memetic) didn't do that bad of a job on us: we enter adulthood with an arsenal of heuristics that are mostly good enough.  A little patching of the worst leaks, some bailing of bilge that got in early on, and you have a serviceable brain-yacht.  (Sound of metaphor straining.)

So when you want to spend time on learning or honing a skill, it makes sense to choose skills with a high return on investment, be it in terms of fun, resources, the goodwill of others, insurance against emergency, or other valuable results.  Note that if you learned a skill, used it to learn a non-customized fact, and do not anticipate using the skill again, it's not the skill that was useful; the skill was just a sine qua non for the useful fact, and others don't have to duplicate the research process to benefit.  A skill that yielded one (or more) customized facts - i.e., facts about yourself, that you can't go on to share straight up with other people - might be a useful skill in this way, however.

For practical daily purposes, what is your most valuable skill (or what most valuable skill are you trying to attain now)?  Post it in the comments, along with what makes your skill valuable, tips for picking it up, and what made you first investigate it.

Comments (95)

Comment author: Mycroft65536 27 September 2009 06:35:47PM 24 points [-]

Manipulation of human beings. Otherwise known as social skills. From the basic aspects of making eye-contact and don't examine every tangent and metaphor improvements that any geek could use, to properly reading what people want from you.

If using your own intelligence to it's maximum effectiveness is the best skill you can have, using other people's intelligence to your own ends has to be second.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 28 September 2009 01:48:08PM 14 points [-]

I'm going to go with "rationality" if it counts as a skill and we are talking about deviation from the mean, not absolute value, where things like object permanence probably take precedence.

Breaking down rationality and focusing on my particular areas of strength, I'd go with the ability to notice confusion, clarify questions, and entertain a hypothesis to the point of serious investigation without becoming highly attached to it, and the sort of extreme materialism that dissolves Enlightenment era superstitions like a unified self and does so not as theoretical knowledge but as an everyday element of experienced life.

Non-attachment of all sorts really is quite useful though, from the ability to drop hypotheses to the ability to reject a long-term hobby (such as reading fiction) or interpersonal pattern (say arguing) as no longer educational or enjoyable enough to justify serious continued attention and then actually give it up or reduce participation (indulgence accepts naive assumptions about habits being fun) to a rewarding level.

Comment author: Alicorn 28 September 2009 03:17:11PM 0 points [-]

"Object permanence" is a skill?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 September 2009 04:23:01PM 1 point [-]

Of your parietal cortex, one assumes.

Comment author: Alicorn 28 September 2009 04:30:53PM 3 points [-]

Oh, I see. The ability to perceive/understand the permanence of objects, not the ability to be a permanent object.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 September 2009 06:42:42PM 5 points [-]

Though I suppose the ability to not be a permanent object might be useful for e.g. walking through walls.

Unless it meant that you ceased existing at all, of course.

Comment author: Epsilon725 12 September 2013 06:46:09AM 0 points [-]

Alternatively, it could result in falling through the floor, and being trapped in the Earth's core for all of eternity... Or until you die, whichever comes sooner.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 28 September 2009 09:35:38AM *  10 points [-]

English! The world speaks English.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 28 September 2009 12:16:10PM *  8 points [-]

Huh. I tend to forget about this, but it may well be that English is actually my most valued skill. As a non-native speaker, I'm really glad that I invested a good number of skill points into English in my earlier life.

Your comment got me thinking -- would I give up my current English skill for, say, high-level moneymaking (automated $3M/year and higher)? So far, I can't say that my answer is a clear "Yes".

Comment author: MichaelGR 28 September 2009 06:12:49PM 4 points [-]

Very good point. If I hadn't learned English (and I learned it late, when I was about 14-15 -- am now 27), I probably wouldn't know a fraction of what I now know.

This makes me wonder if I should start learning Chinese...

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 02 October 2009 03:21:00AM 1 point [-]

Chinese is a lot tougher I hear.

Comment author: Alicorn 02 October 2009 01:22:05PM 1 point [-]

Chinese isn't that bad to learn to speak. The tones are a little tricky, but the grammar is simplicity itself after you've learned a handful of quirks. It's literacy that presents an enormous challenge: thousands and thousands of characters! However, literacy will also allow you to read things written by a speaker of any Chinese dialect, while the same is not true of learning only to speak Mandarin or Cantonese or what have you.

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 03:31:05AM *  0 points [-]

I already mentioned that. :P

Comment author: Bo102010 27 September 2009 05:23:30PM 10 points [-]

It always astounds me how a bit of skill with Excel and a programming language have given me such a huge boost in every job I've worked. I'm an engineer, so the questions I typically encounter at work involve something amenable to empirical analysis. However, I suspect the ability to do even some semi-automation of routine tasks is probably a skill anyone could use.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 28 September 2009 11:45:10AM 0 points [-]

Seconded -- knowing Excel is a great asset. Can't say that I like VBA (I'd prefer anything with C-like syntax), but it does the job once you figure out how to address the cells.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 28 September 2009 10:19:22AM *  9 points [-]

Considering that we aren't designed to be consistently happy, I have a Buddhist perspective that the best way to be happy is to want less, rather than achieve more. It might be called "letting go". This applies to things who's only or primary function is to make you happy, as opposed to making others happy or allowing you to survive to experience more happiness. E.g. rather than fall into the cycle of getting and being dissatisfied with larger and larger houses, to learn to be completely content with the house you already have. Said another way, it's a self-modification of one's emotions and utility function. One is then free to give up certain things to achieve greater utility elsewhere, altruistically or selfishly, not to mention enjoying both new and old houses quite a bit more.

The ability to do this to a significant degree is one of my most valued skills. In particular, coming to be extremely content with being single provided immense utility, both inside and outside of relationships (comparing my relationships to others). It also really helped me to find relationships. Note: as I've experienced this, it does NOT require that you cease the pursuit of something, just that you become very content with failing to achieve it. Being in a nice relationship might be preferable, but doesn't have to stop the lack of one from being a great time.

Achieving this skill to the extent I did took a long time, including a lot of struggling and complication. For those interested, particularly useful were music (able to add beauty to all manner of things with the right perspective) and general practice with enjoying subpar outcomes.

Focusing on existential risk I get to enjoy this less than I used to. By so affecting mine and others' ability to achieve future utility, the avoidance of such a disaster is far more valuable than being content with failure. Shucks.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 23 September 2010 01:10:56AM 4 points [-]

Focusing on existential risk I get to enjoy this less than I used to. By so affecting mine and others' ability to achieve future utility, the avoidance of such a disaster is far more valuable than being content with failure. Shucks.

Also coming from the Bayesian Buddhist perspective, I often think the same. The problem is that even without existential risks, there's still death and disease and destruction. Before I knew of existential risks I was quite keen on destroying death. A life of quiet and content contemplation sounds nice, but perhaps the key is in leading that life while striving rather than imagining an idealized world where one needn't strive? The Buddha was on a quest to save the world, too.

I think it helps some to remind myself that though we Singularitarians harp on about existential risks, the positive utility of winning is mind-boggling. We de-emphasize this to separate our perspective from the "Woo Singularity yeah!" crowd, but perhaps we go too far sometimes. Building the republic of heaven is a much more happy thought than fighting to keep humanity from killing itself.

Comment author: patrissimo 07 November 2009 08:53:11PM 0 points [-]

And Michael Vassar above demonstrates the usefulness of nonattachment to rationality - letting go of one's hypothesis, patterns, ways of doing things.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 30 September 2009 12:14:44PM 8 points [-]

I'm going to nominate the skill-set involved in participating productively in online discussion forums. :-) This involves:

  • using proper etiquette
  • avoiding or tamping down flame wars
  • keeping track of people's identities so you can avoid crackpots and pay extra attention to those who consistently have high signal/noise ratios
  • effective communication (writing clearly and concisely, reading comprehension, resolving confusions and misunderstandings)
  • having a proper amount of confidence in one's ideas so as to not generate needless disagreements and unproductive arguments

I could also mention the skill-set for building a successful online community, but obviously far fewer people need that. (This seems like a good opportunity to say that I really admire the job that Eliezer has done building this one.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 October 2009 11:22:10PM 3 points [-]

Yeah, well, the Nazis could have participated productively in online discussion forums!

Comment author: Epsilon725 12 September 2013 06:50:06AM -2 points [-]

Godwin's Law - You mentioned Nazis, you automatically lose.

(Unless that was part of a joke. If it was part of a joke, then it was funny. Also, you have a point - Those skills are rather common.)

Comment author: PlaidX 27 September 2009 07:13:50PM 20 points [-]

Flat out refusing to do things. You'd be amazed what you can get away with not doing.

Comment author: Jack 27 September 2009 07:24:39PM *  14 points [-]

Can you say more about this?

(Please resist the temptation to just refuse to answer for purposes of irony and self-reference).

Comment author: PlaidX 28 September 2009 06:04:19AM *  4 points [-]

PlaidX: halfway through primary school i said "alright, that's enough of that"

PlaidX: and everyone was like "but you HAVE to go to school!"

PlaidX: and i was like make me and they said I GUESS YOU DON'T, THEN...

PlaidX: it was amazing how easy it was, in the end

kim: was it

kim: i remember having to do a lot of stupid correspondance school crap

kim: and then some alternative high school where you only had to go ten hours a week and it was self-paced

kim: until I finally just hit 17 and got my GED

PlaidX: the truth of the matter is, the educational system does not have a lot of leverage

PlaidX: the worst they can do to you is expel you, and that's... not particularly threatening, if your goal is to not go to school

PlaidX: this will go on your permanent record young man!!!

kim: can't the state put you in foster care if you aren't getting an education, though?

PlaidX: i guess, in theory?

PlaidX: i've never heard of that actually happening

kim: i wish my mom wouuld have been less paranoid about that, it would've saved me a lot of trouble

PlaidX: you were what, 13 or so?

kim: well

kim: let's see.. 12 when I refused to go to middle school any longer, then we tried enrollment in a private high school when I was 13

kim: and that lasted for... two months? three?

PlaidX: and your house wasn't full of black mould or anything

kim: not that we knew of

PlaidX: i don't really see CPS coming in and dragging you away for not doing your schoolwork

kim: the important thing is that my mom thought they would

kim: and I didn't want anyone to think I was shirking away from schoolwork, anyway. I never had a problem with that

kim: just all the people that happened to be at the school

PlaidX: again though, what would your mom actually have done if you simply refused to do the schoolwork? thrown you out?

kim: hmm, I dunno

kim: maybe put me in a mental institution

PlaidX: to save you from being put in a foster home.

kim: no, because if I'd have refused to do any schoolwork, clearly my emotional disturbance was to the point where I could try to kill myself again

kim: I don't know

kim: reasonably, nothing, but it would've strained our relationship to say the least

PlaidX: i'm not suggesting you have to be a dick about these things, just calmly explain why schoolwork is a load of rubbish and then when they try to get you to compromise, say no, and then they give up.

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 03:29:47AM *  4 points [-]

PlaidX: halfway through primary school i said "alright, that's enough of that"
PlaidX: and everyone was like "but you HAVE to go to school!"
PlaidX: and i was like make me and they said I GUESS YOU DON'T, THEN...

I tried that, and they did, in fact, make me. They were bigger than me, and they were willing to literally pick me up and carry me to the school. Furthermore, I had to see psychiatrists and take antidepressant medication that, at the time, I didn't want. (Incidentally, my father told me that a friend of his, who he referred to by name, once had to go to family court because his daughter was late to school every day for a long time, and he didn't want the same thing happening to him.)

I'm having a lot better luck with "not getting a job" than "not going to school" though.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 September 2009 03:47:39AM 4 points [-]

Worked for me after 8th grade, THANK Belldandy and Cthulhu.

Not really sure how it worked - if my parents ever had to deal with any legal attention or truant officers, I didn't hear about it.

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 04:11:55AM *  4 points [-]

Well, I pretty much told them I planned on spending all day surfing the Internet and playing video games until they stopped supporting me. You seemed to have a better excuse.

You also probably weren't shoved into special education after second grade. I spent third through seventh grade learning basically nothing from my actual schoolwork while the rest of my native school district caught up to me.

I'm always jealous when I hear about mathematical prodigies who are doing advanced work at young ages. I would have been one of them if I only I had someone who was willing to teach me math more complicated than arithmetic!

Comment author: komponisto 30 September 2009 02:39:07AM *  4 points [-]

Well, I pretty much told them I planned on spending all day surfing the Internet and playing video games until they stopped supporting me. [Eliezer] seemed to have a better excuse.

It may sound like a better excuse to people in this community, but I assure you that to my parents both "excuses" would have sounded one and the same:

"It's great that you want to work on 'artificial intelligence' or whatever when you grow up, but right now, young man, your schoolwork comes first. You're not going to sit around on the computer all day while you're living under our roof." (etc.)

I'm always jealous when I hear about mathematical prodigies who are doing advanced work at young ages. I would have been one of them if I only I had someone who was willing to teach me math more complicated than arithmetic!

I second this jealousy! Though in my case, I had the access to higher math (at least enough to get started). What I didn't have was anyone who cared about the rather remarkable fact that I was interested in it. I mean really, truly cared -- to the point of taking some kind of action. Whenever I did something that showed what might be called exceptional ability, whether it was learning calculus or writing symphonies, the reaction of my parents and the school authorities was always "that's great, but..."

(Incidentally, I don't want to unfairly condemn my parents. They would have been just fine for 99% of the children they might have had, and it could have been much worse for me. But never underestimate the stupidity of the U.S. public school system.)

Comment author: AnlamK 29 September 2009 05:05:52PM *  2 points [-]

I'm always jealous when I hear about mathematical prodigies who are doing advanced work at young ages. I would have been one of them if I only I had someone who was willing to teach me math more complicated than arithmetic!

I'm sure we'd all be (all of Less Wrong, except I, who am not very smart - that's some weird grammar by the way that I just used) mathematical prodigies - if we only had someone who was willing to teach us math, because Gods know why, we were too lazy to go to a public library, pick up the books and study ourselves!

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 September 2009 07:02:19PM *  5 points [-]

One can waste a lot of time, especially at the start when most of the literature is inaccessible and one lacks common sense to at least look through standard curricula -- this can be easily fixed with the right guidance. Plus, it's not obvious that learning research science can be fun, something I had no idea about up to the last years of college (there was language barrier as well).

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 06:52:42PM 3 points [-]

At the time, I didn't know my public library had such textbooks. :(

Comment author: Epsilon725 12 September 2013 06:52:07AM 1 point [-]

To use the internet term... I know that feel.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 September 2009 01:29:34PM 1 point [-]

I'm always jealous when I hear about mathematical prodigies who are doing advanced work at young ages. I would have been one of them if I only I had someone who was willing to teach me math more complicated than arithmetic!

Do you do advanced math now? If not, why not, and why would it be different at a younger age?

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 04:34:45PM *  1 point [-]

Well, I haven't done much advanced math recently, but I did do quite a bit in college. ("Advanced" math seems to start with calculus...)

Comment author: clay 28 September 2009 03:49:54AM 2 points [-]

Along these lines?

"Jack, there's a team meeting at noon today and you need to be there." "Nope"

Comment author: Jack 28 September 2009 04:03:44AM 1 point [-]

I guess I was curious if you (1) had generalized knowledge about this skill... like in what sorts of situations will this work in and what situations will this fail in? Are excuses needed? If so when? Are tone, attitude and delivery important? Is there backlash from refusing? Most people seem to think this is a good way to get fired, if this is wrong why do they think this? etc.

Also (2) do you have a particularly insightful or entertaining anecdotes of you using this skill? What is biggest request you've refused? Are there refusals you regret making? etc.

Comment author: rwallace 28 September 2009 01:27:51PM 4 points [-]

Don't sound argumentative or defensive. Sound calm but confident. Be ready to give reasons: "I'm trying to get the foobar module working. This module is a critical part of our next release. Meetings are not."

Know before you start how far you're willing to follow the chain. What if they report you to the manager, and he tells you you have to attend meetings or be fired? Probably the best response is to reply calmly, "I think we should be spending more time getting the next release ready and less time in meetings, but if the company's priority is otherwise, so be it." - then you concede without losing face, and knowing you made every reasonable attempt (and maybe it's time to quietly start looking for a job someplace less bureaucratic) It probably won't come to that, but you will do better if you're prepared in case it does come to that.

Being perceived as getting above your station was more dangerous in the ancestral environment than it is today, so most people are more afraid of doing it than is optimal today. The other mistake is to do it in a surly or rebellious fashion. Do it when it's important enough, do it in a calm and confident fashion, and do it from a position where you're already prepared to follow the chain.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 September 2009 04:51:13AM 4 points [-]

I suspect that clay's suggestion does require a shadow of an excuse. "No, I can't" is probably worlds better than "Nope." Recall that illusions of excuses ("I need to") were shown to help cutting in line at the xerox.

Comment author: komponisto 28 September 2009 04:12:23AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Zvi 28 September 2009 10:18:25PM 3 points [-]

You could also broaden this to Assertiveness in general. Asking for what you want is an amazingly useful skill that I'm neither as good at or use as often as I should.

Comment author: Morendil 28 September 2009 12:13:29PM 0 points [-]

Recommended reading: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 29 September 2009 06:43:53AM 6 points [-]

My most valuable skill I can think of is in the context of being a software developer. I've learned to be pretty good at extracting requirements from customers. I often say this is one of the more important skills a software developer can learn. It's important at all levels of the profession, and is really a gateway skill to performing at a high level.

The reason it's important and hard to learn is that most of the time, customers don't know what they want, or they have an idea in their head, but they're wrong about what will satisfy. Extreme Programming (XP) teaches one approach that lets you get by with less of this skill, and that's to build something simple that approaches what they say they want, and then keep adding stuff until they're happy with it. But if the customer is really confused (which happens more often than you might think) then you'll have started in the wrong direction, and the customer won't get less confused about what they want.

So it helps to know how to talk to the customer and find out what the real problem is, rather than just what they think the solution might be. It's also valuable to have good intuitions about features they're likely to want that they haven't asked for yet, so you can build in the hooks for those. But if you make too many guesses, you'll waste time building general support where it's not needed. So you have to calibrate your guesses as well.

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 04:40:33PM 3 points [-]

Indeed. Programming is the art of figuring out what you want so precisely that even a machine can do it.

Comment author: matt 06 October 2009 08:33:56PM *  0 points [-]

I'm a programmer but have worked as a more general engineering/management consultant and attest that this skill is valuable for more than programming. "Extracting requirements" is pretty close to "looking at the problem and figuing out what interventions (tools, systems changes, training, outsourced services, etc) would fix it", which is pretty obviously pretty generally useful.

Comment author: rwallace 27 September 2009 05:22:20PM 6 points [-]

Aside from computer programming and related technical skills, if I had to name a small set of general life skills that I have found the most useful, I think it would be the ability to say:

"I don't know."

"I don't know how long it will take me to do that." (a special case, but a very important one)

"That's none of my business."

I have found these are indeed skills, but I'm not sure off the top of my head how to articulate methods for picking them up.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 September 2009 08:32:15AM 0 points [-]

"I don't know."

"I don't know how long it will take me to do that." (a special case, but a very important one)

Do you use those even when you do know?

Comment author: rwallace 28 September 2009 12:56:56PM 3 points [-]

Of course not -- the trick is to resist the temptation to make up guesses when one does not in fact know the answer.

Comment author: Zvi 28 September 2009 10:15:12PM 3 points [-]

I quite often find myself wishing others had the opposite and in my opinion more valuable skill of being able to give me their best guess rather than retreat into "I don't know" or some other similar statement - I actually spent a good chunk of last Sunday trying to coax someone into making guesses and there are few things more infuriating then someone who won't give you a number because "they don't know" when you know damn well they have a lot more information than you do, and they're often doing it (as Eliezer said) for political reasons - they don't want to be wrong.

That's not to say that knowing when to say "I don't know" isn't useful, it is, and if you never use it when you do in fact know quite a bit more than the person you're speaking to my guess is that either you're managing to keep far more rational company than I can or you're getting in a lot more trouble than it's worth getting into.

Comment author: Kutta 28 September 2009 05:22:23PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: rwallace 28 September 2009 05:52:09PM 0 points [-]

Yes, you may correctly deduce that I here disagree with Eliezer :-)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 September 2009 05:43:43PM 15 points [-]

Rationality is sort of the ur-procedure, but after a certain point - the point where you're no longer buying into supernaturalist superstition, begging for a Darwin Award, or falling for cheap scams

...or failing to put water bottles on your roof, or failing to sign up for cryonics...

its marginal practical value diminishes.

If your cost of obtaining further rationality is very high, so that it's going at a slow rate, then I suppose that's possible. But I think we have different views on the extent to which "people are crazy, the world is mad" holds ubiquitously true of ordinary human existence and offers low-hanging fruits.

Comment author: hegemonicon 28 September 2009 12:26:16PM 14 points [-]

Not necessarily a skill per se but...

Being able to say 'I was wrong' and proceeding to change my behavior in light of it.

Comment author: MichaelGR 28 September 2009 06:13:35PM 3 points [-]

Eliezer would call that the ability to "update", I think.

Very important.

Comment author: Arenamontanus 29 September 2009 10:56:06PM 5 points [-]

I think my most valuable skill is my ability to build models of problems and systems. Not necessarily great and complete models, but at least something that encapsulates a bit of what seems to be going on and produces output that can be compared with the system. A few iterations of modelling/comparison/correction and I have usually at least learned something useful. It works both for napkin calculations or software simulations. It is a great tool for understanding many systems or checking intuitions.

Others have mentioned the skill of "letting go". I have trained myself the speciality of letting go of negative emotions, which has produced a very sunny (nearly pathologically positive) mood. Recognizing that most negative emotions like despair, sadness or anger don't solve the problem that caused them is very helpful. A positive, can-do mindset is a pretty useful asset. However, there are tricky trade-offs to be made between lowered ability to dwell on negatives plus optimism bias and the hedonic enjoyment of a good mood.

Comment author: Morendil 28 September 2009 08:26:10AM 5 points [-]

Of the ones mentioned so far my highest ranking would be learning to learn, saying no, and my first love, programming. Here's one not mentioned so far:

Consulting, the skill of influencing others at their request. (See e.g. Jerry Weinberg's Secrets of Consulting.) This has elements of teaching, but is worth more on the market. It relies on broad experience rather than specialized knowledge. It calls for your clients seeing you as a trusted advisor, relying on you not for deep expertise in their own domain but for an outside perspective, at least a little less tainted by internal biases than they are.

A consultant is often simply someone who is "less wrong" than their client, but to deploy this effectively requires a number of sub-skills: empathy, negotiation, listening, flexibility, networking...

Initially I picked up this skill because I was fed up with wasting my programming skills in the service of employers who seemed to systematically mismanage their own projects. (In retrospect that's not such a good reason to change careers, but that's how I saw things back then.) I went freelance and focused on helping businesses which wanted to improve their project management and development strategies.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 29 September 2009 10:48:01PM 2 points [-]

How did you get your first consulting contracts?

Comment author: Morendil 30 September 2009 11:10:48PM 1 point [-]

Oh... Long story, because "get a consulting contract" is nothing like a well defined event with a single causal chain leading to it. I'll try to summarize...

I spent some time out of work and burning through my savings. While I was doing that I "worked" for no pay, organizing the local community of folks interested in the topic I was passionate about (Extreme Programming). This gave me lots of opportunity to network. About two years later, the passion and the networking started paying dividends, just at the time my savings were running out. I landed one small training gig. Then a small consultancy across the Channel (I live in France) funded me to put together a few marketing seminars. I had established enough credibility by then that this convinced one client, then another.

Somewhere in there I parlayed my 10 years' work experience into a master's degree in computer science. I also attended lots of conferences, read a fair bit, and generally kept busy even when I wasn't making money.

Comment author: evgenit 27 September 2009 09:18:02PM 12 points [-]

Computer programming. Aside from the market value, it helps me analyze and plan day-to-day tasks. If there are several things I need to do, and they are tangled (one necessitates another, say), I start thinking like I would when programming, breaking the whole mess down into manageable pieces and then stringing them back together into a plan of action.

I expect that other people may have this as a separate skill not related to programming at all.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 September 2009 01:33:06AM *  8 points [-]

I think there's something fundamentally eye-opening about programming. Causality really comes out when you can hold the entire state of something in your head.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 28 September 2009 10:38:20PM 4 points [-]

we enter adulthood with an arsenal of heuristics that are mostly good enough.

Humans are rational enough in the same way that we are strong enough.

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 03:34:17AM 2 points [-]

When we're not strong enough individually, we work around it by using more people, using animals, or using machinery.

When we're not rational enough individually...

um...

what DO we do, anyway? Throw enough scientists at the problem and hope the right answer emerges?

Comment author: Mycroft65536 29 September 2009 01:00:59PM 2 points [-]

We're strong enough to fill our evolutionary niche, barely.

Our heuristics are good enough to get us through life with an adequate chance of success.

We can do better.

Comment author: SaulGlasman 28 September 2009 07:28:32AM *  4 points [-]

Here's something big that I don't think anyone's mentioned yet. Rationality isn't the only meta-skill; you are born with the incredible ability to learn new skills, and as with most other traits, skill-learning aptitude varies between people. But more importantly, a lot of people don't realise that the skill-learning mechanism can be honed; the brain circuitry responsible for picking up new tricks grows and develops in response to use.

There are reams of anecdotal documentation, and probably some properly conducted tests as well, that bear out the local form of this phenomenon (after you've learned three second languages the fourth is easier; if you can play badminton and volleyball, then all other things being equal, you'll probably pick up tennis better than another absolute beginner). I suspect, without much justification, that this also happens globally: having exercised your skill acquisition centres in learning to play volleyball, learning to speak Russian is going to be a tiny bit easier than it otherwise would have been.

So, apart from being extremely good at pure maths (to the extent that it ought to provide me with a prestigious career), that's my most useful skill: l'm pretty quick at picking up new ones.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 28 September 2009 01:38:10PM 2 points [-]

Recommended reading: The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin.

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 28 September 2009 02:04:23AM 4 points [-]

Maybe this isn't my most valuable skill, but lately I've been much better at setting to a routine and sticking to it in the absence of external enforcement: "Do your readings for class over the weekend. Go into the lab to work on research several days per week. Go to the regular seminars. Keep up on RSS feeds and extra readings in the evenings." Naturally there are virtues to flexibility as well, but just floating through my day as an optimized routine and avoiding the problems associated with time-inconsistent preferences has really helped my productivity in the past few months.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 September 2009 06:44:12PM 4 points [-]

Many of the most useful skills are ubiquitous. For example, everyone here can speak, read, and write English. Most of us can drive a car, and I don't know of anyone here who can't walk.

In terms of skills that not everyone has, I was unusually good at schoolwork. To break it down into some of its most significant parts:

1) I was good at translating problems stated in English into mathematical expressions. 1a) I was good at identifying the information needed to do #1, and finding that information in textbooks.

(I actually know how I learned to do #1. I had an educational computer program that I used before I learned algebra that taught me how to do this. It would give a word problem of the kind used in an algebra class, and act out, step by step, the process of creating the equations used to solve the problem.)

2) I could do math very well; I could learn the rules for "shuffling symbols around" quickly and apply them to solve equations. I could also derive results on the fly that I didn't quite remember from class when taking a test.

3) I was good at answering questions on tests. I don't know why, exactly, apart from my math skills and overall good memory for the kinds of things that get asked on tests, but I was good at it.

Another, somewhat related skill: I am an unusually good writer, at least when compared to my high school classmates. (I'm not necessarily better than the average blogger, but the average person doesn't blog.) I think it came from spending an awful lot of time reading books, but I have no idea how to teach writing.

I also have the "useless" but fun skills of being good at video games and at Magic: The Gathering.

Comment author: RobinZ 28 September 2009 01:48:19PM 2 points [-]

Except for the comparison to high school classmates (homeschooled until college) and the parenthetical about #1, I could have written this comment myself!

Comment author: [deleted] 28 September 2009 08:30:10PM 2 points [-]

Ditto. Let's be friends.

Comment author: haig 28 September 2009 04:56:07AM 3 points [-]

Aside from learning as a way to acquire useful skills, there are certain things I learn in order to change the way I think. Echoing similar comments, programming seems to have altered my perspective as a kid and continues to do so. One example is learning Lisp. It's become popular to learn lisp not because it is practically useful in day-to-day coding (though it can be), but because it changes the way you think about how to program.

Similarly, studying abstract algebra might be a waste of my time (though I'll understand Lie groups and hence theoretical physics better), but the way it warps (in a good way) my mind cannot be attained by any other (present) means.

This might not be original, but my most valuable skill then seems to be learning how to learn, which includes honing my intuition of what is important to learn.

Comment author: luff 30 September 2009 06:08:17AM *  5 points [-]

Because I want to be right, I love to be wrong. Or more correctly, to realize why I'm wrong. I'm not sure how it came about, my best guess is it has something to do with humor, but every time I realize I'm wrong, I get happy. It gives me a stupid grin across my face and makes me snicker. It also happens when I realize why someone else is wrong. (as in becoming aware of what mistake they have made, or what information they are missing - not just that they are mistaken!)

Sure, most people want to be right, but they hate to be wrong. They get ashamed, frustrated, blame themselves, and try to avoid it. The problem, I believe, is that they have bundled "being wrong" together with realizing that they're wrong. To avoid these feelings, they unconsciously try to avoid giving up on their beliefs for as long as they can get away with it.

If you want to be right then you should love realizing that you're wrong, because every time you do, you'll get more right.

In short, I guess you would call this skill "being able to update". Just wanted to give my theory of how it works for me, and why so many are bad at it. The reason behind why most people have this faulty behavior is most likely the pursuit of status. Groups don't reward ability to update, in fact they punish it. You lose prestige, they'll call you a flip-flopper, instead of praising your ability to discard false knowledge. Which explains a lot about the state of the world and it's leaders, really!

Comment author: Matt_Liggett 28 September 2009 02:26:21AM *  5 points [-]

Like Michael Vassar, I think there should be more sex. Ergo, getting sex partners in the mood, getting them off, getting them to get me off, and (barring the previous things working) taking care of things myself.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 28 September 2009 01:40:22PM 1 point [-]

Yes, but I wouldn't put that in the top hundred, given the sort of things that other people are bringing up here.

Comment author: UnholySmoke 29 September 2009 03:26:52PM 2 points [-]

Appears 3 times in my top 10.

That aside, though, I'm now so much better at stopping myself and saying 'hang on, is this really going to work/is this really true/is this really right?' Very, very generic, but certainly something I've noticed in myself.

Comment author: Mycroft65536 29 September 2009 03:48:09AM 1 point [-]

Not in the top 100? If the goal of rationalists is to "win" given our various utility functions, you really think there are 100 better skills that aspiring rationalists could use to maximize their personal utility function and become "toe curling happy"?

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 September 2009 04:29:38AM 3 points [-]

I don't have that skill. :(

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 September 2009 11:03:04PM 2 points [-]

Yes, and as noted, I think that the skill in question is UNDERRATED. I just think that there are a LOT of important things to learn in life.

Comment author: AnlamK 29 September 2009 05:03:49PM 2 points [-]

Inspired by Walter Mischel's marshmallow experiment, I'm going to go with delayed gratification. I think the most important skill (or perhaps meta-skill, as this particular skill allows one to develop skills) is the ability to delay gratification and discipline yourself to work on something for a prolonged period of time. Without hard work and discipline, you can't achieve much in life. I also want to link to an interview with Carol Dweck, since she is probably the psychologist who has influenced me the most in this regard.

Comment author: curious 28 September 2009 06:36:40PM 2 points [-]

sifting information from noise / getting to the heart of a problem: skimming through a lot of material, getting rid of the unnecessary crap, and picking out the things that are really crucial.

i think i've always tended toward that mode of thinking, but the first time i remember consciously focusing on it was in a philosophy course that required turning in three essays per week addressing specific ethical questions in under 300 words.

the caveat on this one is not to overdo it. i really value my ultra-sensitive BS meter, and it pretty much earns me my daily bread, but i have to be very careful about type II errors.

Comment author: alexflint 28 September 2009 03:15:58PM 2 points [-]

Quickly break a problem into tractible pieces.

I learned this mostly from watching the most effective people around me -- my bos when I worked for a web design firm, a few particular fellow students during my PhD, and so on.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 September 2009 08:38:16AM *  2 points [-]

Self awareness. The ability to monitor myself in both real time and off line and update, nudging myself towards the development I most need at the time. Takes a while to learn that one.

Comment author: drcode 28 September 2009 03:47:42AM *  2 points [-]

I'd say my most valuable skill derives from the fact that I had very unusual parents with whom I also moved a lot, so that they had a strong influence on me. Consequently, the environment of my childhood was pretty unique, giving me neural patterns that deviate significantly from those of many other people.

This means I sometimes behave in ways that seem "dumb", but in other instances act in ways that seem unusually intelligent.

I excel in areas where unique neural patterns are rewarded: This includes (naturally) the stock market, some types of programming, and some types of non-fiction writing. It also means that I tend to have more success using lateral approaches to solve problems, since my atypical neurology makes it more likely that I will conceive of lateral approaches that have not yet been tried by others.

The biggest downside to this (I'm speculating here) is that success when using lateral problem solving correlates less directly with overall effort. Hence, there is less of a psychological reward for exerting a large effort. I suspect this makes lateral thinkers, like myself, trend towards having a lower discipline, compared to others who have managed comparable achievements.

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 27 September 2009 05:44:08PM 3 points [-]

Obsessive persistence until the right answer is found.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 28 September 2009 09:30:54AM 2 points [-]

That's not a skill.

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 28 September 2009 03:22:59PM 1 point [-]

It is, with practice.

Comment author: Shalmanese 28 September 2009 03:39:37AM 1 point [-]

As far as rationality is concerned, it's achieving the place of what I call "rational ignorance". An awareness of the limits of your rationality and how you overestimate how rational you are:

http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/the-ego-dilemma/

Comment author: eugman 28 September 2009 01:43:47AM 1 point [-]

Hi, I'm new.

This is probably more of a talent than a skill, but I think I'm abnormally good at producing analogies on the fly. It's really useful for trying to get a concept across to a person.

Comment author: knb 27 September 2009 09:57:52PM 1 point [-]

I think my hard-won skill for performing very fast online research is highly useful, though I suppose my ability to get along with people, and forge positive relationships with valued others is more generally valued.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 13 October 2009 08:27:07AM 0 points [-]

I wish Nesov, or someone else, would write a bit about "thinking in math". Is this a skill that is distinct from simply being good at math? Can it be learned through instruction or improved with practice? Are there exercises that we can do?

Comment author: Cosmos 29 September 2009 04:23:14PM 0 points [-]

Learning from the mistakes of others.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 October 2009 11:27:15PM *  0 points [-]

If I could write the curriculum for middle school, I'd make sure it included typing, 2 foreign languages, drawing, 1 musical instrument (rock band or orchestra), and social dancing.

Pretty much anything you learned in school other than math would be better replaced by another foreign language.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 02 October 2009 03:22:41AM 1 point [-]

"Pretty much anything you learned in school other than math would be better replaced by another foreign language."

Since you are a good thinker, I'd like to learn how you come to that conclusion. Is it being able to communicate with speakers of other languages that makes a person better off or does the study of the other language cause beneficial changes to the student's brain other than being able to communicate in those languages?

For the sake of my question, let us suppose the student's first language is English.

Also, I am told by a professional teacher of English that it takes about 7 years of study for a student to get good enough at English that language skill is not a large impediment to a native speaker's wanting to have a conversation with the student. That's a lot of study! The student could get a Ph.D. in a science instead. I've always thought that the other languages required a similar level of investment.

But then again if the benefits of the study of other languages are something other than being able to have a conversation with a native speaker, then maybe those benefits can be had for a smaller investment.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 02 October 2009 06:03:20AM 0 points [-]

I guess I have to answer, since you called me a good thinker!

I wouldn't call it a "conclusion" so much as a "guess" or an "idea". And I'm mostly thinking of being able to communicate in other languages. There would also be a large tangential benefits to the nation, of having citizens likely to travel to and be more aware of other countries.

The "7 years of study" figure means, I believe, 7 years of taking 1 course per semester. You couldn't get a PhD with 14 courses. An MS, maybe. I had to take 7 semesters of theology, philosophy, and political theory. I think I'd rather have had 7 semesters of Spanish. And I'd love to replace every single Social Studies course I took in grades 1-12 with Japanese.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 02 October 2009 06:50:03AM *  0 points [-]

Thank you for explaining your opinion of the value of becoming bilingual.

The 7-year figure comes from the chairperson of the English Department of community college near me (College of Marin). She teaches mainly recent immigrants from the third world and also people from Eastern Europe who come to this country to study English for a year.

There was a group of eight or so students, mostly women in their early twenties, from the Czech Republic here a year to study English at College of Marin. I got to know them because they would gather for coffee and cake every Wednesday at the same Borders where I played chess every Wednesday. They always spoke Czech when they came to socialize with their friends over coffee and cake: I literally never heard a word of English from their table and did not guess that they were here to learn English till they told me.

Also near me is Dominican University, which runs a residential English-as-a-second-language program. The Czechs I met did not attend this program because it is cheaper to find your own lodgings and take classes at College of Marin. Most of the students in the residential program are (or rather used to be) Japanese and Korean, and about ten years ago, I used to socialize with them, eating dinner at Dominican University's dining hall, playing table tennis with them, hanging out in the library, where they would all go after dinner. I did ask one or two of them if they studied anything besides the English language and they said no.

The Japanese and Korean students actually used English more than half of the time when talking to each other, and they got a few subtle points across to me, but that is more because they tended to be very bright and skilled at interpersonal communications generally than from any mastery in English.

Now I never asked any of these English learners how much English they studied before they came to the U.S. to study English, but one would expect them to have studied it quite a bit because that maximizes the benefit derived from what is clearly a costly stay in the U.S.

Anyway, there is some of the evidence I am using to conclude that to learn how to communicate in another language well enough materially to help you in your career (or to materially aid a social goal like marrying a native speaker of that language) would be more work than getting a master's degree in a science -- at least for most of the people reading these words. But then of course it is quite valuable just to be able to read stuff written in, e.g., Spanish or Chinese, and that is probably an easier skill to acquire.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 02 October 2009 12:26:36PM *  0 points [-]

The foreigners resident in the US have the massive advantage of having the opportunity (and need!) to use English out of class; but they have the massive disadvantage of being adults. A middle school student who moves to another country will become fluent. But a move at the end of middle school will probably result in an accent.

Added, years later: Fluency has nothing to do with accent. It's true that adults get accents. But it is also true that adults learn languages faster than children.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 02 October 2009 04:23:47PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, a child will pick up a second language quicker than an adult will, but the child will also tend to lose his or her first language unless he or she continues to use it. I base that belief on the experience of my father, who moved several times between two language communities in his childhood, and every time he moved he had to re-acquire the language of the community he was moving to. Once he became an adult, he retained both languages (but his English had some peculiarities even though it was the language he started out speaking), but it still cost him a great deal of learning time to become bilingual even though he started the process at a very early age.

My father never developed a taste for fiction. Or team sports. Or the pleasure that a human being can get from helping someone, e.g., visiting a sick friend in the hospital to keep the friend's spirits up or buying a box of cookies from the pair of Girl Scouts who have knocked on your door. If you do not cultivate the ability to take pleasure in something that humans have a natural potential to take pleasure in as a child, it is almost impossible to cultivate it as an adult. It seems to me that there a lots of things for a child to learn more important than a second language if the child already knows English. (It's different if the child's first language is Swedish or some other language without a huge literature and huge community of speakers.) E.g., learning to draw or to play a musical instrument.

Also, if an immigrant to the U.S. is earning $40,000 a year instead of $60,000 a year because his lack of fluency in English makes him a less valuable employee then it is almost as if he is paying $20,000 a year for the opportunity to practice English in his workplace. And if a boy who has just moved to the U.S. or moved back to the U.S. does not speak English well enough to befriend someone who will help him learn to play whatever team sport the neighborhood kids are playing, then missing out on the experience of playing that sport is one of the costs of having the opportunity of practicing his English with the neighborhood kids.

My point is that I assign little expected utility to teaching children who already know English (or Spanish or Mandarin, which also have huge literatures and huge communities of speakers in countries with plenty of economic opportunity) second and third languages as if they were gateway skills like algebra, probability theory or introductory physics, and I was surprised to hear someone as well-informed and free of false beliefs as Phil Goetz recommend it.

Of course, if we know the child will move to a place where the second language is the main language, that is different.