Scott H Young

Skill Generalizing


I recently spoke at my Toastmasters club during an open house to some guests about the benefits of membership. One of the important points I made was that Toastmasters works on your communication skills not just public speaking. Because most people speak in front of an audience infrequently, this helped them realize the advantages Toastmasters meetings would have in their daily lives.

How easy it is to generalize a skill is an important factor to consider if you are looking to practice it. Beyond Toastmasters and public speaking, you should consider how the lessons learned while mastering any skill are applicable in other areas.

Learning programming improves your problem solving skills and your ability to understand complex systems. Practice painting helps you understand how colors interact and improves your creative ability. Endurance running improves your ability to pace yourself, push through physical pain and master your breathing.

By transferring lessons outside their original context you can utilize your current skills and find a greater motivation for building new ones. Although the utility of a specific skill may be limited, by generalizing those lessons you can get a lot more.

Generalizing Metaphors

Learning new skills also gives you powerful new metaphors you can use in similar efforts. These metaphors work like lenses from which you can view problems in different ways. After mastering computer programming, you can use it as a metaphor to describe your relationships or health and tackle challenges in a new way.

Although I could use a computer programming analogy to describe a life problem, unless you have that skill, the power of the metaphor will be lost. This is why a lot of platitudes can seem great but fail to offer practical advice. Generalizing from your own skill set can give you lenses to view all problems.

Generalizing VS Mastery

One of the trends I’ve noticed is that the more skill you gain in an area, the harder it is to generalize the lessons you’ve learned. Taking a few weeks of martial arts may allow you to generalize those skills in many other places but spending an extra few weeks of training to get your black belt will be more difficult to generalize.

Fellow blogger, Ben Casnocha, frequently references the idea of a “T” in terms of building skill. The idea is to have a mild understanding of a lot of areas and expertise in just a few. Because the deeper you understand a specific skill the harder it is to generalize, this model seems even more effective.

Take a look at the skills you already possess. How can you generalize their info towards other areas of your life? And before learning new skills look to see how you might be able to use those lessons elsewhere.


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6 Responses to “Skill Generalizing”

  1. Alex Shalman says:

    Hey Scott,

    Nice to see your helping out the new guys at Toastmasters. A good speech always makes people feel welcome, if it doesn’t sound like a sales pitch.

    About your post, could you clarify if you are pro-generalizing/ anti-specializing in skills or just in the context of generalizing life’s lessons?

    One of my favorite analogies of life skills is that of a farmer tending to his garden. “You reap what you sow” never gets old to me, nor does it do anything but sound more appealing, the more that I hear it and experience it.

  2. Wulfen says:

    First thing: I had my Icebreaker yesterday. Pretty cool :) . I have no fear of speaking in public (have done it previously) but I find very insightful the comments and advices from other members to improve my technique. I think I’m in for a long time.

    On skills: there it seems that our society considers pretty valuable to have one skill in a superlative grade: top scientists or top athletes are admired. I don’t think this is an useful thing, though maybe that’s because I don’t have any skill at world-level class. But I’d daresay that it’s better to have a wide spectrum of knowledge than to specialize a lot.

    Who does not know the case of an athlete that is very good at his sport, but then fails in other areas of life? (Maradona or Mike Tyson come to mind). Same with scientists: Einstein is widely admired but in real life he seemed to be quite associal.

    I find that when you are knowledgeable in many areas of your life and don’t let anything stray, you are in general quite happier, and you can use those synergies to improve your overall effectivenes. I’ve always liked computers, and I was pretty good with them, but nowadays that I put an effort to go to the gym, I have more energy so I can focus more clearly on the problems, and I don’t get dragged by energy slumps: my technical skills benefit from that. And now that I’ve improved my social skills, if I have a technical idea or vision, it’s easier for me to communicate it, for instance to my boss, so my ideas can have more impact.

    Rock Hard, Ride Free,

    Wulfen

  3. Scott Young says:

    Alex,

    I’m not pro or anti skill specializing. As I mentioned with the model T, the idea is that you should have a small degree of skill in a bunch of areas (the top part of the T) and be incredibly skilled at a few.

    Wulfen,

    Great job on the icebreaker. Toastmasters isn’t just about overcoming nervousness, it is about mastering communication. I’m giving my 9th manual speech tonight.

  4. [...] course, it’s not just software programmers who have this debate, even designers and productivity specialists [...]

  5. [...] course, it’s not just software programmers who have this debate, even designers and productivity specialists [...]

  6. [...] course, it’s not just software programmers who have this debate, even designers and productivity specialists [...]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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