100 Skills You Should Know if You are Still in the 20th Century

by Krishna on January 26, 2009

asimo Or you are just miserly or into chest-thumping manliness. A few months back, Popular Mechanics published what they called the Ultimate Do-It-Yourself List of the 100 Skills Every Man Should Know. Every man should know things like “run rapids in a canoe”, “grow food”, “use a sewing machine” and familiarize themselves with wood chisels and brick trowels. It is disappointing because Popular Mechanics does have great content on science and technology, and these lists perpetuate stereotypes of male behavior, and ignore how the modern economy works, including basic concepts like specialized labor.

Social, economic and technological changes have transformed the typical roles of men and women, formulated over millenniums of human existence. Some people cannot deal with this and continue to legislate how each gender should live and behave, even though everything that dictated those behaviors has changed. I wonder what Popular Mechanics will come out with when robots start taking over household and construction work. That day is not that far off.

Which brings us to the question, “What should you (male or female) know?” in the Google and smartphone era, where no answer is more than a few keystrokes away. If you don’t even know what a brick trowel is, take a few minutes to read what it is, see what it looks like, and view it in action. There! If you are more interested now in masonry, you can follow the same steps to learn it online (before you spend a cent on bricks and cement).

The explosion of information on any topic makes it much more difficult for anyone to become an expert. Innovation in techniques and equipment make existing knowledge outdated much more quickly. For example, if you have been a programmer for the last 10 years, you would have already learnt several programming languages, frameworks and architectures that you no longer use. A significant part (maybe 50%, maybe even 90%) of your learning is essentially useless, because technology has moved on.

This doesn’t mean that all learning and all experience is futile. Physical skills (painting, ballet dancing, surgery, etc.) need thousands of hours of practice. And, some kinds of knowledge seem more important than ever. For example:

  1. Knowing how to locate information: Knowing how to do efficient Internet searches, obviously. But sometimes your information is locked in people’s minds. Having good networking skills (real and virtual) is a vital asset, because you know which people would be able to provide good answers to your questions.
  2. Being able to learn faster: Information is useless if you cannot consume it quickly to make a difference. You need the skills to understand the big picture, produce a bare-bones implementation and prioritize what details to master. You should know how to harness past knowledge effectively to learn new skills. In some cases, relating existing concepts to new technology may speed up learning. In other cases, it may hinder it and so you have to be ready to unlearn old ideas.

If you look at the typical hiring process of most organizations, a lot of emphasis is placed on knowing stuff. Even before a person is considered for an interview, they are evaluated on their resume, which is simply a collection of what they did and what they know. An interview answer like “I don’t know, but give me 5 minutes on Google and I can explain everything you want to know about it” may be truthful, but suicidal. The trivia contest nature of interviews is useful only for testing the memory power of candidates, and not their performance under real circumstances. As we understand more about the changing nature of knowledge, perhaps this will become less so.

Educational institutions will also have to adjust to this changing reality. Schools should educate students to take advantage of technology that would be available to them in real life. Stop evaluations that are based on memory power, and start testing them on whether they can find information, learn things faster, be more creative and come up with new ideas. There are some subjects and many details within each subject that are useless to 99.999% of students unless they do a doctorate, in which case, they can easily locate the necessary information. Get rid of such unnecessary trivia and make learning more meaningful and relevant to the present age.


[Photo licensed from Rescue Dog]

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