Multi-use skills: Skills that are widely applicable across many domains.

This is a topic that’s been brewing in my head for some time. I don’t believe all skills are equivalent. Of course, some skills are far more valuable than others to serve society but the distinction I want to make here is the number of domains a certain skill is useful in.

Examples in my experience include communication, programming, the right mental models, rationality, abstract analysis, psychology, time management, people management, math, business, design thinking, reading, selling etc though I freely admit I’ve missed many of what’s outside my knowledge boundary. Furthermore, two other traits which I hesitate to call “skills” include autodidacticism and perseverance as I’m still on the fence to whether these can be learned.

Another way of looking at multi-use skills are that they increase our competence boundary i.e. the number of domains where we are competent in. In the book Human Compatible, Stuart Russell argues that the difference between humans and machines is our ability to generalize across domains. If this is seen as a metric for general intelligence, then clearly some humans are more generally intelligent than others. Not just through any traits innate to them but also through the skill-sets they have acquired.

Why is this important? Well, in a world where the only constant is change, investing in multi-use skills are a safe investment. This has implications for how and what we teach children today. Currently, gaining initial career experience is a chicken and egg problem for many people. The best way to gauge what you want to work on is through gaining knowledge and experience. Multi-use skills provide students and people the option to contribute and work across many domains. This also applies equally to people currently working who are looking to shift domains.

I find that the optionality inherent in multi-use skills makes them powerful. Though, multi-use skills are no substitute for competence, the right skill-sets might help to gain broad experience across many domains. Since you don’t know what you don’t know, gaining experience can change how you think and hence your future values and decisions. Multi-use skills would act as a powerful vantage point to position yourself in, giving you the option to increase experience in the domain of your choosing.