Generative Skills

Generative-model-1-e1314984752853Not all skills are created equal. I’m a big fan of continuing to learn and continuing to learn new skills. Recently, however, I’ve been frequently noticing the fairly-obvious fact that some skills open up more possibilities than other skills.

For example, learning a language is what I would call a “generative skill”–the type of skill that opens up many possibilities.

I have lived in Japan for over 20 years and when I was first here, I spent a vast amount of time learning to understand, speak, and read Japanese (my writing in Japanese has never been all that good although I am able to carry out most tasks that I need in emails or simple documents).

As a result of learning this one skill, the range of possibilities in Japan has opened up dramatically in comparison with someone who hasn’t learned the language at a good level. For example, over the years it has enabled me to work as an engineer at a Japanese company, as a computer programmer, as an NLP trainer, a coach, and of course to function adequately in meetings at the university where I work. Apart from work, it has dramatically improved my ability to interact socially.

Learning a language is clearly a lot of work and yet the return on investment in learning a generative skill like this is enormous. If I had spent the same amount of time in learning karate, there is no doubt that I would be very skilled at karate, yet it wouldn’t necessarily generate many possibilities other than doing karate – I know, I know – karate also teaches other things like discipline, breathing, and more, but I’m sure you get my point that learning the language of a country where you live is more generative 🙂

Another good example of a generative skill is computer literacy. There is even a world computer literacy day which recognizes how powerful this generative skill can be. I am occasionally surprised by seeing smart people who really have very little clue about how to use a computer effectively. Some people have developed a mental block about it and find it limiting them in many ways. Again, this is a skill that I started to develop many years ago. I was lucky enough to be exposed to programming when I was still about 13 years old in secondary school. Later, I developed my computer literacy skills at university and onwards through my life. I don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to say that effective computer use is vital to almost every area of my life. For communication, I am comfortable with using various social media, Skype and other tools. For research and editing work, I am good at using collaboration tools like Google docs. For publishing and layout work, I am familiar with the Adobe software packages such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. For music, I am fairly proficient in using Logic Pro X and other software. All of these software packages and tools require basic and not-so-basic computer literacy. To take a very simple example, learning the copy and paste tool is enormously useful in pretty much any computer program. Copy and paste is the type of generative micro-skill that opens a huge amount of possibilities.

As we get older, we naturally tend to fossilize – to consider that learning new things is more difficult – and thus naturally begin to become less effective. I try to continually improve my computer literacy and language skills because I see them as core generative skills that open up so many other possibilities. I don’t always succeed in this and sometimes I instead simply live with the limit rather than learn/improve the generative skill. However, in accordance with one of my general rules for life, “it’s easier to do it than to think about it,” as much as possible, I do try to learn generative skills.

Some other generative skills that I can think of that can be useful in many areas of life and open up more possibilities include:

  • a good sense of rhythm
  • becoming more mindful
  • having a solution-focused approach to life
  • cooking
  • managing your own state
  • listening more carefully
  • speaking well in front of groups
  • learning effectively
  • reading quickly
  • managing money well

In both our education system and in our everyday lives, perhaps we should be looking at the areas of our life where we feel limited and recognizing the generative skills that can help us to move forward in not just that area but in many areas.

In the comments, please share your own experiences of generative skills, other generative skills that you can think of, or if you just plain disagree 🙂


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