Bullish: Where Job and Life Skills Come From (and How to Become an Expert)

I had always assumed that I was bad at reading maps.

Reading maps was always something my father did on car trips while my mom alternately slept, fed us baggies of Chex cereal, and told us to shut the hell up. My dad didn’t delegate.

On dates, I would often wander around, chatting amiably with some guy and not paying attention to the direction of our ambling; boys tend to find this cute. I didn’t know where we were, but he would (very impressively!) get us back to the car.

Maps are hard! And girls have bad spatial abilities, don’t you know?

And then, in 2008, I realized I had worked for several months without taking one of those two-day breaks that people who work Monday-Friday tend to call a “weekend.” Also, I teach classes for a living, and I grew tired of the sound of my own voice. So I decamped to Argentina for a month, alone. I don’t speak Spanish. The goal was to talk to no one, except the waiters bringing me rare Argentine steaks.

It turns out, I am perfectly fine at reading maps. It’s not hard. (It turns out that, while men do have better spatial abilities, map reading is so far under the line that it doesn’t matter — just like how young girls are better than young boys at verbal skills, but boys can still, you know … talk.)

A week in Argentina, and I realized that my aversion to maps was ridiculous. Do you think you’re bad at maps? How much time in your life have you put into trying to be good at maps? In the 30 years of my life, I estimated that, pre-Argentina, I had spent less than an hour, total, trying to read maps, and zero time trying to actually learn and be good at them (most of that hour was spent 10 seconds at a time over two decades, glancing at a map and saying, “Ew,” or “You do it.”) It makes no sense to say that you’re “bad at” something when you’ve never put the effort into developing those skills. Just say that: “I haven’t spent any time developing or practicing map reading skills.” Similarly, I haven’t spent any time learning to diagnose skin ailments or play polo. I would hardly say I’m “bad at” those things. I could probably learn, if I wanted to.

Many skills that we consider inherent are not. Clearly, some people are “athletically gifted.” But that’s mixed in with a whole lot of other stuff: desire, hard work, good coaching, technical skill that takes years of tedious practice to master even for the “gifted,” and perhaps some intangible, Balboa-esque quality sports movies like to call “heart.” Maybe all Olympians are athletically gifted; clearly not all of the athletically gifted end up at the Olympics. Giftedness is such a small part of the puzzle, and why focus on the one thing people can’t change, and that becomes less and less important as we become adults?

We live in an era of fake experts (fakesperts?) I wrote in this column, I recounted how Four-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss suggested that one could become an “expert” in three weeks by joining organizations and pushing yourself on journalists. Something called the Done Manifesto has apparently spawned an internet poster trend and offers, “Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.” (It also offers the frightening “People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right,” which sounds like a way to justify shipping people to Treblinka).

If this is the bar for being seen as a competent person, you can easily exceed that bar by developing actual skills that can be gained on your own in time ranging from a few hours to a few months (In this column, I suggested reading books in your field, emailing how-to points to your boss, and waiting for your very helpful emails to get forwarded to others).

In terms of skill improvement in your off-time, I don’t think very much is off the table. Most of the skills people say they are “bad at” (negotiating, interviewing, public speaking, accurately subtracting the dollar amounts of bills from the dollar amount available in a bank account) can be brought up to a level of proficiency with much less time than you spent in, say, ninth grade world history.

So, here’s a challenge.

1) Make a list of the things you think you’re bad at. These can be anything: math, grammar, spelling, dancing, coordination, public speaking, bike riding, kickball, weightlifting, fixing the printer when it stops working, Excel, negotiating, baking, relationships.

2) Next to each item on the list, brainstorm what a person would have to do to improve such a skill. Then write down how much money that would take, if any. Then write down how many hours it would take. For instance:

Spelling — Read books about spelling and learn old-style spelling rules that they used to teach in school. Make a note someplace whenever spellcheck corrects me on something. Memorize correct spellings of 100 Most Commonly Misspelled Words. Cost: under $20. Time: estimated 10-15 hours.

Map Reading — Look up maps of places you know well, like your childhood neighborhood, and then associate the representation on the map with your own knowledge. Sketch out routes on the map as practice (for instance, use a pencil and a map to show how to get from your childhood home to your elementary school). Then use those same skills with new maps and new places. Or, just go someplace alone with a map and where you don’t speak the language and no one speaks English. You’ll figure out it. Cost: If you were going on vacation anyway, nothing. Or, try it in Queens for the cost of subway fare. Time: A few several-hour jaunts should be sufficient.

Et cetera.

3) Then, decide whether each thing is worth the time and money to improve. If so, prioritize, and start improving one thing on your list.

Sure, there are intractable skill deficits. Some people have dyslexia that really does keep them from spelling correctly, and some people cannot improve their dancing because they are paralyzed from the neck down. Most other things are solvable.

If you look over your list and decide that most of the items are skills you could improve, but don’t want to, or can’t afford to right now, stop saying you’re bad at them. Instead, say, “I haven’t prioritized developing that skill” or “I’m going to get really good at that someday when I retire.” Instant confidence boost!

Try this challenge. Whether you decide to act on your list or not, you’ll feel better about your slate of career and life skills. Most things can be done.

How To Read a Map on Howcast

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    • Raptly

      On the other hand, according to Malcom Gladwell in Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. So we’re not necessarily living in an era of “fake experts”, they’re just the ones getting media attention.

      Great article, though! It’s definitely important to define our ‘weak points’ and work on them, particularly when today’s resume is yesterday’s high school diploma lol what a job market…

      • Jen Dziura

        I think it’s possible to become an expert in some things much faster — some things are just really, really specific. (Give me three weeks and I can become an expert on reaching the good people of Lower Smalltownville, Ohio, on the internet). But yes, certainly we don’t want our brain surgery performed by fake experts :)

    • meg

      wait, what? i love maps. they’re all over my walls. i’ll sit and study them for hours and hours on road trips. endless entertainment.

      i had no idea i was supposed to be bad at them. shocked!

    • eEv

      I like this challenge idea! May have to take you up on it. Also, re: maps… for my entire freshman year at NYU, I rode the subway maybe once, because it was easier for me to walk thirty blocks than to figure out the map (also, I didn’t want to buy a Metrocard). On the rare occasions I did take the subway, I’d simply go Up or Down, without regards to where exactly I’d land. This led to me having to walk across Central Park in the rain because I’d ended up on East 72nd and had to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then as a sophomore, I realized that the map wasn’t all that complicated, and my feet thanked me.

    • Jen Dziura

      So cool! Here’s an article about the Pormpuraawans, an Aboriginal community in Australia and a people who have an amazing sense of direction, simply due to constant practice made necessary by the way their language is constructed:


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    • MB

      I might quibble with the whole men having better spacial skills bit. I was always told that that was the case, but upon actually trying it I found that I’m awesome at it- better than my mechanical engineer husband, in fact.