Skills are a Burden

A brief rant about consumerism, learning, and skill maintenance.

Nearly everywhere encourages you to learn new skills. Whether it's to help your career, or hobbies, or to help you survive an uncertain future, there's a constant barrage of new skills that we "should" learn - even ones you might never use... just in case.

I think this is misguided.

The assumption - one that I rarely see challenged - is that once you "have" a skill, that's it. You have it now, you're done, and you're somehow permanently better. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how learning takes place, one I think is deliberately misunderstood out of a combination of wishful thinking and wanting to sell you things.

The reality is that every skill is also a burden. Think back to a skill you learned long ago - in school maybe, or a hobby you gave up years ago. Could you do that today, on demand? In a stressful situation? Correctly the first time? Every skill decays without practice. The speed at which they decay, and the consequences, will vary by skill but none of them are free.

This is especially relevant for rare or "what if" skills. If you only have a few hours a week to dedicate to learning and training, you will quickly reach a limit on how many skills you can actively maintain (especially because some of that time will go toward maintaining any associated equipment). Rather than trying to collect every neat skill you encounter, focus on what each skill enables, and at what cost compared to your ongoing capacity to train. Every new, unlikely-to-be-used skill you learn "just in case" actively damages the other skills you're trying to maintain. If you've put thought into what you treat as your core skills - which you should! - then you're losing important, relevant skills at the expense of something you'll likely never use.

Instead, plan your skillset deliberately and with thought:

  1. Understand how much time you are realistically able to dedicate to training.
  2. Determine what skills are the most useful for you - if this is for work, try to determine what skills are rarest and most valuable. If it's a "what-if" skill, map out what scenarios are actually most likely to occur. If the skill is for a hobby, this doesn't apply! Have fun, and save this process for more serious tasks.
  3. Pick skills that will be the most useful to you based on the scenarios you have in mind, and decide what level of proficiency you want to maintain in them based on the amount of time you're able to dedicate.
  4. Maintain those skills at the level you've selected, and resist the temptation to learn new things unless they're genuinely useful and you're able to dedicate the ongoing time to maintain them. For every new skill, make sure you either commit to more training time to accomodate it, or are conscious of what you're losing by taking it on.

Anything else is just another form of consumerism - buying all the latest gear and skills that are then tucked away in storage, never to be seen or used again.