Your Most Valuable Skill

Knowl­edge is great: I sus­pect we can agree there. Sadly, though, we can’t guaran­tee our­selves in­finite time in which to learn ev­ery­thing even­tu­ally, and in the mean­time, there are plenty of situ­a­tions where hav­ing ir­rele­vant knowl­edge in­stead of more in­stru­men­tally use­ful knowl­edge can be de­cid­edly sub­op­ti­mal. There­fore, there’s good rea­son to work out what facts we’ll need to de­ploy and give spe­cial pri­or­ity to learn­ing those facts. There’s noth­ing in­trin­si­cally more in­ter­est­ing or valuable about the knowl­edge that the cap­i­tal of the United States is Wash­ing­ton, D.C. than there is about the knowl­edge that the cap­i­tal of Bali is Den­pasar, but un­less you live or spend a lot of time in In­done­sia, the lat­ter knowl­edge will be less likely to come up.

It seems the same is true of pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge (with the quirk that it’s eas­ier to de­liber­ately put your­self in situ­a­tions where you use what­ever pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge you have than it is to ar­range to need to know the cap­i­tal of Bali.) If your pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge is use­ful, and also difficult to ob­tain or un­pop­u­lar to prac­tice or both, you might even turn it into a ca­reer (or save money that you would have spent hiring peo­ple who have).

Ra­tion­al­ity is sort of the ur-pro­ce­dure, but af­ter a cer­tain point—the point where you’re no longer buy­ing into su­per­nat­u­ral­ist su­per­sti­tion, beg­ging for a Dar­win Award, or fal­ling for cheap scams—its marginal prac­ti­cal value diminishes. Prac­tic­ing ra­tio­nal­ity as an art is fun and there’s some chance it’ll yield a high re­turn, but evolu­tion (ge­netic and memetic) didn’t do that bad of a job on us: we en­ter adult­hood with an ar­se­nal of heuris­tics that are mostly good enough. A lit­tle patch­ing of the worst leaks, some bailing of bilge that got in early on, and you have a ser­vice­able brain-yacht. (Sound of metaphor strain­ing.)

So when you want to spend time on learn­ing or hon­ing a skill, it makes sense to choose skills with a high re­turn on in­vest­ment, be it in terms of fun, re­sources, the good­will of oth­ers, in­surance against emer­gency, or other valuable re­sults. Note that if you learned a skill, used it to learn a non-cus­tomized fact, and do not an­ti­ci­pate us­ing the skill again, it’s not the skill that was use­ful; the skill was just a sine qua non for the use­ful fact, and oth­ers don’t have to du­pli­cate the re­search pro­cess to benefit. A skill that yielded one (or more) cus­tomized facts—i.e., facts about your­self, that you can’t go on to share straight up with other peo­ple—might be a use­ful skill in this way, how­ever.

For prac­ti­cal daily pur­poses, what is your most valuable skill (or what most valuable skill are you try­ing to at­tain now)? Post it in the com­ments, along with what makes your skill valuable, tips for pick­ing it up, and what made you first in­ves­ti­gate it.