The magic of transferable skills

When acquiring any particular skill, language or practical knowledge, the magic happens when part of it can be reused for another instance of learning.

And it surprises people to this day when they realize that, not only do they maintain their knowledge much longer than they thought, but that knowledge once learned can be used to make us learn other skills quicker, through transferral.

What we learn becomes second nature

We do not learn things in a vacuum. Barring exceptional circumstances, we acquire knowledge quickly if we can somehow relate it with what we’ve already learned before. We learn to stand as children, and once our sense of balance is keen enough we learn to take our first steps. But we don’t lose sense of our balance – we use it when running, cycling, and jumping.

Those earliest of life lessons form the basis of an entire skill tree that we practice as children, and continue to learn as adults. When we practice parkour, when we climb mountains, when we walk tightropes.

It becomes so natural to us, that it becomes ingrained. We don’t even realize we use that skill, we don’t usually even remember that exact knowledge.

Another example most people know is language. Once you learn one language, say French, then other languages in that family become easier to learn. Spanish, for example, or English. Words are already familiar, grammar basics are the same, word order follows what you know instinctively.

These benefits are multiplicative. I am currently learning Swedish, and I find that I can read most of it just fine. I don’t know all the words, but they remind me of the Dutch, English and German words I already know. All I need to verify if I guess correctly is the context of the sentences around it. When I speak it, however, I am slow and often have to look up words because now I have to choose the correct word, rather than comparing it to words I already know.

So context is everything?

Context determines how we look at a problem we’re presented with. If we see numbers, we assume it’s a math problem. If we see a language we don’t understand we might try to see patterns and words in it we recognize. Humans are by definition problem-solvers, and everything we see and do is compared to past experiences.

When we try to learn things, we compare what we try to grasp with other, comparable concepts. This is why you often see comparisons and parables in holy texts or philosophical works – instead of talking about complicated moral and ethical issues directly, bringing the problem down to a small, every day situation allows people to relate to it more easily, and they will grasp the concept quicker.

Just like with languages, this compounds. The more word puzzles you solve, the better you get at them – but you also learn a lot of extra words, learn how to organize them by starting letters or word length. This is a great thing if you happen to have a career in cryptography, or are trying to restore missing pieces to an ancient document.

If you happen to be good at languages but bad at math, you might teach yourself to look at mathematical solutions like grammar questions instead, finding ways to re-arrange things that are complicated and difficult for you, reframing them into a form you are more proficient at.

But it also comes in handy in your career, and when learning things that are complex or abstract in order to achieve a degree, or a promotion.

How do you use this in real life?

You already have seen how this works in school. In the first year you get simple math problems, and each year they get more difficult. Instead of using one trick, you need to combine tricks to find the correct answer. But the tricks used, the skills from the first year, are still there. You are building on top of them.

When you need to master a complex subject, or perhaps become an expert at something, you would imagine you then need to learn the same way, starting from square one and building up slowly. You’d be playing a game of career catch-up, trying to make up for lost time by putting in long hours, lots of effort, at a risk of burning out. But when you start from scratch, you are blind to the potential knowledge you already possess, which can shorten the learning process and allow you to take shortcuts.

On a more professional level, it means that when you are faced with needing to learn something complex over a short time, like in a career switch, you need to consider what practical tasks you need to be capable of, not what theory or certificate you need.

Whether it’s a promotion, a job interview or falling in for a person who’s absent, your success and performance are based on those tasks, so find out what they are. Then try and find simpler, every day analogies you can practice on, or a framework that allows you to translate your tasks into a different form that you are more comfortable with.

Putting 2 and 2 together to make 5

The final component of transferring knowledge is mastering complexity through simplicity. I certainly wouldn’t understand enough about business to immediately get an MBA. But I could prepare myself a great deal by investing in topics that are components of it, albeit at a smaller scale or lower complexity.

Children might learn about business by starting a lemonade stand. The basics of supply and demand, advertisements, competition and the difference between revenue and profit (however disappointing that might be once the lesson is learnt) can all be internalized in the span of a summer’s day.

There are plenty of guides (for dummies), youtube channels and fora that have all manner of basic information, but are most valuable when they are plain and de-mystify the processes surrounding your chosen topic. Often it’s not even that topics are hard to understand, but that there is little or no information about it, or it is made deliberately complex for no good reason.

Sometimes a single skill can be used to accelerate learning in multiple other fields of study. Mathematics by itself can be pretty tough, but it is used in statistics, engineering, sciences and a host of other tasks, so learning it well once can benefit many other studies. Learning common languages such as French or English as a second language can make it much easier to study an assortment of “adjacent” languages. Learning the basics of programming will allow you to more quickly pick up other, different programming languages – as long as the general principles are the same.

Practical examples in a work scenario

Say that I am a project manager. I have years of experience with it, including leading project teams successfully. I know about reporting and financial record-keeping, but when faced with being a bid manager for a sales team, I would feel out of my depth.

In first light you’d focus on the things where you don’t match up: commercial skills, negotiating with customers, being faced with direct revenue impact if the team cannot win the deal. You don’t know the customer, and likely don’t know much about the team’s skills either.

But most of the actual work involved is not much different from project management. You need to manage a team to produce deliverables which need to match the customer’s requirements. You need to report on your progress, usage of bid budget and discover and overcome obstacles that would prevent you from delivering a good result.

And just like with project management, you might not know every detail of the specific tasks performed every day, but you must be able to rely on the expertise of your team to help fill in the details. You might not be as outstanding at it as a professional bid manager, but you will be able to recreate enough of the expertise using just the knowledge and skill you already possess.

Using inspiration and transferred knowledge professionally

This doesn’t just apply when you are trying to reach minimum compliance with job requirements. When you are already proficient and considered an expert, you can use transferred knowledge – often in the form of inspiration – from completely different sources.

Perhaps you are an architect trying to find solutions for limited space, and you find that the techniques used in puzzle boxes allow you to fit more furniture by hiding it better when not in use. Originally meant to allow a small space (the box) to contain any kinds of difficult puzzles required to open it, the actual techniques can easily be repurposed. Wasted space can be filled by shaping parts and pieces so that they fit together and are packed away with as little gap as possible. The same techniques used today allow entire Ikea cabinets to find in relatively small flatpacks.

Nature is a great teacher, and inspired everything from engineers to artists and chemists. Nature’s designs are versatile and quirky, and they remind us that sometimes you have to make crazy leaps in logic to achieve new things.

Look around you in your hobbies, your games, your favorite tv-series, and try and discover their secrets. What techniques do they use that can be of benefit in your work? Can foreshadowing enhance your ability to promote your company’s products? Can you gamify your project? Could the patterns in a fishing net or winter sweater somehow form the blueprint for a process visualization?


Challenges in a complex world

These, in summary, are the core components of transferable knowledge:

  • Learn a core skill, and all skills that are based on it will become easier.
  • Learn a skill once, and similar skills can be acquired quicker.
  • A complex skill may be acquired in a shorter time by first learning simpler skills that are relevant to it
  • Use the principles and techniques of one skill to improve on another.
  • Translate a complex issue into another language or form, and solve it by using skills you are more proficient at.
  • Combine two unrelated fields of expertise for a surprising effect.

In order to make the most of it, you will need to keep learning for the rest of your life, but in doing so, you can combine the myriad of skills you learn to become a “renaissance professional”.

Have you any examples on how you applied one of the above components successfully in your career?

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