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Newsletter #2: Skills
Welcome back to the Masculinist. Thanks to all of you for being a part of it.
Build Up, Don’t Just Tear Down
Today I want to shift gears and talk about skills – acquiring new ones and teaching them to others.
Why send out a mailing on this topic if my focus is on the trouble with men in today’s society?
My first guiding principle for this list, which I talked about in the previous issue, is: “live not by lies.” My second is: “build-up, don’t just tear down.”
Obviously, I have a lot of social critiques planned. But if that’s all I do, then I’m just another whiner and complainer. So I plan to alternate between newsletters that are focused on cultural critique and those that contain practical, actionable items that we can use to personally become better men and help others to do so also.
Hence this installment, which is about things we can actually start doing personally, without waiting to change society or accomplishing some other grand change vision.
Why We Should Continuously Learn New Skills
Scott Adams created the Dilbert comic strip that was a cultural touchstone for my generation of corporate technology people. His business book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is full of interesting contrarian advice. You can read a review I wrote of it if you’d like.
One of Adams’ core claims is that success comes from what he calls the “talent stack” – that is, a collection of skills in which one is competent, but not necessarily the best. It usually doesn’t come from world-class expertise in one particular specialization.
In his case, he’d say he can draw, but he isn’t a great artist. He can write, but he’s not the best writer. He’s funny, but he’s not a stand-up comedian. But when you combine all these skills together you get Dilbert.
This foots to my own story. I have a basic working knowledge of finance and accounting, but not professional grade. I am legitimately good at software development, but don’t have cutting edge skills. I can do data analysis but I am not a data scientist. I can write but probably won’t be penning the Great American Novel. I know things about cities, but I’m not a Ph.D. economist or a certified planner. I can give presentations, but am not a world-class public speaker.
But one day all these things and more came together in a way I didn’t anticipate and gave me an entirely new career as a researcher and writer on cities that had never even crossed my mind as a possibility ten years ago. I’m now a Senior Fellow in a major think tank and get to do things most people will never get to do.
I’m extremely fortunate and certainly believe God is the one who made it possible. But from a competence perspective, it’s my collection of skills – one that few people who aspire to do what I do have – that makes it happen, not one specific deep area of expertise.
Adams’ rule of thumb is that “every skill you learn doubles your chances of success.” This is obviously illustrative but shows the multiplicative power of having some expertise in a lot of different things.
This idea of adding new skills is also consistent with the statistical research of Nassim Taleb, a one-time successful trader who now does research and writes bestselling books, including The Black Swan. Taleb once predicted that contrary to the claim of future Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz that the risk of a default by mortgage giant FannieMae was “extremely low,” not only could FannieMae go bankrupt, it almost certainly would go bankrupt – a prediction that came true.
Taleb’s most recent book is called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. We know that fragile things are vulnerable to shocks. Robust things are able to withstand shocks. But there’s a third class of things: those that actually get stronger from shocks, stress, extreme events, volatility, etc. These are what Taleb labels as “antifragile.” I also wrote a review of this book, should you be interested.
Getting physically strong is an example of an antifragile process. Your body adapts to become stronger when you subject it to the stress of weightlifting. Conversely, if you don’t subject it to that stress, you actually get weaker. One could argue there’s a similar effect with the church. Persecution has historically strengthened the church (certainly in the early church), and one can argue that the cultural dominance and lack of stress that faced our modern church was one of the factors in its undoing.
I’ll be returning to the antifragile concept over time as it is extremely powerful. But in this newsletter, I want to highlight that learning a skill takes advantage of an antifragile process.
Things are antifragile when they have limited downside but unlimited upside. These kinds of things benefit from volatility and extreme events. Learning a skill has this characteristic. The downside of learning a skill is limited to the time and money you invest in earning it. That’s your max burn right there. But your potential upside from possessing a new skill is unlimited. You don’t even know all the “black swan” events that might cause that skill to open a door to a future opportunity you’d never even envisioned.
These are the skills Adams suggested everyone learn, obviously targeted at a business context:
Design (basic level)
Proper voice technique
A recent article in the New York Times makes the case for this in a white-collar business context. Researchers discovered that having a variety of functional skills (but not necessarily experience in multiple industries) is a key factor in making it to CEO:
Once upon a time, Mr. Pinkus said, an operations manager might be laser-focused on making a factory work efficiently. Now to be great at that job — and earn a promotion to vice president or beyond — that manager had better also understand how the factory’s inventory procedures tie in with the company’s sales and marketing strategy, and any tax laws affecting inventory management while assuring the reliability of the supply chain. The manager had better also be adept at using the technology that links all that information together.
Marc Andreessen, the prominent venture capitalist, has gone so far as to call this the “secret formula to becoming a C.E.O.” The most successful corporate leaders, he wrote, “are almost never the best product visionaries, or the best salespeople, or the best marketing people, or the best finance people, or even the best managers, but they are top 25 percent in some set of those skills, and then all of a sudden they’re qualified to actually run something important.”
So the first practical suggestion in this newsletter is to make a habit of continuing to learn new skills throughout your life. There’s no reason not to start immediately.
Pass On What You Have Learned
My father can do all sorts of things. He can do many car repairs. Originally trained as a carpenter, he can literally do every task it takes to build an entire house himself. He’s able to personally do all sorts of things.
But none of that was passed down to me. The only thing I’ve ever done on a car is change the oil. I’m nearly helpless at any sort of home project. I had never even painted a wall until about two years ago. I don’t think I’m that unusual for my generation (I’m 46 – Generation X), at least not those from the professional classes. Apart from those involved in scouting, I don’t know that many peers who learned a lot of practical skills from their fathers. (Some subsequently taught themselves things like home improvement, however).
Of course, some skills are nearly obsolete. You basically can’t work on new cars yourself, for example. But for some reason, we seem to have lost a lot of the transmission of knowledge and skills from father to son, instead of relying on formal education to teach us what we need to know.
So the second practical step we can take is to teach other men (especially our sons) the skills we know, passing them on to others.
Why It’s Important for Christians to Master and Teach Skills
Have you ever noticed that very few web sites or books about practical skills are written from a recognizably Christian perspective? Take fitness for example. Virtually all fitness-oriented web sites are written from a secular point of view. I’ve read a ton of these, and never once have I come across someone writing one that appears to be a Christian. And in many cases, the writer is obviously not a Christian.
Now, you don’t need to be a Christian to know how to lift weights. But invariably secular ethics and values are going to be imparted on these sites. It’s easy to see how they lead to the idolatry of the idealized self or other bad things.
What’s more, too often Christians are actually less knowledgeable and sophisticated than the world in many practical matters. Jesus himself complains about this in the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward (Luke 16:1-13) when he says, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.” Being a Christian is not a substitute for being competent.
This is not the pastor’s job to do. In fact, it’s dangerous for pastors to venture into this sort of thing. When it comes to skills or any other practical aspect of living life, there’s no guarantee of results. If a pastor is speaking beyond his Biblical bailiwick and the results are bad, that can discredit the name of Christ to the person who got those poor results.
So this is an area where lay Christians really need to step up to master and share practical skills, doing so from a Christian metaphysical and ethical stance.
One web site that sort of does this is Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness, which I’d encourage people to check out. It’s a professional, money earning site, and a lot of articles are just listicles. But there’s also some really great, in-depth material on there. This is true both of skills, and of masculinity generally.
McKay is a Mormon, not Christian, though there’s some overlap in the ethical systems that shines through. I’m not surprised to discover that he is a Mormon. That church is highly evangelistic and growing rapidly. They are asking for the business and too often we are not. AoM is not a Mormon specific site, but it clearly reflects its founder’s values, and in that respect is in line with the Mormon evangelistic mindset. We could learn some lessons from it.
There are some Christian things going on out there. For example, my church recently hosted a seminar on how to navigate a career transition that was put on by the New Canaan Society. But we can surely do much, much more of this.
Bottom line: If people are looking to learn a new skill and no Christian has mastered it or is available to teach it, they will turn to non-Christian sources embodying non-Christian value systems to get what they need.
Skin in the Game
So you might be wondering: Aaron, are you actually doing any of this yourself?
I’m glad you asked. Because it brings me to the third guiding principle that underlies this newsletter: “skin in the game.”
Skin in the game is another concept Taleb pushes hard. He basically argues we should never listen to anyone who isn’t at risk of personal harm if his advice doesn’t pan out.
This is the standard I’m using here. The things I am going to talk about in the Masculinist are things I’m personally doing. I am literally staking my own life and future on the things I tout.
The things I tell you are going to be things I’m personally doing or have done. I’ll pass along perspectives like those of Adams and Taleb that I’ve learned from with the proviso that you need to exercise your own judgment on those underlying sources. But the things I tout are things I’m doing myself.
Adams says people should focus on building good systems rather than setting goals. I’m using that approach for skills. My system is that I am going to learn one new skill every year. Not all of them have to be business-related. Last year my skill was barbell lifting, which I took up for the first time. One day I want to learn ice skating.
This year my skill is to learn French. I don’t speak a foreign language and have long wanted to learn one. I’ve made false starts on French before. This year I’m behind on getting started, though signed up for a class this fall. (I did this once before and the class was canceled. If that happens again this time, I may have to reassess). Obviously, even if I start learning French this year it will be a long process to master it. By telling you all about it, hopefully, I’ll be more motivated to follow-through.
Next year I plan to study the art of persuasion, primarily through reading books, of which I have a long list already, and applying what I learn.
In terms of passing along skills and things I’ve learned, this newsletter is one part of it. I’ve also been writing blog posts summarizing things I’ve learned about the blogging business. But this is one I want to do even more of, especially at the “retail” level of person to person.
So yes, I am doing this, and hope to continue growing in it.
So again to recap: keep learning new skills, and teach them to others. If you are looking for inspiration on where, to begin with skills, check out Art of Manliness.
FYI: I have book links to Amazon in this newsletter. I do NOT get paid if you buy through them. I do use affiliate links on my urbanophile.com web site, however.
I recently gave a lecture at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture called “The Spirit of Cities.” My talk begins about five minutes into the video and lasts around 45 minutes. The rest is Q&A. This was a reprise of a talk I originally gave at the Strelka Institute in Moscow in 2015 on sacred space and sacred buildings in the city.
The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports on the great unraveling of America’s social fabric.
Spiked interviews Charles Murray about a divided America.
I have not read it, but Nicholas Eberstadt has just published a new book called Men Without Work. Economist Larry Summers reviewed the book for the Financial Times and says chillingly, “I expect that more than one-third of all men between 25 and 54 will be out work at mid-century.”
The Times of London (registration required) says that Generation Z is shunning gay marriage and tattoos. “Teenagers born since the turn of the millennium are the most socially conservative and thrifty generation since the Second World War.”
Duke University thinks masculinity is toxic and is offering a course to help men deconstruct it. “We also understand how masculinity in its normative form alienates most – if not all – men, and recognize the part normative masculinity plays in alienating men and reproducing violence.”
The New York Times reports that marriage rates are falling in China.
If you see anything masculinity related that looks interesting, send it my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
“Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
“Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?”
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harvard commencement address, June 8, 1978.
Related: Dr. Scott Rodin asks, will we bow or will we stand?