I have a group of friends that I have dinner with every Sunday. One of them owns a chocolate factory / cafe called Dandelion Chocolate, and another owns Three Babes Bakeshop (side note: best chocolate and pies ever, respectively). Once in a while the conversations swings to business, and the rest of us get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a brick and mortar.
Last night they were talking about hiring more people, because both of their workloads have increased during the holiday season. The one skill they specifically sought: the ability to actually get things done.
People email me once in a while for advice, which I like to give if I haven't overloaded myself with other work. A good portion of those emails make it clear that the person has no idea how to just get things done. They ask questions whose answers would be immediately obvious upon any amount of independent investigation.
It's funny to me that in this age of computers, people have become computers themselves. Most are able to follow instructions, but as soon as anything even slightly out of the ordinary comes up, the person freezes and waits further instructions. And if there are no instructions, nothing happens at all.
My guess is that this comes from our factory farmed education system. Exact instructions are given for the student to follow, doing more gets you nothing, and doing things a better way gets you nothing. If you're unclear on what you're supposed to do and make your best effort, but it wasn't what the teacher wanted, you fail.
I think that this is why we're seeing delayed adulthood. Kids are graduating with the ability to program or write or discuss the history of the human race, but have no general coping-with-life skills. Rather than see adulthood as a series of challenges to figure out, they see it as a test in a subject they were never taught. They never learned how to figure things out. So they move back in with their parents or they go get some other degree just because it provides some path to follow.
The thing is, life is all about figuring things out. The beauty of life is the infinite complexity of it. We've specifically evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to find patterns in things, and we're still puzzled most of the time. The way to cope with that is to become good at dealing with things, to take fuzzy constraints and uncertainty, and to act in spite of them.
So what can you do if you don't know how to get things done? It's sort of how you learn to swim-- you jump in and flail around until you figure it out. A lot of it is just having the comfort to work in a state of uncertainty, which isn't something many people have ever really had to do. Like anything, you build comfort just by doing it a lot. You must also be okay with the prospect of failure: that you'll take a stab at something and it won't work. When that happens, you try it again and again until you get it right.
If you're not used to doing this, do an experiment and try to always act before asking. If your boss asks you to go buy milk, but the store you usually go to is out of milk, take the initiative and find another store rather than calling and asking what you should do. If you need to find an apartment but don't know how, figure out some way to find vacant apartments and look at them.
Over time you'll rack up some wins, accomplishing things where you would have previously given up or asked for help right off the bat. Those wins will become bigger and bigger until you feel like you can handle pretty much anything.
Getting guidance and help from other people is an essential part of life, but it's often impossible to ask the right questions without taking action first. Asking how to rent an apartment is a waste of someone's time and so general that you're unlikely to get actionable advice. But if you try it yourself for a while and keep running into the same issues over and over again, you'll know specifically what to ask about, and probably who to ask it to.
The ability to figure things out and get things done is a critical skill, not just in your career, but also in your life. It's an innate human capability, so building the skill should come easily if you give yourself the opportunity to do so. Because we can leverage computers to do repetitive work, and because fewer and fewer people seem able to just get things done, this skill only becomes more valuable.
Photo is me and a Miro sculpture at Fundacio Miro in Barcelona. I'm the one on the right.
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