Getting good at stuff is a constant pursuit of mine. Unfortunately, what that stuff is sometimes changes from day to day, which is a bit derailing. As an adult, I’ve gotten better at prioritizing and organizing things I want to get good at.

If you want to get good at a lot of stuff, that necessarily will make you something of a generalist. This isn’t bad; it makes you flexible, agile, adaptable. All of which are desirable traits in any professional role. But there will always be someone more expert than you in any single subject, so be prepared for that.

Getting good at stuff carries an important benefit other than just being good at stuff. You learn how to learn. If you’ve already learned how to learn, it helps keep that skill sharp. Learning is a skill, and if you don’t keep using it, it starts to degrade over time. Knowing how to learn keeps you agile, and it keeps you moving forward in both your professional and personal lives. But how do you get good at stuff? This is a question I wrestle with periodically, especially for things that my school doesn’t offer classes on. What follows are lessons that I have learned in my pursuit of getting good at stuff.

Use Professional Resources.

One of the resources I overlooked the most in my youth was my job. I was, like most college dropouts in their twenties, both bewildered and sure that I knew everything I needed to. I thought the garbage job I had would last forever, and that it would forever be appropriate for me.

Now that I’m older, I’ve found ways to look into my professional situations for things to learn. I learned about my last professional role voraciously, asking for additional projects, volunteering to help other departments, and finding tasks that I could take over from my supervisor. Not because I wanted to get more work done for my wage, but because I wanted to learn. You can nudge this to get it to work better for you. If you’re early in your career and working entry level positions, seek out a role that complements or assists a role similar to what you’d like to do in the future. Ask for extra work (assuming it won’t derail your existing duties). Offer to help during the end of year budget scramble. Take notes for meetings. Humbling yourself to assistant level tasks puts you in a great position to learn.

Use Academic Resources.

I have an advantage in getting good at stuff right now because I’m in an academic setting, paying to be taught stuff. And if you’re so inclined and have the financial ability to do it, I think going back to school is a great idea. Lots of master’s programs have evening and weekend programs available, and you can develop a skill set that complements your existing degree. Or, if you haven’t graduated from university, it is never too late to start. Going back to school was life changing for me. It helped me find direction, and if I’m going to be honest, it helped me see a future for myself where I wasn’t sure one existed. But you don’t have to make these kinds of commitments to avail yourself of academic resources. Many community colleges and some universities will offer continuing education programs where you can take one or two courses for not a huge amount of money, and these courses might just be enough to get you started. And once you get started, once you have the basics, there’s a lot you can teach yourself.

Use Your Personal Resources.

You have friends and family and coworkers that know stuff. Ask them how they got good! These people have knowledge that they might not even know is valuable. They won’t have the time to teach you every step of the way, most likely, but they can tell you how they got good at stuff, and even point you toward resources that will help you get started. You can even offer to work with them or assist them in doing the thing they’re good at, whether it’s fixing cars or carpentry or baking. And that’s not just a great opportunity to learn, it’s a chance to build much needed community bonds as well. Your friend or family member will probably be flattered that you want to learn from them, too.

Find Free Resources.

We live in the internet age! There’s dozens of free resources for learning all kinds of things, from languages to arts and crafts to coding! Fire up your search engine of choice and start looking. Some things to look out for:
  • Some websites will claim to have free resources but will want you to pay at the moment of conversion.
  • Some free resources on the internet are just not that good. If someone’s not getting paid to provide that service, it may be spotty or out of date.
  • You may need to cobble together multiple free resources to get the information you want.

Use Paid Resources.

Honestly, some of the paid resources available on the web are really good. When people make money off of providing information, they’re likely to put more labor into it and keep it timely. Some of these resources can be had at a really good deal; I bought a course on Python from Stackskills on a pay-what-you-want sale, and I still consider it to be a smart move. I haven’t done the course yet but I do have it bookmarked. Look, I have a lot of things I want to learn, okay? Anyway, there’s always the temptation to think that you can get what an online course is offering for free elsewhere, and in some cases that’s true, but the benefits you get when paying for it can include things like structure, timeliness, different course formats (video, etc), and even the ability to ask questions. An entire product category has sprung up around learning from experts on the web. If you can afford it, take advantage of it.

Don’t Wait; Get Started.

Regardless of how you choose to get good at stuff, the most important part is to get started. Is it more important for you to learn a thing, or to watch Hulu? (You can learn things from watching television too!) Sometimes you’ll want to watch Hulu, but sometimes you’ll want to put energy and time into getting good at stuff. When those times arise, get up, and get started.

A reader asked me to write about where the creative and the analytical intersect in business, and while I’m sure I’ve written around this topic before, I thought maybe I should try writing directly at it. Maybe by doing so I’ll hit on some things I haven’t covered or even thought about before. Maybe by doing so, I’ll express ideas in more concrete ways than I have before.

We do get better as we write more, after all.

Problem Solving is Creative.

What is creativity?
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken
This is just one definition of a concept that often defies such encapsulation. Creativity is often thought of as the domain of artists and writers, and while the creative ability is essential in these fields, it’s about so much more than art, music, and literature. Creativity is about experiencing the world in novel ways, looking at things differently, and using that experience to find and develop solutions to problems. This may seem sterile, but if your creative act doesn’t solve some kind of problem, it will never make it in the public domain. Even art, despite the rarified position we give it in culture, is a tool used to solve problems. In fact, one of the common ways to measure creative thought is the “unusual uses” test. This is a test in which a subject gives as many different uses as they can for a common object (a brick, for example). The more different uses, the more creative thought is employed. This test measures creativity, and requires the subject to come up with practical uses for an everyday object; in short, ways that object can be used to solve problems.

Business is About Solving Problems.

What excited me the most in my study of business was coming to understand the whys behind business. Before I get started, this is a sort of a starry-eyed description and is in no way intended to imply that all business is good or beneficial. There are obviously bad, exploitative businesses out there. Business at its heart is about solving problems.

No, no, you say. Business is about increasing shareholder wealth!

Okay, well the truth is more complicated than that, especially these days, but even within this Friedmanist view, the way to build shareholder wealth is to solve problems. Specifically, to come up with solutions to problems that people will pay you for. Successful business (okay not all of them, some of them are terrible) do this well. Solving problems, as addressed above, is not a purely analytical process. Problem solving skills are taught in an analytical way, though, so this is how we come to understand them. But the truth is, effective problem solving involves both skill sets: the creative and the analytical.

Not Every Job in Business is Creative, But Some Are.

This is why business often requires multiple minds. Not because analytical thinking and creative thinking are opposites (they aren’t), but because we’re taught about these skills in very different ways, and so we tend to specialize. So we end up with people who specialize in the creative, and spit out idea after idea regardless of their practicality. This is incredible, the ability to just generate solutions. It’s also one of the ways we now measure creativity in experiments and studies, actually. But people who specialize in the creative often lack the structure (again, not due to inability, but due to how these skills are coded in the culture) to organize and execute these ideas. So we also need structure specialists, and that’s where we have those who have specialized in the analytical. They can take those ideas, structure them, rank them, test them, and find the ones that are the best for any given situation. Then they can measure them and present the results in digestible and organized formats for the creativity specialists to iterate on. Because these skills are culturally coded as opposites, we have structured most businesses to have different roles for the creative and the analytical, although we do see this separation breaking down in modern, effective business workplaces.

Creativity is a Business Asset.

The ability to take a problem and come up with multiple solutions is a tremendous business asset. Sadly, most workplaces are built not to encourage creativity, but to discourage, even punish it, because creativity carries risk, and successful businesses have a lot to loose. We waste a lot of creative assets in this way,

because of how we handle failure

. Again, modern workplaces are getting better at encouraging their workers to practice creativity, but American business has a long way to go before they’re taking full advantage of this resource, in my humble opinion. There are still companies and roles in which creative workers are considered to be an unfortunate nuisance, a regrettable yet necessary part of the value chain. But business has its fashions, and if “creativity” was the buzzword of the previous decade, “business analytics” is the buzzword of the current one. Business today is looking for data, reams of it, and the charts and graphs that go along with it. Whole business realms are now data driven in a way that simply wasn’t possible ten years ago, and this is the root of a lot of innovation. Not just in terms of supply chain efficiency and service effectiveness, but also in terms of sustainability. But don’t let the data analytics buzz fool you; the people who are making new ideas out of that data are the same people that have always helped bring signals out of noise. Creative workers.

Creative is not the Opposite of Analytical.

This is something that took me a long time to learn, and I still think it’s something I haven’t fully internalized yet. While there is a degree of chaos and risk involved in creative work, the structure of the analytical and the mess of the creative are not opposites. You do not sit on a spectrum between analytical and creative. You in all likelihood have both skills, and have developed one in preference to the other due to how you were socialized as a child. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I was recognized early as a creative kid, an artsy kid. My parents encouraged me to develop that skill, and made allowances for my deficits in the maths and sciences. The message I received was clear; I was not supposed to be good at those things, because I was already good at this thing. And I labored under that belief for most of my life. It wasn’t until I got to college (the second time) and pursued a business education that I came to realize that I did have analytical ability. It is not as developed as my creative skill, not because I lacked natural aptitude, but because I had not developed those skills. I had never been told I had those skills, or that I had the option to develop them. During my second stint at college, I had the opportunity to undo some of that. I had opportunities to develop analytical skill. I was still behind where I thought I should be, because I had not been practicing these skills for the last twenty years. But I could get better. And I did. And the secret is, gaining more analytical skill did not make me less creative. Because these two things are not opposites.

Business is Creative.

One of the things that stunned me most on entering the study of business was how very bright and interesting and creative my instructors were. Granted, I entered a focus (marketing) that tends to collect more creatively skilled people, but still. The use of creative skills in this field had to be structured by research, by process, by data. Even classes outside of my concentration that required analytical frameworks only bolstered the usefulness of my creative skills. I went from planning to be an art major to being a business major, and I never felt a single qualm about it. No sense of self-betrayal, and after I was embedded in the program, no sense that I was a poor fit for the field. And that’s because business is creative, and creativity is business.