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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm De Leo

Skills vs. Abilities: Building scalable personal strength

When people want help from mentors, many of their desires center around getting support with accomplishing a task better.  Whether it’s how to give a better presentation, become more skilled in a particular new tool, or understand what concrete deliverables one is required to master in order to gain more responsibility; getting assistance with producing a specific output is often the main focus.  

While becoming an expert is critical to be successful in our career, I might pose the following question….

Is mastery of what is required in any particular role scalable in your development?

It might sound controversial, but my opinion has always been role/tool mastery is less important than many would have you believe.  Why?  Because role/tool mastery is all about gaining SKILLS and not ABILITIES. 

What is the difference between Skills and Abilities?

To discuss the differences between these terms, we must create an operational definition for both of them.  

A SKILL is something we study and master through traditional learning in order to complete a specific task, operate a particular tool, or delivery a designed output.

An ABILITY  is an innate way we do things as we interact with the world that is part of who we are and is used without thinking about it.

Paying homage to SKILLS

If you are going to make a bold statement about something, you must first take the time to give credit where it’s due.  I don’t want anyone here to think that I am saying that all that time we spend studying to master new skills is a waste of time.  It isn’t.  In fact, as someone who studied chemistry for a long time (and doesn’t use it directly anymore), the skills I learned to become a scientist are still some of the most important things I know.  Things like applying the principles of the scientific method, being a quantitative thinker, and being able to design experiments and manage variables when studying a problem are skills I can’t live without. And as a trained negotiator, I use these skills in every single interaction I have every day doing my job.  This is extremely critical to our advancement and success in achieving our goals and becoming an expert at what we do.  And yes, some of these skills are very much scalable in how we succeed (take negotiating as a skill…it scales for sure).  But when we take a step back and think about it, all these skills are not what gives us the where with all when the proverbial shit hits the fan.  Our skills can only take us so far when the chips are down.  And this is where the line between skills and abilities begins.

The case for ABILITIES

When our emotions are overloaded in any given situation our skills often abandon us.  They simply evaporate, turning us into a pile of goo.  Can any of us say we haven’t been in a meeting and simply flipped out over something inconsequential forgetting all the training and skills we have learned that should prevent us from doing this? Anyone reading this article who says this never happens to them is either dead emotionally or lying.  In essence, our skills are an external shell of our being that allows us to act and execute, but our abilities are what lie beneath that outer shell.  They are the things that are emotionally centered within us that often hold us back or allow us to shine when the time to execute comes all at once.  Our abilities are the foundation of what I like to call SUPERPOWERSSuperpowers are abilities we use that are like breathing to us.  So let’s discuss why abilities are so important.  If abilities are the elements of ourselves that are applied to skills, and applying those abilities is the catalyst for mastering skills, then abilities can often be what separates us from those around us.   

This means that abilities are something not given enough attention in our personal development. Abilities must become something we understand, think about, and try to hone and develop over time. In a way, awareness of our abilities eventually becomes the wisdom of age as life’s lessons allow us to get in touch with them more formally, ultimately making us more efficient, function at a higher level and allow us to shine.  But why should anyone simply rely on time to improve their abilities?  The case I am making here is our makeup as a person is what gives us abilities.  And more importantly, we need to wake up and realize that must define and recognize our abilities if we want to make them better.  Too many of us mistake the skills we are told we need to do a job are the most important thing to be successful in life.  

This makes the central questions you must ask yourself are…

Do you know what your greatest abilities are?

If you do, what can you do to make them a superpower?

Do you understand how you create, produce, learn, and interact with others?

Why are abilities more scalable than skills?

We have defined abilities as the innate way we do things.  Because they are innate, abilities are something that is there for every single interaction we have with the world.  And because they impact us not only in our work life but our personal lives they are by definition ubiquitous. Simply put, the argument I am trying to make is our abilities are who we are; all the good and bad that drive us through our day, and therefore something that must also be discussed if you want to thrive as a mentee.  Getting in touch with “the how” you do things as a person is the most scalable thing you can do for your success.  If you want to accelerate your career, more of us need to spend time improving our awareness of our abilities rather than simply hoping to build more skills that will build more success.  The scalability of your abilities is why you are trying to understand and mirror other successful people.  We look at others who have made it and think gaining their skills and experience for us to apply is the answer.  Broaden your view, trying to embrace the scalability of abilities as an equally important step and that ultimately starts with you and only you..

How can I put these thoughts into practice?

This post is not about telling you to ignore skill building or even stop meeting with mentors who can unstick you with ways to complete the task better.  What I am saying is to spend equal time getting mentored on your inner struggles to unlock and multiply them towards the application of your skills. One might argue that abilities are the things we seek out “coaching” for rather than mentoring.  To put this into practice stop and do the following…

  1. Have you been profiled to understand how you see the world? (Meyers-Briggs for example)

  2. If you have, go back and read it again because you probably didn’t absorb the value it was meant to provide you.

  3. Make a list of things others have admired you can do but they can’t.

  4. Make a list of things you have often told others you wish you could do like them.

  5. Begin thinking about how those abilities you have to enable you to excel at the skills you have learned.

  6. Find someone who can challenge you to see the abilities on the list you don’t believe

It’s time to stop thinking what you do well is just some undefinable thing and start to realize like all the skills you have focused on learning that these too can be applied to make you even greater than you already are. 

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