Hidden Skills are the Hardest to Learn


We all know the importance of building great skills in our chosen fields. If you’re a writer, you need to practice writing constantly. If you’re a developer, you need to constantly write more code. If you’re a painter… you get the point. But there are a host of hidden skills that go along with being successful in these fields, whether you want to work on your own or you want to work within a larger organization.

One of my sisters is about to finish up a degree in graphic design: she already freelances and has landed some great internships. But she’s had to learn the mechanics of both worlds on her own. Her program teaches students how to build portfolios, like any traditional art school, but doesn’t give them a grounding in how to price their services or negotiate a salary. Almost no colleges offer those sorts of classes — and those that do, focus on a more theoretical level while teaching business majors.

How Do You Learn Hidden Skills?

I lucked out in terms of learning how to run a business: I was drafted into various family endeavors from a very young age. I learned bookkeeping because a family member needed someone to type numbers into QuickBooks and I wanted to understand why what number went where. I learned plenty of other administrative skills in similar ways. The experience didn’t entirely prepare me for running my own business — my family tends to prefer selling products to selling services, which is where I started — but it was a great basic education.

Not everyone has the option to learn from family members or even mentors who can guide you through what hidden skills are truly necessary, though. Sometimes, you have to dig deep to find out that there’s even a skill set that will solve your problem! The ability to document work processes fell into that category for me for a long time. Since all the businesses I worked for didn’t really have a habit of writing down how certain tasks were completed — there was usually a founder around who planned to only leave the business in a casket and so acted as the source of all knowledge. But as my business has grown, I’ve found myself in the position that I didn’t want to constantly teach people how to do a given task over and over again.

The hard part wasn’t finding resources to learn the skills necessary; rather it was figuring out what to search for. Searching for information about documentation often takes you straight to help on writing documentation for code. That’s an important skill set, but I was actually looking for something broader at the time. It’s an issue that many people seem to run into: we know we need to learn something, but don’t know the terminology or jargon to look for. The situation is even more complex when you consider that each speciality has its own hidden skills: a developer needs to be able to document her code, while a writer needs to be able to fact check her articles.

The Cure is Talking Shop, At Least for Now

Surprisingly, my (nominal) competition has been one of my greatest resources when learning how to tackle hidden skills. Just casually talking shop has lead to many discussions about how we each operate our businesses, letting each of us discuss problems and offer up solutions. And even if one of my peers can’t directly recommend a solution that will work for me and my business, she can at least introduce me to some new vocabulary that lets me continue the search on my own.

While I love talking shop, though, I’m not entirely enamored with this approach. I’d still love to see more creative training courses introduce some of these hidden skills, even if that means there’s a little less time dedicated to improving our craft. Every entrepreneur (past, present or future) can benefit from taking a bookkeeping class, no matter whether you’re a freelance writer, a startup founder or even a babysitter. Knowing how those basic functions of your business work can make a world of difference.

A note just for developers: I’m speaking during Day Camp 4 Developers on Friday. The theme of DC4D #6 is ‘Non-Programming for Programmers’ — which falls right in line with what I’ve been talking about here. It’s an online-only conference, so attendees can be anywhere. Tickets are $40 and, yes, I get a cut of that. But I believe in the value of this conference, which is why I’ve spoken at it multiple times. So, if you want to learn some of the less obvious skills that go into programming, buy a ticket.

Image by Flickr user Edinburgh City of Print

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