This post examines the virtue of know-how. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is know-how?

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” ―Lazarus Long (in Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love)

You have know-how to the extent that you have skills obtained from practice doing things in the real world.

Know-how is distinct from mere theoretical understanding. For example, the theoretical discipline of hydrodynamics may be fascinating and useful, but if you want to know how to swim you have to get wet.

Know-how as a virtue seems to mean having competence in a broad, well-chosen range of skills.

Know-how is related to “practical knowledge,” though practical knowledge can be knowledge about things as well as how to do things. There’s some overlap. If you’re building a cabinet, practical knowledge will help you know which type of wood is best for the job, while know-how will help you construct it skillfully.

Know-how is kind of like “craftsmanship,” but craftsmanship implies a more advanced skill in a particular specialty — connoisseurship, expertise, commitment to quality, attention to detail, efficiency — while know-how is more of a baseline proficiency in many areas.

Know-how has some connection with prudence (in the sense of “practical wisdom”), though prudence has more to do with having a well-honed process for making good decisions generally, while know-how is about experience-tested decisions in specific contexts.

How to know what you need to know

An American in 1900 who knew how to drive a car with a manual transmission was an early adopter. An American who knows how to drive such a car in 2050 may be something of an eccentric traditionalist. Somewhere in-between, that skill was considered an essential part of know-how. What skills are important change over time.

They also differ from culture to culture, and from class to class. Read one of the many classic novels about the lives of the European upper classes in the nineteenth century, and see how it’s taken for granted that everybody knows the steps to various dances, the rudiments of horsemanship, at least some Latin and Greek, for example.

Modern societies will explicitly express some judgements about what skills are essential through what they teach in standard/compulsory childhood schooling. Some other elementary skills everyone is expected to just pick up as a matter of course but are not explicitly taught. People then also specialize professionally, and through their hobbies and lifestyle choices, and they learn additional skills appropriate to these areas.

What remains is a vast set of skills that some people pick up and others don’t. The more of this set that is important by some measure and that you can acquire some baseline competence in, the more you have the virtue of know-how.

How do you know which skills are the important ones? “Skills everybody should have” is a popular listicle genre, but there doesn’t seem to be much consensus from list to list. When I asked my Facebook Friends “What are some examples of know-how skills that you think a typical person ought to have in order to be a well-rounded person, but that people often neglect to pick up?” they gave a bunch of interesting answers, but nothing that sounded like a consensus set.

Is there a more reliable and methodical way to learn what we ought to learn? It seems to me that there ought to be some sort of rough function we could apply to a skill, using criteria like these:

  • how important the skill is when it is deployed
  • how likely it is that (or how frequently) the skill will be called for
  • positive or negative side effects to having the skill (e.g. having the skill makes it easier to learn related skills, or, maybe you get unfortunately typecast as person-with-the-skill)
  • the availability and suitability of alternatives for personally having the skill (e.g. how easy is it to find a professional specialist, or to just buy something instead of make it yourself)
  • how likely it is that someone else will be available who has the skill when it is needed
  • how likely it is that changes in technology, fashion, or economics will make this skill obsolete
  • how personally rewarding it would be to practice the skill or to have the competence under your belt, along with the prestige factor; or, on the other hand, how silly you would feel if you found yourself helpless at a time the skill was called for
  • how difficult it is to acquire enough proficiency in the skill or to keep it once you’ve acquired it
  • the difference in quality between performing the skill skillfully vs. trying to muddle through unskillfully

So for a skill like CPR, for example, you would take into account that it’s a very important, potentially life-saving skill; but you may go your whole life without ever having an opportunity to put it to use; there are professionals who know how to do it best as part of their job skills, but time is of the essence and they may take time to be summoned; rudimentary CPR skills are fairly widespread; being able to save someone’s life is pretty hawt; you can probably pick up the needed skills in an hour or two, and there are classes for that sort of thing; and doing a poor job of CPR is more likely to be useless or to break ribs than to be helpful, so it’s very important to actually know what you’re doing.

Could you list out a bunch of candidate skills you are lacking, rate them by criteria like these, rank them according to some rough formula, and then be able to see at a glance which new skills would be most worth picking up? Seems doable, though it’s not immediately obvious how you would assign values to some of these criteria or what formula you would use to combine them. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone doing this.

Personally, I’ve been much more haphazard about how I’ve picked up how-to skills. I’ve picked up a lot of food preservation knowledge, for example — how to pressure can, dry herbs, brew beer, culture yogurt, cure meat, ferment pickles, and so forth — but although this is interesting and useful, I don’t think it would have ranked very highly based on its day-to-day importance and on the availability of commercial alternatives. Would I have been wiser to have spent that time and mind-space learning something else?

How do you decide which skills are important to learn?

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Well first of all, most important are skills that allow you to keep living, like sourcing water, sourcing food, knowing which foods to eat, cooking(debatable), etc. Next are skills that allow you to accomplish goals, like motivating yourself, recognizing a good idea, rationality, etc. And finally there are skills that directly apply to your goals, like say programming or using a computer. 

But this is in a world where you have no access to anything else. In most places, you can circumvent all the survival stuff by getting a stable source of enough money. The skills involved in allowing you to accomplish goals, and which in general clear up what your goals are still apply, although some of their work can be offloaded if you can get advisors or some such. And then we have the skills that apply directly to your goals. For some goals you can offload even these skills by paying people to accomplish your goals, but for others you need the skills yourself. 

Thus, obtaining a good source of money, and being able to manage it and make more of it seems pretty important. And so are meta-skills that help you figure out your goals and accomplish them faster/with less effort.