Most transferable skills?

by kalla7241 min read11th May 201277 comments


Personal Blog

So, transferable skills: skills that, upon improvement, increase your ability in other areas (and also improve other, higher-level skills).

A basic example would be reading/writing. Knowing how to read and write allows one to access a huge amount of other skills and resources which are otherwise unavailable. A less obvious example would be clear speech (enunciation). Ability to speak clearly improves one's prospects in a lot of different areas (e.g. professional advancement, dating, etc.).

I'm looking for additional examples. Which skills did you find to be most transferable? Did you become proficient in X, and then found this helped you in many other areas of your life? Please share.

(I tried to find whether this was discussed before, and failed; if it was, I would appreciate the link.)

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Figuring out who the cool people are. (Similarly, figuring out what the cool ideas are.) Being able to identify cool people has made my life significantly more awesome than it otherwise would have been, and led me to learn skills like guitar, chess, hiking, rationality subskills and so on that I wouldn't have bothered to or been able to develop on my own. It made high school an amazing experience. It got me laid by hot chicks. It led me to lots of good music. It lets me easily distinguish between meh philosophers/authors/artists and cool philosophers/authors/artists, so I don't waste time. It also alerts me to the existence of communities like LessWrong and the Singularity Institute and to cool intellectual cultures or academic fields like algorithmic information/probability theory (and thus universal AI) and Bayesian computational cognitive science. It lets me know which AI approaches are going nowhere and which might actually be dangerous. It also allows me to feel justified in ignoring people who don't think I'm cool, since I have a good sense for coolness and I think I'm cool, and if others don't have a good sense for coolness then they probably aren't cool and won't become coo... (read more)

7Metus10ySounds almost too good to be true. How do you recommend to train this skill?
4Will_Newsome10yThere's the music appreciation algorithm: listen to the people the people you listen to listen to. More generally, bootstrap from your current algorithms to better ones. I likely wouldn't have been alerted to various academic subfields if SingInst folk hadn't pointed them out, and I wouldn't have been alerted to SingInst if I hadn't been alerted to LessWrong via RationalWiki, and I wouldn't have been alerted to RationalWiki if I hadn't been alerted to Carl Sagan by my high school friends, and I wouldn't have made those friends if I hadn't been a friend of their friends, et cetera. Nowadays I have a rather low opinion of Carl Sagan and RationalWiki, I'm very meh about LessWrong, and my opinion of SingInst isn't as sky-high as it once was, but I think the process tends to be self-correcting.
7Eugine_Nier10yWhile I'm sympathetic to this view, I don't think it is without problems. See modern art for an example of how this kind of approach can fail. I think the problem is that as you go up the chain you get people who have less interaction with reality outside their specialty. This is the same problem that can occur when climbing to many meta-levels, i.e., one looses sight of the object level or even forgets that it exists. Edit: Also, I can think of a number of people I (at least somewhat) respect, but most definitely don't respect the people they respect.
1Will_Newsome10yRight, definitely not fail-safe and you probably need some measure of luck to start out with the right dispositions (though my starting out a RationalWiki-esque leftist and ending up a pseudo-reactionary is evidence that at least sometimes it's not super important), but the most obvious alternative is just getting stuck being boring doing boring things. That said, I generally have had ridiculous amounts of sheer luck—no, general positive outlook and so on really does not explain it, trust me—and so I generally don't know what's safe to recommend. Vladimir_M's told a story about how listening to the advice of someone high status ended up hurting him a lot, and what he did sounds sorta similar to what I'm recommending, so major disclaimers apply.
5Metus10yThis sounds frighteningly similar to my usual procedure. I noticed a few months ago that I am in a habit of "using up" my information sources and LessWrong has hit that point that I am not learning that much more. Since I assume you consider yourself a cool person and do not like Sagan and LessWrong, what are some ressources you could point us to?
0ShardPhoenix10yWhat do you mean by "cool"? If you're including LW and the homecoming king in the same concept, well, that seems very broad.
1Will_Newsome10yThe Homecoming King in question took philosophy classes at university while in high school, so he's sort of special. But yeah, this "coolness" I speak of is pretty broad, and means roughly the same thing as "generally desirable to know/affiliate-with/learn/&c.", with some moderate measure of personal contingency.
1Karmakaiser10yDo you advise associating with those who can form a mentor/student relationship or do you advise focusing on a high status friend/ lower status friend relationship?


Programming is great for writing little scripts for yourself, employment, and improving the quality of your thinking.

3jsteinhardt10yThis. If you're going to learn one thing, teach yourself how to program. Okay this is probably not true but in many cases I think learning to program is one of the highest utility-increasing things you could do.
2NexH10yProgramming is a great example of a transferable skill. Beyond being fun, and highly useful for solving many mathematical problems (and this is a very broad category), it can be helpful for automatizing repetitive tasks in various areas. For example, last week I had to convert the imperial units in a document to metric ones. Probably there are other resources for doing this, but with a basic (2.5 months of learning) knowledge of Python and less than an hour of coding I was able to automatize most of the work, saving myself time and probably avoiding errors and tedium.

Memory skills and the ability to do quick arithmetic in your head (the two go hand in hand). I would suggest reading some of Dominic O'Brian's books, and then visit the various mnemotechnic forums. Most of the techniques you will find are geared towards memorizing for competitions, but with slight adjustments they can be used anywhere.

It seems a little silly at first, but it has probably been the biggest return on investment I have ever made. I started practicing these techniques last summer, and when school started I used them (Method of Loci especially - basically you just imagine a spatial location you know well and place images representing the things you want to memorize at unique points in your spatial journey) to memorize as much as I could, using spaced repetition software (mentioned somewhere else on this thread) to lock the most important things in.

Now, instead of writing down copious amounts of notes in class and not understanding a single thing, I just sit, listen, and memorize. I'll also write down broad labels for things I need to make sure I remember (i.e if we are talking about "normal subgroups", I will write down "normal subgroups", but memor... (read more)

4kalla72410yLet me add to your description of the "Loci method" (also the basis of ancient Ars Memoria). You are using spatial memory (which is probably the evolutionarily oldest/most optimized) to piggyback the data you want to memorize. There is an easier way for people who don't do that well in visualization. Divide a sheet of paper into areas, then write down notes on what you are trying to remember. Make areas somewhat irregular, and connect them with lines, squiggles, or other unique markers. When you write them, and when you look them over, make note of their relative position - formula A is in the left top corner, while formula Z is down and to the right of it, just beyond the spiral squiggle. For a lot of people, this works just as well as Ars Memoria, and is a lot easier to learn and execute on the fly.
3ryjm10yAs a data point, I was always horrible at visualization. My friends used to make fun of me for not being able to navigate my hometown. That is interesting though, I hadn't heard of this method. Thanks!
2Eneasz10yDo you every worry about running out of space? Or, conversely, of having so much memorized that you can't find what you need when you need it?
0[anonymous]9yWorries of running out of memory have, to my knowledge, always been a theoretical question and never shown up in practice. While the human mind cannot have endless reserves of memory, I think even the most extreme use of memory cannot lead one to run out of space.
2John_Maxwell10yI wonder how many brain hacks become awesome if you just lean on them hard enough. Could we all increase our effective waking hours by a factor of 1.2 by learning to lucid dream consistently, for instance?
7gwern10yI don't believe you can. REM sleep is intrinsically fragmented into multiple short episodes, and you generally get little more than an hour all told anyway. (And time is distorted in dreams, so these are upper bounds...)
0CasioTheSane10yThat really depends on the person... many people have several hours of REM each night in fairly long blocks. I average 2.5 hours of REM/night (measured via ZEO), and apparently 2 hours/night is average for demographic of men aged 17-29 (per ZEOs user stats). I typically have at least one solid non-fragmented hour long block, and a second block of at least 30 minutes with the remaining hour from small blocks.
0ryjm10yMindfulness meditation seems like another good example, especially since the required time investment for you to start seeing benefits seems to be pretty large.
0John_Maxwell10yMy experience with mindfulness meditation differs from the standard narrative. Once I had practiced long enough to be able to meditate for 15 min. with no problems, I found meditation much more useful for inducing a concentrated state or taming bouts of internal turbulence than any longer-term effects.
0[anonymous]10ySecond this anecdote, and also the parent. I think depending on how you intend to apply it, you may be more or less observant of the short term effects of meditation, esp. mindfulness. Anecdotally, sitting shikantaza style (just sitting, subtle attention to posture, returning from daydreaming or distraction when you're aware it's happening) has so far had two effects - short term I've found some immediate benefit in terms of being able to apply attention (which was a goal for me), over the span of 1-2 years I've (subjectively) noticed changes in how I react and make decisions which have been re-enforced by other peoples observations. Further to this I've noticed it's easier to apply some learnings, for example techniques from less wrong. Internally it feels as if there's a longer period after an event happens to internalise and construct a response, instead of an immediate / knee jerk reaction.

Self-control is trainable and is applicable to learning and practicing many skills. Small, short and regular training exercises such as writing with your non-dominant hand to write or striving to maintain your posture can be a first step to build it up. (See "Can self-regulatory capacity be increased?" in Heatherton's paper at

2beriukay10yYeah. I was going to say "learning how to practice", but this is more specific.

How to learn. Using an SRS program has radically changed and accelerated the way that I learn. The SuperMemo website has great instructions on how to formulate knowledge in ways that will best facilitate learning. Using an SRS daily is also a good example of developing a good habit and the influence of this small change can spread into almost every facet of your life.

6RomeoStevens10yI'd like to add the very idea that learning is a skill. People who think they are bad at learning new things do not attempt to improve in areas where they repeatedly fail.
6fiddlemath10yClosely related, and well-written: Errors vs. Bugs [].

Politics: sensing motivations, power relationships, coalitions, and knowing how to navigate them safely.

4Dorikka10yAny ideas on how to learn this?
0Emile10yUnfortunately not, apart from the obvious things like paying attention to those, or taking part in activities where they come into play, etc.
0Metus10yCan you point me to less sales-man-like website?
2Morendil10yI'm pretty sure you're smart enough to find sites more to your liking. (Note use of the #1 negotiation technique - saying "no".)

Fermi problems: making a quick order-of-magnitude estimate of a quantity based on rough, but guessable quantities. Not only is this immensely fun, it has many practical applications to quickly rule out unrealistic hypotheses. Solving these in real-life situations (they come up surprisingly often) may also impressive others - your mileage may very, of course.

Dimensional Analysis: either checking the units of a possible answer, or guessing a formula based off the only likely possibility that gives the necessary units. Look at Street Fighting Mathematics sec... (read more)

9Karmakaiser10yWhy was this downvoted? It provides a link that community insiders will be aware of (the only reason I can generate for why OP is downvote worthy), but community outsiders would be completely ignorant of lukeprogs self-help posts.
2SilasBarta10yBecause it turned out to be Luke accidentally describing being duped by Scientology tricks that are intended to teach obedience and therefore does not generalize well, despite the length and apparent time spent on it. See the first comment.
1maia10yHow do you train empathy? I am at a loss.
3EE43026F10yMaybe there are tips to be found here : []
0makeswell9yCompassion meditation is one way. Check out the methods section of this article [] for a description of the meditation and the pictures to see how the brain looks during meditation and the conclusion to hear about how this type of meditation effects the areas of the brain responsible for detecting emotion in oneself and others and understanding other's mindsets.
0[anonymous]10yI have has a little
1Oscar_Cunningham10yWhat kind of empathy? Where is it useful?
7aelephant10ySelf-empathy seems to me to be a form of luminosity. Since you're with yourself all of the time, I'd say it is useful pretty much all the time. Edit: Wow, this was timely. Barking up the wrong tree [] just posted this:
0Oscar_Cunningham10yThis probably isn't what bramflakes meant though, otherwise they'd have just said "self-empathy" or "luminosity".
0Karmakaiser10yAs a practical matter Theater has been shown to increase empathy for those on the Autism spectrum (hi!) so if you consider yourself particularly bad at empathy (also hi!) then I would personally recommend theater and improv. []

A skill I learned during my brief time as a developmental therapy tech that has transferred well to my current technical support job: the Crisis Cycle from the Mandt system.

Here are the seven phases and responses that therapy techs are trained to take:

  • Baseline - Personal Best / Keep Doing What You’re Doing
  • Stimulation or Trigger - Transitional Behavior / Removal Of or From Stress and Stimuli
  • Escalation - Incident / Offering Options, then Setting Limits
  • Crisis – Different for Everyone / Least Amount of Interaction Necessary
  • De-Escalation – Cautious Assess
... (read more)
0Nornagest7yI'm a bit late to the party here, but on the off-chance that this is getting read by someone with the necessary background, can you elaborate a bit on these for someone that doesn't have it? I'm particularly interested in "Different for Everyone/Least Amount of Interaction Necessary".

I would also value pointers to where/how these skills can be trained.

0Metus10yWould be very valuable. I post some requests for some skills without resources or bad websites.

How to communicate effectively, in both directions (writing/speaking and reading/listening). It's mostly groups, not individuals that accomplish worthwhile things, and if you can't work well with the right groups (and convince them to work with you), then whatever other skills you have will most likely go to waste.

math; programming; computer user skills in general; any money-making skills (indirectly)

Learning how to practice. I'm going through some rather rigorous hands-on training where more than half of the students end up failing out. It distresses me to see everyone wasting a full hour running an entire problem when the particular action they actually need help on takes 10 minutes, tops. Practicing efficiently is one of the best things my father taught me. Graduate+ level musicians are bound to have great tips for this. Of course, effective studying is in many ways similar, but it seems more intuitive. That is, no one could possibly be stupid enough to study for a literature exam by sitting down reading the book cover to cover several times.

A bit meta: I realized I had assumed a meaning of "transferable skill" that differed from the one you described in the body of your post (and I had made a comment based on that bad assumption and deleted it). A "transferable skill" would be one that, once you learn, can be easily transferred to others (or so I had assumed).

I think the term you're looking for is "meta-skills" -- skills at improving skills, and what you're asking for here are the most productive/useful/best meta-skills.

Sorry, just a terminology issue, but I think that would be a better search term.

5MothraDearest10ySkill 'transference' is in fact the generally accepted term for kalla's topic. [] edit: Holy Kerning B-Man!
3SilasBarta10y"Transfer of learning" has historically referred to the (rarely substantiated) theory that specific kinds of (apparently useless) education actually improve people's general ability to learn, and the Wikipedia link supports this, so I don't think it's quite a match for what kalla is referring to.
4MothraDearest10yMaybe we are arguing from different sides of the same coin. Transfer of Learning seems to be an expansive topic that may have multiple, and possibly conflicting, definitions attributed to it. I first read of ToL in regards to the Dual n-Back test ( []), which involves training in one very specific, fluid-intelligence reliant game with the hopes that improvements made within the context of the game will transfer out to more practical activities. And while I agree that this is rarely substantiated and that this particular game is probably useless, that doesn't mean that the definition is invalid, it just means that the Transfer of Learning, in this one case, is abortive. The wikipedia article itself includes terms similar to yours: "meta-cognitive skills such as strategic knowledge, heuristics, self-monitoring skills, and self-regulation quickly became the road to learning and transfer." And Kalla's own example of 'reading/writing' would fall within the "vertical" transfer taxonomy, defined as "Knowledge of a previous topic is essential to acquire new knowledge." The ability to read is the sine qua non for . . . reading, obviously. I guess the broadest example is a bit tautological. I am sorry for making such a fuss about it, it's just that LessWrong has the habit of coining its own terms even when there is no need, or when, such as in this case, there already exists a perfectly acceptable one. But since I am just arguing off of wiki-knowledge, I may be completely wrong. Maybe ToL has a more univocal definition in the established psych community. Maybe you hail from there; and if so. . . please let me know how wrong I am.
1SilasBarta10yVoting you up because you practically wrote the book on how to politely, constructively disagree there. Will follow up later with a more detailed response on the topic.
[-][anonymous]10y 2

Why are you looking for additional examples? I think it's a good question, but clarifying why you're asking it may lead to better answers. If you're looking to learn transferable skills yourself, then our suggestions can be more targeted. Or if you're looking to make a list of a general audience, then our suggestions can be more general.

To give a very general example: basic mathematics is so transparently essential. Intermediate and higher level math can also be extremely helpful, depending on what problems/activities you're tackling.

0kalla72410yGood point. I'm trying to cast a wide net, to see whether there are highly transferable skills that I haven't considered before. There are no plans (yet), this is simply a kind of musing that may (or may not) become a basis for thinking about plans later on.

Based on personal experience: dynamic balance acquired in one sport is transferrable to seemingly different sports, in the sense that it makes learning much faster through better feedback.

As a bit of an offshoot from the people who say math, I'd offer that the transferable skill they're thinking about is how to track the similarities and differences between things. So basically how to make good metaphors.

One idea is to try to become an expert in improving yourself in general. Read up on learning, practicing, getting things done, etc.

3RolfAndreassen10yWhat is the feedback for this process? How do you evaluate whether you're getting better at improvement?
4John_Maxwell10yLearning things in the just-in-time fashion seems like a good idea (so you can apply what you've learned right after learning it). So I agree it makes sense to combine study of meta-skills like "how to learn" with study of some object level skill, like learning some branch of math. Maybe try a different notetaking technique for every chapter in your math book, for instance. Productivity metrics are hard. Some ideas I've had are number of commits (for programmers, assuming you can get yourself to make each commit about the same amount of improvement to your software), using to make predictions about when you will accomplish goals and learn to have an accurate model, and just keep qualitative observations (write down how much you got done at the end of every day or something). I recommend keeping an "experiment queue" in a text file, and each evening plan some experiment you will perform on yourself the next day. You can populate your queue by reading stuff written by productivity/learning gurus, or just brainstorm experiments for yourself. Here are some initial experiment ideas: meditation, log your activities every hour, work in a café or library, autofocus []. An interesting technique that I used to good effect was to alternate 50 min. of work with 10 min. of relaxation (generally taking a short walk), and listen to white noise during the work period. It was actually pretty easy to condition myself to work when I heard white noise. Actually, I would focus so hard with the white noise that I also had a lower gear (listening to Internet radio station groove salad while chewing a particular flavor of gum) that I used for activities that didn't require intense concentration. I was getting deeper and deeper into this sort of radical self-hacking until last august when I got stuck using voice recognition to communicate with my computer, became really depressed, etc. I have a lot of ideas related to it, but
0Karmakaiser10yPotential Options for Measurement: * Length of time spent in continual focus, or flow. Extra points for activities you normally don't enjoy and thus are hard to get into flow. * Amount of work done deemed to be of publishable quality where publishable is not necessarily books, but can apply to code, financial reports etc. Anything that achieves a point of quality worthy of showing off to others. The quality bar will no doubt be raised over time so the amount of quality work will fluctuate but some sense of progress can be gained. * The amount of times a habit is attempt before it becomes automatic. How many times have you tried to exercise before it finally stuck? How many times have you decided "I will write for X hours a day" before that became routine? As one becomes better at general improvement the amount of failed attempts will go down. * How many habits do you lose when things become stressed? I know I failed this around finals, my room became messy, my cycling habit fell apart and my general nutrition became chicken-bacon pizza, beer, and Adderall. So for me personally this seems to be a sticking point as I can accrue good habits until a certain level of stress where maintaining them becomes hard.

-How to use basic hand tools efficiently and correctly (wrenches, soldering iron, etc.)

-Bayesian inference

2rhollerith_dot_com10yI do not know what you mean by "use a wrench correctly". I mean, I do not see how a person can use a wrench incorrectly. Can you hint at what I am missing? ADDED. There is a widespread standard for which way to turn to loosen a bolt and which way to turn to tighten it. Maybe that is what you refer to. ADDED. If you use the wrong size wrench (i.e., slightly too big) you can "strip" the bolt (i.e., turn the hexagon into a circle, thereby making it impossible to wrench the bolt in the future even with a correctly-sized wrench). And as Romeo mentioned, not everyone is born knowing that the longer the lever, the easier it is for a person to apply a given amount of torque. And you can apply too much torque, thereby stripping the threads, which can lead to failure of the bolt to perform its primary function (holding 2 pieces together) and can make it impossible even to replace the bolt with a fresh bolt. On the other hand, if you do not apply enough torque, the bolt can shake loose. And speaking of shaking loose, you can forget to put in a lock washer where it is needed (with the result that the bolt shakes loose). So yeah, there are things to learn. Gee, after I put myself in the right frame of mind, I can think of plenty of ways to use a wrench incorrectly. I withdraw the question. I would add however that people should not wait to receive training for using a wrench because it one of those things that can mostly be learned by experience (the purpose of lock washers being an exception to the general rule). EDITED my first sentence to make it less likely to be interpreted as a potential put-down.
5CasioTheSane10yRemoving and installing mechanical fasteners (bolts and screws) is more complex than you might assume. It goes far beyond selecting the right size tool, and turning it in the correct direction. A mechanic develops these skills gradually over decades- a master mechanic would often have no trouble removing a corroded bolt that a novice mechanic would destroy for example. Conversely, they can also install a bolt in a manner with less chance of failure down the line. Some (but by no means all) of the issues involved include: * How to brace your body to generate maximum torque in the right direction * How to feel when a bolt is beginning to stretch while tightening, and stop before you break it (the torque stops increasing when a bolt stretches, and you can learn to feel this point) * How to combine various tools to get leverage in tight spaces * Which penetrating lubricants to use for various levels of corrosion on various materials, how to apply them, and how long to let them soak * How much torque to apply when installing a fastener to minimize the chances of it loosening or failing * Which anti-corrosion or anti-seizing coatings to apply for specific metals in specific use applications (such as high vibration, saltwater, high temps, etc.) * Selecting the right type of socket (6 point, 12 point, impact, deep, shallow, etc. which have different strengths and weaknesses in different situations) * How to select the right fastener diameter, and material for a given application (sometimes a vehicle- especially a boat used in salt water will have the wrong sort of fasteners installed by an incompetent person previously, and a competent mechanic will need to know what to replace them with) * How to select and use bedding/sealing materials properly, for fasteners that must be waterproof or oilproof * How to use a torque wrench, and ensure that it remains calibrated correctly As someone who operates vehicles in remote areas (of
4RomeoStevens10ypeople are intimidated by the reference class of "hand tools" and so might fail to effectively use even the most basic ones. You'd also be surprised how many people fail at basic physics (the longer the lever the more force you can transmit, so don't hold the wrench in the center). I've seen people fail to correctly use screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, etc.

I'd nominate the standard high school + college math curriculum (algebra and geometry up through the first two semesters of college calculus; multivariable calculus and differential equations are less general). It forms the basis for a lot of science and engineering; one way you know that you really understand something is when you can reduce it to math.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Anything that I've mastered seems to instantly become an easily-transferrable skill.

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Being able to follow and construct mathematical proofs. Basic statistics and probability.

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