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Chip Conley: Expiring vs. Permanent Skills

Chip Conley: Expiring vs. Permanent Skills

July 12, 2023

I loved stumbling upon this article that distinguishes between expiring skills and permanent skills. Here’s an excerpt

Robert Walter Weir was one of the most popular instructors at West Point in the mid-1800s. Which is odd at a military academy, because he taught painting and drawing. Weir’s art classes were mandatory at West Point. Art can broaden your perspective, but that wasn’t the point. Nineteenth-century West Point cadets needed to be good at drawing because cartography was in its infancy. High-quality maps of the United States, if they existed at all. Military officers were expected to draw maps on the fly and record a battlefield’s topography. It wasn’t a niche; it was vital to war. West Point no longer offers drawing or painting classes. Its sole cartography course emphasizes mapping software and technology, as you might expect. Drawing was an expiring military skill. Critical in one era, diminished in the next, unmentionable thereafter. A lot of things work that way. Every field has two kinds of skills: (a) Expiring skills, which are vital at a given time but prone to diminishing as technology improves and a field evolves; and (b) Permanent skills, which were as essential 100 years ago as they are today, and will still be 100 years from now.

Society gets very excited about expiring skills. You know, those top ten lists of the fastest-growing professions of the future. They’re full of jobs that may be obsolete in a decade, especially in the era of AI. The article says permanent skills have “been around a long time, which makes them look stale and basic. They can be hard to define and quantify, which gives the impression of fortune-cookie wisdom vs. a hard skill. But permanent skills compound over time, which gives them quiet importance.”

So, in 2023, what are expiring skills, and what are permanent? Let’s first recognize that facts can evolve (and I’m not just talking about politics). Sam Arbesman’s book The Half-Life of Facts makes this uncomfortably clear. Expiring skills often relate to something that will soon no longer be relevant or can be done by a robot.

Most of the permanent skills are human-centric. They revolve around character qualities that a chatbot can’t compete with. They are enduring ways of perceiving the world or metabolizing one’s life experience. Permanent skills are less knowledge-based and more wisdom-based, which is part of why MEA doubles down on helping people cultivate and harvest their wisdom.

As you look at developing your skills in the next few years, how might you use this expiring vs. permanent skills filter to look at how you spend your time learning?