Aim to learn skills, rather than ticking off titles

I met someone this year who was halfway through his MBA from a moderately prestigious European university. So far he had completed classes on business strategy, finance, accounting, and microeconomics. Great, sounds very useful! Except, as I discovered a few weeks later, he couldn’t use Excel or Google Sheets to save his life…

Or take another acquaintance of mine, who has read every behavioural economics and pop psychology textbook there is, but who just stares blankly when the conversation turns to how product managers should account for people’s unconscious biases when planning new features.

Both are symptoms of a desire for the headline achievement more than the improved skill.

Visa (well worth following on Twitter) puts it succinctly:

And sure, signalling and sheepskin effect and all that. But the real problem is not whether or not it’s effective for achieving your goals (for the record: I don’t think it is), but that it’s a crappy way to live.

You trade the transient rush of graduating for the sustained pleasure of mastery of a job. You get the long list of finished books on Goodreads rather than the abiding knowledge from having absorbed difficult concepts. And so on: all sizzle and no steak.

So here’s my advice:

Don’t choose something (a class, a book, a job, a partner) based on its headline – choose it based on what you want to get out of it, then engage in a way that makes this happen.

This simple change will alter a lot of your decisions. It has for me.

P.S. If you want to be valuable to a company, figure out what skills valuable employees have and develop those as quickly as you can (hint: Excel/Google Sheets, the ability to write clearly, and project management). An internship at a prestigious company will quickly give you a foundation, then get into the (lifelong) habit of teaching yourself what you need to know.