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“To survive over the next decades, you don’t need one specific skill. The key is how to master new skills throughout your life.*”

I heard the above, or something close to it, yesterday at an event focused on the future. The future of work and leadership. It scares me to think I might have to re-train at my age — but it excites me to think that I get to learn and master something new.

Teaching is my 6th career in 30 years. I started as an actor in 1990. Then logistics, investments, construction, logistics again, and finally, a Ph.D. and teaching by 2019. During the last 30 years, I have also been a trainer in personal communication. And now? Now, I have to decide on what skills I might need in the future, figure out how to master new skills, and then master them… whatever “master” means to me.

What does it mean to know how to master something?

Immediately, I thought of universities where I teach, do research, and work. What does it mean to know how to master something? If this was one outcome of a course — and I feel like it should be — what would need to happen on that course so that by the end of it, students would know how to master any given thing? It is fundamentally a question about the ways we can use to learn things deeply. We must expand our self-view and admit that we learn in many ways; social interactions, reading, writing, debating, listening to others, watching others, and reflecting on what is going on. I feel I should add that we need sleep, good sleep, to allow our brain to work through all those experiences. Go to bed earlier, occasionally!

At the same time, knowing how to do something is useless if you never actually do it. Here is the value of a research university like Aalto. The researchers are masters in their craft, their field of work. If a student knows HOW to master a new skill, they still will need to do the learning through mentorship, training, education, apprenticeships, and so on to actually acquire that skill. We need experts to teach and students to learn. The university, in some way, is simply one location where we can provide both the skill and knowledge and the people who can teach it.

Knowing how to do something is useless if you never actually do it.

Mastering a new skill is to give it time, take time to do it, over and over until — well, until you can use it as an expert would.

If I asked you, “How can I learn a new skill?” you would have advice for me. You would say do this or that, go here or there. So there is no point in me telling you how to master a new skill. You know already. The question then becomes two-part. First, “What do I want to master next?” and second, “How will I master that, and the skill after that, ad infinitum?”

*Yuval Noah Harari at the Nordic Business Forum, Sept 21st, paraphrased.