What Graduates (& Grownups) Don't Know About Their Skills

I'm headed to two graduations this weekend, and that sea of caps and gowns makes me think back to my own transition from those "time-honored walls" into the real world. 

Here's a snapshot of baby Carole Ann, with my mom adjusting my silly hat and glasses; I was SO ready to close the "good student" chapter of my life and take the world by storm.

But there was a hitch: I graduated with a liberal arts degree and absolutely no understanding of how to frame my skill set. (Can I get an amen?)

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It took years to discover and define my skills, and to understand them as something marketable and valuable. At first, they felt like a useless ball of confusion that made no sense when put together, and pointed me in no clear direction.

Here's an example: A few years out of college, I had a frustrating performance review in which my supervisor summed me up as a "generalist." It felt like an insult—like calling me a nobody—and it hit me in the gut. I wondered: What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good at or drawn to one particular specialization? Where the heck did I belong?

That same day, we were invited to lunch at a local university that has majors like restaurant management and baking and pastry arts. The lunch was actually in a "classroom" that looked like a restaurant, and the students were preparing and serving food while learning about the particular roles and functions of the food industry. I could not believe that this was a class. As I gobbled up the bread basket and a virgin cocktail, I wished away my liberal arts degree—I wanted a real skill set that pointed me on a real path. Skills that would tell me where to go, what next steps to take. Accounting! Law! Medicine!

It took me longer to learn the value of my liberal arts degree and my skill set than I'd like to admit. What I learned was this: I did have a solid skill set—what I didn't have was the right tools to help me articulate and understand it. 

Often we think of skills purely as specialized content knowledge, but that doesn't necessarily serve, say, education majors who go on to do nothing whatsoever related to education and think, well that was a waste of a degree (me). (To boot, I married an East Asian Studies major grappling with the same questions.)

The shift happened for me when I changed how I define skills to include not just content knowledge but also process knowledge. I may not be a specialist in 20th century labor history or software engineering or corporate accounting, but I am a specialist at processes like project management, coaching and facilitation, and integrating departments and systems. 

Including process knowledge in addition to content knowledge gives us liberal arts majors a lot more to work with—processes like research methods, building a persuasive case, effectively presenting information, synthesizing ideas, or navigating cross-cultural teams. These are not only valuable and marketable skills, they are skills that apply across jobs and industries; harnessing your process skills makes you more adaptable to new work in a job economy built around rapid change.

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