What do you know and what can you do?

One of the lost virtues for modern man is art. In a previous, post I argued that know-how is crucial for man’s happiness. This is not just a claim made by ancient philosophers (which would make it worth entertaining anyway), but studies have demonstrated today that having beliefs about personal abilities improve one’s subjective sense of well-being.[1] Based on the fact that art is a virtue and virtue leads to happiness, I suspect that what follows will be helpful.

The Skill Stack

In his entertaining book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams puts forward two things:

  1. The moist robot hypothesis: we’re basically moist robots and therefore we can reprogram ourselves.
  2. The idea of a skill set/stack: a set of skills that exponentially grows your opportunities for success.[2]

This intrigued me. I like learning new things and one of the best compliments I’d ever received was, “He’s a machine.”

Scott recommends his own skill set and explains how to attain those skills in his book. I’ll leave that to him to teach you. But I want to reflect further on the idea.

The most famous meeting in literature: Holmes and Watson, led to this assessment of Holmes’ skills by his near genius companion:

  1. Knowledge of Literature – nil.[3]
  2. Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
  3. Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
  4. Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
  5. Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
  7. Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
  8. Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

After making this list, Watson mused:

When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair. “If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling all these accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all,” I said to myself, “I may as well give up the attempt at once.”[4]

Your Skills

Adams’ concept of a skill set (which everybody knows about, but he rather hypnotically combined it with the robot hypothesis and some knowingly bogus math), is fun to use here.

If you asked yourself these two questions, what would the result be?

  1. If I had a roommate who found my habits bizarre, what would the list of skills I possess be?
  2. If I had my dream career, what would that list of skills be?

If you want, take the time to write this down.

Observe the difference between these two lists.

Now for another couple of questions:

  1. If I looked unbiasedly at my skills (not degrees, previous jobs, or recommendations), how successful and happy do I think I would be?
  2. What do I think my job, the state of my home, and my level of social intrigue would be?

Personally, I think I would be a software developer or a teacher. I do both of these things, they both make me happy. Not sure what other people would deduce from my skill set.


If you aren’t as happy as you want to be, could it be that you have very little in the way of persistent success and skill? And remember, art is a virtue. One can be a terrible person and be very skilled at things. But one cannot be a good person while being dullard with respect to gaining skill.[5] The virtues go together, to be slack in one is, eventually, to be slack in all.


[1] Mariatumasjan Andranikspörrle, Matthias Strobel, “Be Yourself, Believe in Yourself, and Be Happy: Self-Efficacy as a Mediator between Personality Factors and Subjective Well-Being,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 52, no. 1 (February 2011): 43–48 and Deborah M. Flynn and Stephanie Macleod, “Determinants of Happiness in Undergraduate University Students,” College Student Journal 49, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 452.

[2] Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 96). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, “When I speak to young people on the topic of success, as I often do, I tell them there’s a formula for it. You can manipulate your odds of success by how you choose to fill out the variables in the formula. The formula, roughly speaking, is that every skill you acquire doubles your chances of success.”

[3] Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 16-17

[4] Ibid.

[5] If one finds this offensive think it through. Let’s say you become slack at work because parenting exhausts you and you get fired and now cannot care for your children. This sucks, but doing poor work on another’s time clock is rude or unjust. Similarly, let’s say you stay static at work because parenting exhausts you. You’re probably (hopefully) gaining skill as a parent. Therefore, you are growing in the virtue that pertains to parenting.

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