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“Force has no place where there is need of skill” (Herodotus).
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, MANY OF OUR MOST COMMON MISTAKES IN LIFE ARE SIMPLY VARIATIONS ON ONE THEME: WE RESORT TO FORCE WHEN WE SHOULD BE USING SKILL. We find ourselves in a difficult conversation, for example, and lacking the communication skills to deal effectively with the difficulty, we lose our patience. Arguing, name-calling, threatening, and other brute force tactics become a substitute for skill, and by their use, we admit defeat.
As much as we need skill, most of us go out of our way to avoid the main thing that would teach it to us: difficulty. Very few skills are learned sitting in an easy chair. As the English proverb said, “A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner.” So why do we cling to our comfort zone so tenaciously? Why do we decline difficult challenges and opportunities? Are we lazy — or just not interested in the skills that would come from diving into the deep end of the pool?
Some folks have the opposite problem, of course. They try to be skilled at everything, unwilling to be outdone by anybody at anything. But the effort to do that is a losing battle. We need to make some choices in life and focus on the acquirement of a few definite skills. Having done that, we ought to be comfortable with the skills we have and not envy the abilities others may have acquired.
Sextus Propertius said, “Let each man pass his days in that wherein his skill is greatest.” The concept of “division of labor” is one of the great ideas in the world, and we should learn to be at peace with that concept. I should be eager to do what I am skilled at, and you should do what you’re skilled at, each of us doing whatever we do for the common good, rather than for our own personal gratification.
Most of us underestimate the goodness — and also the happiness — that can come from acquiring a few skills and then using them to make a worthy contribution to the world. Even if we recognize that we have some skills, we undervalue them, thinking that they don’t matter. But when we passionately pour ourselves into our skills for the good of others, great things are almost always the result. We’ve heard it all our lives, but it’s still true: it is more blessed to give than to receive.
“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece” (John Ruskin).