Thoughts on a Skills based Economy

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
6 min read
Develop a portfolio of skills and do what you love

The job market is more than ever predicated on a marketplace of ideas. These ideas are commercialized into new business models and our job becomes figuring out where we want to fit into these ecosystems. In order to stay relevant and resilient in today’s workplace we need to focus on developing a collection of skills as well as, or maybe rather than, a particular profession.

This is especially important for students trying to choose a path. Thinking about what we want to be when we grow up can be paralyzing. Its way too portentous and ponderous of a question.

When thinking about careers and jobs and projecting into the future we tend to think about what would be safe and stable and allow us to raise a family and retire on a pension. This 40 plus year arc is impossible to plot with any certainty today.

The days of getting hired out of school and working for a company for life are gone. Paternalistic companies that take care of us are fragile structures that may become marginalized and irrelevant well before we are ready to retire. We have to rely on our skill sets and ourselves.

Skills like having facility with spreadsheets and numbers or communication skills and writing or negotiation skills, are all transferable no matter what profession or career you might end up in.

We can all benefit from a change of focusing our training from jobs and careers to thinking about challenges and problems to be addressed and solved. This type of reframing helps boil things down to objectives and goals for developing meaning and meaningful work in our lives.

This refocusing has been codified in the front end of entrepreneurial thinking as the Ideation phase: identify problems and then come up with potential solutions. It also is in the forefront of new thinking about wealth: if you want to be a billionaire, help a billion people.

Identifying and intentionally planning out the skills you want to cultivate can lead to more targeted career choices and can have the added benefit of being profoundly satisfying. If you choose skills you are deeply interested in, then you will enjoy learning and practicing and you will become more highly skilled. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Skill sets are transferable and help keep the options open. It will be less a tedious job and more a set of projects and work situations that lead you from one thing to the next. And those dots can be connected in retrospect to see a career path that was designed to be well suited to your needs.

Think of how people work in Hollywood. There are lots of specific roles in the production of a film and people get involved in a film project and it takes maybe 18 months and then they are on to the next project. Much more work may look like this in the future.

Besides being flexible and moving from one all consuming project type job to the next, we may also have several jobs simultaneously. These types of situations are being referred to as the Gig Economy. Or we may have a primary job and some side hustles that may get traction but our immediate survival isn’t predicated on their current financial performance. We have options and we can operate with the comfort of a safety net.

These different options represent viewing a career as a portfolio of assembled opportunities and income streams. The idea of forging a bespoke career can be very appealing. It is a more realistic and feasible approach now because technologies and platforms are available that eliminate gatekeepers and barriers to entry.

Here is a great place to start. Become aware of these 10 habits that set a baseline for being professional. These skills take little talent but some awareness and discipline.

The ‘portfolio career’ isn’t a new idea, but improving technology is helping it enter the mainstream. We can carve out niches that are more specific than was once possible or required.

Technology has created more opportunities in the gig economy with matching engine concepts. Opportunities have emerged matching engine platforms like Uber, AirBnB, Ebay, Lyft,, Freelancer, Taskrabbit that make the micro-job concept not just a pipe dream.

And blockchain technology holds the promise of protecting creative by making micro transactions possible and eliminates creative IP work from being exploited and undermined.

We have to can have many jobs and careers along with side hustles. There are dynamic options now to the traditional way of identifying your job role or description in static terms. You can be an infinite learner who is constantly adding skills based on what adds value to your employability quotient.

We can develop a mindset around flexibility and passion rather than more traditional roles and careers. For example, regimented fields like accounting or marketing and medicine are experiencing sea changes.

Accounting is already becoming more automated; just think of the trend from H&R Block to TurboTax. And marketing has become more about engineering and a programming skill set as it moves online with Growth Hacking, analytics, and viral techniques. Computers already read x-rays and other medical images better and faster than radiologists, and artificial intelligence can diagnose disease states better than doctors.

All these jobs and tasks and careers continue to evolve, and become disrupted, at an accelerating rate. Just think: this is the slowest rate of change you will ever experience.

We need entrepreneurial business skills in order to navigate and exploit a mash-up of micro-jobs. Some of these jobs we may invent and develop ourselves as we see opportunity. The best way to find satisfying work is to create it.

Computer programmers are experienced navigating this world of shifting sands as their skills are constantly becoming obsolete and in need of upgrade. We all need to become lifelong learners and know how to seek out the latest knowledge and training.

Some of the smartest students are narrowing down their university studies and using alternative learning platforms like MOOCs and eBooks and taking a more autodidactic approach. Many more fields are going to look like computer science and programming, where skill sets must be continuously updated and upgraded to stay relevant.

A university professor with a ten or twenty year old PhD may not have the skill sets and knowledge being deployed today, and certainly not in the near future, in the job market. And the narrow specificity of a terminal degree can be limiting. A lifetime’s work can go up in smoke as a new theory is adopted or an old theory discredited.

The University wasn’t always the go-to place for career path and a diploma wasn’t always about signaling to a job market and prospective employer that you had the chops to jump through hoops and be a good cog in an industrial machine. It used to be about knowledge and learning and accumulating wisdom. Fields like philosophy and art history, literature and music appreciation may make a comeback as people look to other avenues to strictly cynical career training.

In Defense of Sophistry

In modern times sophists have gotten a bad rap as teaching deceptive tactics. But in classical times sophists were teachers of pragmatic skill sets. Sophistry needs to be rehabilitated as a term for teaching and support in getting up the continuous learning curves of skill sets needed to navigate the opportunities of a rapidly changing world.

The purpose is to prepare all of us for future careers that we can’t adequately foresee or anticipate For many of us our future may consist of an assemblage of micro-jobs without a single direct boss, hierarchy, and company.

For humans, the biggest barrier to adaption is mindset and self-perception.

In the recent past our professions have held sway and influence over our identities. A micro-job life can make it more difficult to succinctly answer the age-old cocktail party question: “So, what do you do?”

What happens to that in a micro-job life?

Entrepreneur is a word everyone pretty much knows now and it is surrounded by mystique and cache. Hide behind its shield of prestige. And do what you love.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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