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Michael J. Cima: It’s more about skills than knowledge

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Michael J. Cima

Posted: Saturday, May 25, 2013 12:00 am

Knowledge has been a key to wealth and prosperity for centuries. That is true today to some extent. Google and Facebook, for example, are amassing large aggregates of proprietary data to bolster their corporate wealth.

Increasingly, however, we as individuals live in a world where knowledge is just a few clicks away. The key to prosperity is becoming more focused on what an individual can do rather than what they know. Skills are the ticket to a rewarding future. The more skills you have, the more chance you have of success.

How should education respond? Well, I tell students to think of degrees (high school, college, professional programs, etc.) as only part of what they need for an education. They need to build a portfolio of skills and show how they have tested those skills. I am often asked to interview scientists, engineers, and designers for positions in large companies or start-ups. Many interviewees show up with the conventional CV, with its list of degrees and chronological employment record. The people who stand out arrive with a box of things they have designed or built. Sometimes it is a portfolio book with pictures of projects they have organized or individuals they have helped. These are evidence of skills, not what they know.

Accumulating skills does not end with a degree. The degree is just the end of the runway. The plane takes off from there. You have spent four years getting up to speed and now you are ready to take off. Climbing higher requires constant attention to diversification of your abilities. It is not hard. It can keep life interesting to discover new skills.

What skills are the most important? My answer is that the particular skill is not as important as its level. A skill becomes valuable only when you can use it to be creative; to create something that has not existed before; to invent. A musician, for example, may spend years learning the technical aspects of an instrument. One day something clicks and they are playing music never heard before.

Finally, people with great skills know how to improvise. Accomplishment in the face of adversity depends on being able to improvise. You know you have reached the pinnacle of your abilities when you can get results not only when conditions are perfect, but also when they are difficult.

Dr. Michael J. Cima is the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Faculty Director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. He holds or shares numerous patents and is a co-inventor of MIT’s three-dimensional printer. He is a Lodi High School graduate, Class of 1977.

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