What is the most important skill to learn in the WordPress world?
If I had to pick the most important skill to learn, to master so that a person could stay on top of their game, or stay relevant, in the WordPress world for a long period of time, I would answer it with a single phrase? Canoeing a mountain.
But I’m guessing that my answer won’t make sense. Because how could it without a story? Right?
So let me give you the context for my answer. (Warning, video length is 17 minutes, but worth it.)
Now that you’ve heard my story, does it make sense?
Still wondering how you might navigate the changing dynamics in the WordPress world?
Find yourself using the word “should” a lot?
They were on a journey. They had a goal. They had a mission. They were going to go from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast and they were looking for that inland passage. They particularly had spent a whole bunch of time with canoes on rivers moving all the way through a variety of states and you can see their trail, their path, you can find it online. It’s easy to see.
They finally got into Idaho. When they got to Idaho they went up to the Missouri River and they got all the way up to the foot of the river. In fact, if you look at Lewis and Clark’s journals you can read as one of them stood one foot on east side of the mouth, the opening of the spring that would be the end point of that river and you can guess the excitement they had at having come this far.
Sacagawea was with them and she just mentioned that we’re going to hit some hills, but they were thinking Blue Ridge Mountains, right? They’re thinking that kind of mountain, which is really a rolling hill. They were thinking Rockies. They got out and they picked up their cruise, picked up their canoes.
They were pretty happy for a bit of rest by, if you will, of walking because they had spent so much time canoeing. In fact, they’ve been going upstream and canoeing upstream is not easy work but they knew how to canoe. They knew how to build canoes. They knew how to take of canoes. They were good at what they did and so no problem. It was nice to take a break, to pull them out of the water and to start walking.
The expectation was they’d walk for a few miles, maybe walk for a couple of hours, maybe half a day or a day, maybe even two. They’d get over those hills and then they would find on the other side of it a river that would take them all the way down to the Pacific Ocean.
All the hard work was done. All the effort was done. Everything was in the past. They were prepared for that. They had done the hard work. They paddled upstream. Now it was a downstream, easy street ride all the way to the Pacific Ocean. All they had to do was climb over some hills.
They picked up their canoes and they started walking and you can imagine and even see the surprise on their face as they climbed and walked their way up to a landing and they looked up and they didn’t see Rolling Hills. They saw the Rockies. Oh boy. I don’t know what goes on in someone’s mind in that moment.
I mean, we have their journals but on August 12th of 1805, I don’t know what went on in their mind to realize in that instant that everything that you’ve trained for and everything you’ve prepared for is completely inapplicable to everything you are facing. That your past has in no way, shape or form, prepared you for your future.
That all your investment and your diligence and your effort and everything that you’ve learned and become skilled at that it has no applicability to canoeing up the Rockies because it’s an impossibility. You’re not going to use this skill. Everything you did in the past is not in the future. The future is not a replication of your past. The future is wholly different.
I don’t know what goes on in your mind in that moment, in that instant when you think, “I’m not ready for this. I’m not prepared for this.” It can be a little frustrating not just for them, for you and for me. When we get to the point where we think, “I’ve prepped, I’ve trained, I’m ready,” and the game change is under foot. Everything about what we’ve prepped for, everything we’ve assumed.
I don’t know that if you went to high school like I did, but when I was in high school I remember studying things that I thought in that moment I will never use again. We would do word problems in Math. You remember trigonometry or geometry or calculus where you draw a curve and they’d say, “Now find the area onto the curve.”
I remember asking, “Why would we do this?” Someone said, “When you go and do a modification on the back of your house you put a patio you’re going to need to cement. If you draw a curve, if it’s not a perfect rectangle, how are you going to know how much cement you need?”
I’ve owned three homes, lived in four. I can tell you that first of all, I’ve never tried to do that on my own and second of all, the strategy I’d use I’d go buy a few bags and see if it was enough. I know because when we put that gorilla hair ground covering on the front yard of one of our houses, I remember going to the store buying 10 bags, coming back, pointing out thinking, “Without any Math we’re going to try this.” We put it out on the ground and it wasn’t enough. I’d go back to the store buy 10 more bags. It was really easy.
Just next to me where I’m sitting there asking the question, “Why am I even studying this,” there were other people who were asking, “Is this going to be on the test?” Because they were focused on I’m going to study what’s going to be in my future if I can predict what I’m going to need then I’m going to focus on that.
I don’t know how you prepare for your future, but I can tell you one thing for sure. That is that when we make the assumption that our future will be identical to our past, we make a very large assumption that may not bear results. That it behooves us to be prepared for something different.
They were getting on the plane mid-day. It was two or three in the afternoon as people started bustling into the plane and the first group was getting on. They were the ones with priority sitting so it was really for them. They went in and sat in first class, put their bags up in the cabin above them or in the area above them and there was no fighting because you don’t fight in the first class.
Then the noise, the volume started getting up higher as people walked in and starting bumping each other and had to wait in line as that person sat there trying to shove a bag that was three times the size of the compartment above their head into that compartment because they didn’t want to check it for the extra 10 or 20 minutes there might be at the other end to get their bag out.
Everybody is backing up and it’s going all the way back outside the plane. People are getting frustrated. Everything is tensed and people are getting stressed. You listen as the fighting starts. You listen as people start saying, “That’s my seat. No, that’s my seat,” and you know it’s just going to be a long flight.
The plane was taking off in New York but it was destined for Seattle and so you knew there were business passengers on that flight who just wanted to get back home. They were done. They’d done their meetings and they were through. The US Air flight that was there in LaGuardia took off and within two minutes they hit a flock of birds that would burn everything. Kill the engines flat out.
If you listen to the recording, and you find it on YouTube, you hear air traffic control just doing what they always do. They’re just going through the motion. They are just asking the questions all the time. “Do you want to go back to this airport? Do you want to go back to this airport? Do you want me to set up one of the lanes back in this airport?” Sully, Sullenberger, who’s the flight pilot is like, “I don’t even think we’re going to get that far.”
At one point, you can listen, I think he just hangs up on them. You’re going through the motions and I have to be prepared for something that’s not normal. If you read the interviews, he articulates that he was clear very early on that it was unlikely they were going to be able to get back to even LaGuardia. We’re not talking about going to another airport. He wasn’t even sure he could turn it around and they’d only been off the ground for two minutes.
He made a series of choices, a series of decisions that were completely different that the day-to-day. Even the training that they get suggests that when you have a pilot and a first mate, when you have those two roles, it’s very clear what they’re supposed to do.
The main guy, the pilot is supposed to start going though the checklist and they have checklist for this kind of stuff. If an engine burns out, that’s the checklist. If you can’t land, that’s the checklist. If you’re having both engines out, that’s the checklist. If you’re going to slow or descending too quickly, that’s the checklist. They got all the checklist.
The senior guy, the head pilot, he’s supposed to go through the checklist figure out which one to use, which one’s appropriate for the situation and then he’s supposed to start walking it through. Only the reality is that Sully knew that he’d spent a lot more time flying planes and had a better sense of flying it than his first mate.
That was a major decision to decide the roles of those two guys, to say, “No, you know what? I’m going to take this role. Even though I’m supposed to do this other role I’m going to take this role. Because you just recently got re-certified on this plane, you actually are better attuned to be able to go through this checklist.”
The first mate started going through the checklist. The checklist is three pages long and you’re up in the air, you’ve been up for two minutes, you have catastrophic failure of both engines and you’re realizing, “We don’t have a long time here.” You can’t spend two more minutes figuring out which checklist to look at and even when you pick a list you can spend another two minutes going through all 30 or 40 items. You’re going to have to pick and choose.
Someone who’d been recently re-certified on the plane and had understanding and nuance of that particular plane would be able to go through it quickly. Sully very quickly changed their roles. Even though the agenda normally is to go back to an airport, he also changed the focus of their goals. Their goal was no longer to get back to an airport. Their goal was to safely land and to make sure they didn’t land on the ground where they’d damage other property and people.
You’ll be surprised. We’ve written so many stories and articles and interviews. You’ll be surprised if you listen to the recording on YouTube how quickly the whole thing ends. It took two minutes to get up in the air and have both engines die. It took two minutes to land and then it was done. Four minutes.
I can tell you, in those four minutes virtually nothing of what Sully did was something he did all the time. Virtually nothing what the first mate did or virtually nothing what the crew did was what they normally did. They had to spend some extra time. Sully is the kind of guy who would research these things and write these things.
What he did, the way he approached, because when you’re trying to fly a plane, land a plane, manage speed and change the trajectory and the direction but when you’re doing it without engines you are doing things that you don’t normally do. He was creating new approaches for how to land this plane without engines than anyone had ever done.
It takes and the reason he could was because he had spent a little extra time thinking through. He was one of those safety guys that he’d spent time regularly trying to figure out, “What happens if? What happens if?”
Why do I tell you these stories?
Because at the end of the day we are often caught unaware when the game changes a foot. We’re literally caught by surprise when the dynamics in front of us, when the situation and the layout all differ and we go, “But this isn’t what I trained for.” We say things as if we have the right to expect that everything will be the same. The right to expect that everything we’ve studied and prepared for will be the things that will come up and that’s not the case.
The recommendation I have for people is to develop the skill that allows us to deal with change. That allows us to not be so gripping onto an expectation of a reality that we expect in such a way that we lose sight of all the potential differences and changes that we’re going to see. The ability to adapt. The ability to adjust. The ability to recognize when the game has changed.
When you see the Rockies and you know immediately this is not the same thing. I can’t canoe a mountain. I’m going to have to do something different. The ability when the engines blow out and you realize, “I’m not going to turn this thing around. If I try to turn this thing at all, I’m going to lose velocity so quickly that I will drop out of the sky like a rock.”
The ability to see that things are changing and the ability then to adapt. That is maybe the most crucial skill that I know people need. It’s what I evaluate for. It’s what I test for. It’s what I interview for. It’s one of most important skills. In the space of technology, in the industry that we’re in, I’m shocked often by the notion that people have that whatever it is we’re doing today will exist for the next 10 years.
Because it’s that same mentality of what I’ve spent the last 10 years doing, I will likely spend the next 10 years doing. I’m sure there was a Flash developer who one day was sitting at his computer just a few years ago writing Flash and thinking to himself, “I’m so glad I learned this technology because I will probably write Flash forever.”
One of the questions I ask people a lot is, what happens when WordPress goes away? They’re like, “I can’t believe that you would say such a thing.” I’m not predicting it. I’m not even welcoming it. I’m not suggesting it should happen. I’m just asking the question, have you pondered, have thought, have you created a plan B or a strategy for how you continue to support customers when the technology is changed on a foot?
Have you thought about how to develop skills that go past just the how-to-do-something? You may be really great. You may be fantastic at some how. I know how to do X, Y, Z. What happens when the game changes and those are no longer the things you need to do? That’s why I recommend that you spend much more time learning the why. Why should I do this and why should I do that rather than how do I do this?
How is the commodity that frankly may disappear. We can’t guarantee that. Why is the value we bring to a discussion that doesn’t often disappear. It circles back to the skill of being able to adapt and the skill of foresight. To be able to look forward and see. I have to start asking myself this question of what if, what if, what if, just to be prepared for when I can’t canoe a mountain. To be prepared when technology is changed. To be prepared when new things arise.
Today we use Twitter, we use Facebook. Go back a set of years when it didn’t even exist. There are people who are like, “I couldn’t have predicted that would exist.” What today might exist in just four years that you couldn’t predict. How will you interact with it? Will be prepared to adapt or will you be stuck looking backwards and saying, “This isn’t what I was preparing for. This isn’t what I was expecting and it should be this way.”
I’ll tell you right now, if you’re using the word should, if the people around you are using the word should a lot, you’re living in a world where you’re just going to face a lot of covenant dissonance between what is and what will be. You’re living in that tension and you’re not doing anything about it. You should not use the word should. They should have paid me. They should have responded. They should do what I asked. Should is just a misunderstanding of how you’re setting your expectations.
I proposed the topic of what’s the most important skill you can have in the technology world? What’s the most important skill you can have in the WordPress world?
I’ll tell you, the answer for me is the ability to adapt.