Following my last post on career advice, a literary artist left the following thoughtful comment:

“This is an interesting post for me, because I only seem to have one listable skill, though so far it seems to be one I can’t find a ‘taker’ for. Even a job counselor said my best bet was to promote my writing in earnest while I search for ‘regular’ employment. Even though I do other things well besides write, they don’t seem to be skills that employers can see….  Anyway, I saw your tweet today, and I just wanted to thank you for helping me focus on the other important things, even though I’d rather avoid them and just write.”

Thank YOU for the dialogue and your openness.

Overcome Functional Fixedness

In the spirit of optimism, let’s take a crack at locating those listable skills.  It’s a barrier many people face.  It reminds me of a term that I first heard uttered by author Dan Pink, functional fixedness, explained by Wikipedia as “a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.”

Another way to describe it:  A mental block.  Or also, something that I might call past tense problem-solving, doing what’s already been proven by oneself or larger society to work.  Which itself is problematic.  Creating new results requires applying new approaches, not the same old, same old.  That’s the very definition of invention after all, and it’s how the world has come to realize the pacemaker, the microwave oven, and penicillin, among countless other accidental goodies.  Look these up! Fascinating backstories.

This is why I reserve a special hope for artists to overcome their own functional fixedness.  We already know how to see life differently, to use materials in fantastic ways.  Conceptual artist Tony Labat famously won over a reluctant curator, not with a routine cover letter, but with a dozen roses and a simple note that read, “Trust me”.  That’s hustle, that’s the breaking out of the box that we need. However, the world traditionally favors hyper-specialization in schooling and employment.  So creatives end up limiting that wonderful sense of daring only to their specific field of art.

Let’s Get Bold

What would happen if we pulled a Tony Labat in other parts of our lives? Dave Archuletta, Executive Director of Joe Goode Performance Group, has.  He tells us a story in an upcoming Art Of Hustle podcast episode of breaking conventional wisdom and walking his resume into an office in New York instead of mailing it.  Did it get him hired? No. But it got him an interview.  And that got him hired.

Economically and otherwise, we’re living in an interesting time.  But it isn’t unique. Following Japan’s feudal era, many Samurai found themselves out of work.  I know, a little bit hard to picture, a bunch of highly skilled swordsmen sitting around, scrolling through craigslist ads.  Yet there they were, men at arms, with no lords to serve.  Did they all commit seppuku?  No.  In fact, many carried their remarkable sense of discipline and rich scholarly backgrounds into other lines like education, journalism, and governmental service.

Likewise, author Jim Collins tells of farmers in Indiana, Nebraska, and Utah bringing their culture of rigor to steel manufacturer, Nucor, and significantly contributing to the company’s transformation from merely good to great. What’s milking cows have to do with rolling steel?  Absolutely nothing!  That is, if one is using past tense problem-solving.  Although with a sort of artist’s eye, myriad possibilities spring into view!

Pathways Abounding

I will venture wildly to guess that many of us have more listable skills than we can know.  At the very least, we possess numerous rudiments which can be grown to full-blown competence with a little study and practice. Just to use writing as an example, one may explore possible roles in:

  • copy editing
  • copy writing
  • teaching
  • workshop facilitation
  • tutoring
  • ghost writing
  • ad copy writing
  • publicity
  • press kits
  • news releases
  • speech writing
  • transcription
  • proofreading
  • rewriting
  • proposal writing
  • cover letter writing
  • resume writing
  • manuscript editing
  • fact checking
  • art reviews
  • book reviews
  • and article writing, which I myself am currently exploring as a source of recurring income.

There are probably a ton more in this arena alone.  And probably a ton more on top of that if one were to really break through the mold to see the peripheral choices.  Language skills in some cases may easily be partnered with design, office administration, or people relations, for instance.  Let’s fix that darned functional fixedness for good and live out entirely new scenarios that serve us  better. The next time we look in the mirror, let’s not just see what we already are.  Look closer, imagine, and see too a wonderful thing that is yet becoming.


When life gives you post-its, make an Elvis portrait. Thank you for reading and enjoying this post. I’d love to hear what you think! Know anyone else that may get a boost from this encouraging outlook? Please feel free to pass it on.