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Taste vs Skills 🚣♂️
A simple mental model that can help you navigate your career.
Hey 👋 this is Luca — welcome to the ✨ monthly free edition ✨ of Refactoring!
Every week I write advice on how to become a better engineering leader, backed by my own experience, research and case studies.
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Last week I spoke with one of my best friends, who is pondering some shift in his career.
He is not happy with his current job (at a FAANG, btw) because he doesn’t see much of a growing path ahead. He has 10+ years of experience in tech doing various different things, and he doesn’t know exactly what is the career path he should/would like to pursue now, nor in which type of company.
Many of these feelings resonated with me.
Rather than giving specific advice — which I don’t feel qualified to give — I told him about my experience; about similar thoughts I had in the past, and some mental models that worked for me.
I thought this conversation could be useful to more people, so here I am writing this article! Today we will talk about:
⚔️ Taste vs Skills
🩹 Closing the gap
👁️ What you should work on
Let’s go! 👇
Having been a founder for most of my work life has done (at least) two things to my career:
I never thought much about it — I was constantly thinking about my company rather than my growth, career path, etc.
I have become a jack of all trades — I feel I know my way around many things but, like in classic founder stories, I am a master of none.
I see this as neither good nor bad. It is what it is, with upsides and downsides.
Anyway, when two years ago I moved on from my startup, a byproduct of such experience was that it was hard for me to figure out what my next act should be.
It was hard to settle on things like 1) what to work on, 2) what my “role” in the tech space is, and 3) what I ultimately wanted to be.
At that time this felt like a general, existential version of the impostor syndrome — but while in my case it might be a bit extreme because of my journey, I believe most engineers feel it to some extent.
What are we good at? And therefore, what should we do?
⚔️ Taste vs Skill
I believe that to do any great work we need two fundamental assets: taste and skill.
This is true for anything, from building a product to managing a team — but let’s stick with the building example as it is easier to follow.
Taste is knowing what is good — being able to recognize it.
Skill is the ability to build — to do what’s needed to do the work.
Taste and skill are totally independent. Movie critics (may) have great taste but they don’t know how to make movies themselves. Mediocre directors, in turn, might know exactly how to shoot scenes, but have no taste for making good ones.
To make truly great work you need both.
But why does this matter to your personal growth? Because, framed in these terms, a fundamental question for your growth becomes whether your skill is good enough for your taste.
Based on this, you can be in one of two scenarios:
1) Taste > Skill
When your taste is ahead of your skill, you are not happy with the work you produce.
Stop a minute and think about it: all the times you are dissatisfied with your work, it just means that your taste for what is good is ahead of what you are able to create.
This conflict is good — in fact, it is what allows your skill to grow. You have a reference of something you aren’t able to achieve, and you go for it.
This brings us to the second scenario 👇
2) Skill ≥ Taste
When your skill is equal or higher than your taste, then you are able to build what you think is good. This makes you happy about your work, but also stops you from growing, unless you grow your taste first.
This dynamics between taste and skill is crucial. Skill is your floor, taste is your ceiling.
Based on the relationship they are in, you should decide whether the best bet for your growth is either to raise your floor (skill) or your ceiling (taste).
Now, I have found that most books, courses, and traditional learning devices are largely focused on skills. The most effective way to improve your taste, instead, is by being exposed to what is good.
If you want to create a great team, for example, it is infinitely easier if you have worked in one before.
This makes good taste generally more valuable than good skills, because the latter are easier to catch up with.
And this is also why at the beginning of your career it is so valuable to join a great team. Other than learning how to do stuff, you are also educating yourself of what a great team looks like. Two birds with one stone!
Let’s make another example.
When we had to create the iOS app for my startup, I knew nothing about Objective-C (those were the pre-Swift days!), but I was into mobile apps a lot. So I was confident that if I learned the tech chops we could create a great product. These days, instead, I don’t use my phone nearly as much. I don’t feel I have a great taste for mobile apps anymore, so I wouldn’t dare to create one.
🩹 Closing the gap
If great taste is knowing what’s good, and great skill is knowing how to build things, there is a third element that I have consistently found in the most experienced people I have known.
They do not only know what is good — they also know exactly why.
They know what makes good things good.
Which is less trivial than it seems.
I may watch hundreds of TV shows and develop a good, intuitive taste for good ones, but I may not be able to explain how my judgment works. And that may be fine, unless I ever want to create a TV show. At that point, closing that gap becomes crucial, because knowing what makes good things good is what ultimately allows my taste to turn into skills.
In my experience, there are two main ways that help you with that:
🔨 Just build stuff — being dissatisfied with your output constantly triggers your reasoning and makes you ask “why do I think this is crap?”.
🗣️ Discuss with others — when you discuss some subject, you need to elaborate on your judgment. If you disagree with somebody about something being good, chances are you want to figure out why.
Ok Luca, enough with all of this mushy fluffy theory. How does this help with what I should do in my life?
I am getting to it!
👁️ What you should work on
When you ponder your options, whether it is your career path, or what you should build as an entrepreneur, I believe you should ask yourself: why me?
Why are you better positioned than most other people for doing that?
Why do you have a special shot at being successful?
The best opportunities are often about hard things for which you happen to have good answers to the questions above.
And these answers lie in some unique combination of your taste and skills.
📌 Bottom line
We do great things when we have good taste and good skills. Based on where you stand, effective strategies for your career can be:
Grow your taste — e.g. join a team that is great at something, or more generally expose yourself to high-quality stuff.
Grow your skills on something you already have a good taste for — e.g. you try the management path because you are lucky to have had a fantastic manager for a long time and were inspired by them.
Combine your existing taste and skills in a unique way! — e.g. you read many newsletters (taste), you are a decent writer (skill), and you have a solid experience in some domain (taste + skill), so you start your own! How did I come up with this example? 👀
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