Trading Places: How Transferable Are Our Skills?

Version 2

I was at a dinner party on Saturday night and a friend asked me a question:

“If I had enough training and support, do you think I could do your job?”

To which I answered, barely missing a beat, “No.”

To which he replied, clearly a little hurt, “That’s a really brutally quick response!”

Let me put some context around this.

My friend is a city trader of some thirty years standing. He trades in currencies, which seems to be an incredibly intricate operation involving a perpetual shift in exchange rates and timezones (I think that’s the gist of it, I could be doing him a terrible disservice, but, to be fair, whenever we’re having these conversations it’s on nights in, or nights out, and, either way, quite a bit of alcohol is consumed; things get a little blurry).

I am, well, that’s not a straight-forward answer these days. I’m a writer, blogger, speaker, brand and organisational culture consultant, communications strategist, creative director, trainer, facilitator, interviewer. I could even, as I’m independent, add (perhaps a little sketchily, but then, I wouldn’t be alone there) ‘entrepreneur’ to the list. It’s a little fluid (which, I hasten to add, has nothing to do with the wine – I’m actually a real lightweight, but there we are).

For argument’s sake (not that this was an argument, as such), we took my last full time role of Executive Creative Director (which I only left in the autumn) as the job in question (which basically comprised of all of the above, with some people management thrown in).

So, why was I so quick to say no? Do I really believe a super-smart, very successful, very experienced city trader couldn’t transform into an ECD in an agency environment?

My gut (hastened by Sauvignon Blanc, no doubt) said no. If you boil it all down, I’m able to do two things: come up with ideas, and articulate them. That’s the purest distillation I can get it to. The atom is creativity; I’m a creative type. The mode, in essence, is big picture – finding and fulfilling a vision.

My friend’s job, if you put it in the pot over a high heat, could be said to come down to two things: the ability to interpret figures, and to act on them. Of course, I am reducing these job descriptions to their basest forms and taking out all of the relationship-building elements vital in any job (if you can’t work with people, there’s not much you can do).

Still, not knowing it as my own, it’s harder to get to the atom of ‘the trader’: is it numeracy, commerciality, technical ability? But I think the mode, in essence, is detail, nevertheless. One wrong decimal point, and the whole thing can come crashing down.

So am I saying highly numerate, commercial, technically-minded, detail-oriented thinkers can’t be successful Creative Directors? No, I’m not. Many are exactly that. Some people get to the big picture working through the details, and others, like me, reverse the process. And, much as the big picture for our trader is made up of zillions of tiny percentages, he still has to hold on to a big picture perspective of what all these multiple trades will result in.

There are actually plenty of transferable skills. The ability to convince others, to earn their trust, to get them to part with their money on the promise of a bigger return, to make quick decisions, to barter and haggle. All things needed by any Creative Director worth their salt.

If the mode doesn’t really matter, if there are plenty of skills to transplant, what else drove my first instinct to a definitive “No,” then?

My friend has a good eye, good taste. Of course, he does live with my other very good friend, his wife, who has pig-sickeningly good taste (their home really is the envy of all) so, to be fair, after more than a decade of living with her, how could he not?

But my expanded, expansive answer on Saturday night was along the lines of being a conceptual thinker. It’s very hard to train someone to be a conceptual thinker, able to take random components, connect them, turn them into something original – an idea, a range of ideas, a story – plan how to execute this, to shape it and form it, and then persuade others to consider it, invest in it, make sense of it, be inspired by it or interact with it.

Or just to read it.

Not to say it’s impossible, but it can be struggle enough with a young, open-mind that doesn’t have a particular propensity for wild imagination, let alone one that’s been hard-wired over decades to think along certain circuitry lines.

On reflection, however, I am coming back to a point above I didn’t consider on Saturday – it’s not impossible. It wouldn’t be impossible.

Of course, he also flipped the question: could I be trained to do his job?

I wasn’t so quick, or definitive, at first, with this one (vanity, vanity, all is vanity!). Could I have been a trader; could I be trained to be one now?

Certainly, when it comes to managing figures and brokering a good trade, when I was a producer I was pretty good at this (I can honestly say I never produced anything that didn’t come in under budget, with one exception – but that was totally out of my hands!). I wasn’t bad at Maths. I didn’t love it, it bored me, I could have done better if I’d concentrated more (I got a ‘B’ at GCSE – the lowest grade I ever got for anything – but, like I say, I really could have tried harder).

So, yes, maybe, at a push, if given no other choice, perhaps, I could learn the mathematical principles behind the trade. I could stretch my mind in that direction. But (and it’s a big but, the end, the real butt, in fact, of any notion I might have that I should go and make my fortune in the city), much as I think I could probably get my head around the theory, I don’t think I could get my head around applying it in practice.

My mind might be pretty speedy, but it works in words and pictures. I’m never the first to calculate the bill in a restaurant. Fact is, I’m never even the first to bother (which really tells the whole story).

I couldn’t spend my working days having numbers and people coming at me from all directions and be expected to make the right decision. No, definitely no. I couldn’t. I resign. The very thought…

This is a reversal. I’m now thinking I was totally wrong – that perhaps there isn’t so much veritas in vino as they say there is. I think ‘the trader’ could be trained to be an ECD, but I don’t think this old ECD could trained to be a trader.

With one final caveat, though – and I think, in this, I’ve come to the real truth of the matter.

I think if you’re creative you have to create.

Even if you can only do this in your life outside of work, of paid work, the impulse is too strong to contain. Just as, for so many creatives, the paid work in their creative field might still not be ‘the dream’, and they battle with themselves over which way to jump, what to sacrifice, what might be eclipsed (but that’s a whole other post…).

So, no, my trader friend, I don’t think you could do my job. Not because you haven’t got the skills or ability to learn to do it, but because you’ve never had the impulse to do it or anything like it – and I couldn’t do your job because, well, I just don’t work that way.

And, I think, that’s my conclusion to this fascinating hypothetical (I will continue to ponder it, however, as I think there’s a lot in it). Most of what we do can be taught; our skills and experiences may well be transferable into many different working environments; but our desires? Not so much.

The heart wants what the heart wants – and I guess that’s why it’s so important, when it comes to work (particularly when it comes to starting out down a path at the beginning of your working life), exploring your heart’s desires really is the best place to start. 


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