What lies between ability and skill?

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy

July, 2020

Often in the popular media and our day-to-day conversations, we tend to use the terms ability and skill interchangeably. We say X has an extraordinary language ability to draw an audience or simply oratory skill to do so. However, they carry a nuance.

Ability is the know-how regarding an aspect of the state of the world that is either given to us by biology, i.e., innate (like, for example, language) or the socio-cultural setting, i.e., acquired (like, for example, math). In contrast, skill is the use of know-how to modify/change a particular context (like, for example, using language to attract the attention of a large gathering).

While biology has given us some endowment (like, for example, the know-how of a child to identify its mother and skill to roll the eyeballs to glaze her), it's not sufficient for us to adapt to the ever rapidly changing environs. How do we acquire know-how that our biology does not endow us? How do we move from having the ability to using it? How do we understand where to use which knowledge and how?

Learning is the answer to these questions. Learning does two things to human beings: 1) help them acquire know-how that they do not already possess, and 2) enable them to use the knowledge in a relevant setting by establishing associations between the know-how and aspects of the environment.

The simple law that makes learning worthwhile is that of 'Law of Frequency.' The more the attempts with time at acquiring knowledge and associating it with a context - the higher the ability and sharper the skill. So no wonder many notable academicians, business leaders, musicians, politicians, sportspersons are not young. And if they are young, we call them natural geniuses – a euphemism that connotes exceptional ability by virtue of the biological makeup.

Likewise, there is an entire industry of roles from parents, teachers, trainers, coaches, and gurus, all with the stated objective of aiding others' learning. Even among them are noteworthy and lesser mortals. Thus, the next time someone uses ability and skill interchangeably, you could play the proverbial guru and enlighten them of what ability meant and how it's different from the skill.

About the Author

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy is a faculty in the area of Human Capital & Organisational Dynamics at School of Management and Entrepreneurship, IIT Jodhpur.