Understanding Skill in a Global Crisis

We’re now over two months into lockdown and many of us are still getting to grips with how to reclaim some sense of normality. Work is particularly hard. Exams are underway and postgraduates are still expected to continue their research. But even if you do manage to find the time to work, you may still find yourself struggling. Whether you’ve spent hours staring at a blank page, or have been writing, deleting, and then rewriting the same sentence over and over because something just doesn’t seem right, you aren’t alone.

But this isn’t just limited to work. When the lockdown first began, I was writing about how changes in our environment or circumstance might cause us to struggle with skills we’re familiar with. I’ve put together this blog series to share some of my findings and, hopefully, some tips on how to push forward. So, whether you’ve suddenly got writer’s block, or your knitting is a tangled mess and your bread won’t rise, this brief guide to skill in a global crisis might give you the answer you’re looking for.

This first entry defines what we mean by ‘skill’ and explains what this definition teaches us about how a pandemic might disrupt skill.

Skill: An ecological approach

Skill is normally a relative term; someone is considered skilled when they’re better at something than most other people[1]. But at its core, a skill is anything that you can improve at doing. Cooking is a skill. As is writing, or running, or driving. But skills can be much smaller and taken for granted. Touch-typing is a skill that many of us learnt at an early age and haven’t thought about since, but it’s also the kind of skill that can be particular vulnerably in times of crisis.

This brings us to the second criteria: a skill is often something we do better when we’re not thinking too much about it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention, but you pay attention to the end goal rather than the steps. When you type you think about the words you want write, not the movements of your fingers – if you do, they end up in a muddle. For a lot of skills, practicing until you can complete small tasks without needing to focus on them is a core part of the development. When learning to drive you might have to think about the pedals and the gears to start with, but eventually your focus will be on the road and traffic and things like changing gear will seem automatic.

But the criteria that is most relevant to the current climate is that skills are situated within a network of interactions and contexts. We call this an ‘ecological approach’ to skill[2]. When we perform a skill, we don’t do it in isolation. Many skills require equipment – a tennis racket, a golf club, a painter’s brush – that must be carefully manipulated to complete the task well. Changing the specific tool can have a drastic impact on someone’s performance. If you’ve ever tried driving someone else’s car you may have experienced this. But changes in the environment – whether that’s physical environment or social, cultural, political etc. – can also impact skilled performance because when we learn a skill, we learn it in specific contexts. This is why people initially find it harder to drive in the rain or at night. But we naturally encounter variations of context, so those changes which are frequent and minor (rain vs. sun, loud vs. quiet, hot vs. cold) are things we get used to without much thought[3]. Drastic and unprecedented changes which affect things we’ve always taken for granted have much greater affects and can disrupt even our most basic skills.

Not convinced? The best way to show this would be to take a skill most of us learn to master at an early age, that we routinely perform without thinking, and then change one of the most fundamental environmental factors. Thankfully, NASA already have:

For hopeful astronauts, learning to do anything in low or zero gravity is a skill they must learn. And they do. Giant swimming pools and freefalling in a plane are used to help astronauts acclimatise to these changes[4]. Scientists working in the extreme weather conditions of Antarctica similarly have to acclimatise to sharp decreases in temperature[5], and if you want to climb to high altitudes you’ll have to go through a period of acclimation along the way to adjust to their air pressure and oxygen levels. There are even projects designed to help people get used to extended periods of social isolation[6].

Performing a skill in a drastically different environment to the one you are used to is a skill in itself. But we haven’t had the opportunity to acclimatise to the changes we’re now facing, so if you feel that you’re struggling with things you normally wouldn’t it isn’t just perception: things actually are harder.

In future posts I’ll cover some of the things you can do to overcome this challenge, including:

  • Maintain a routine
  • Self-care
  • Take thing slowly
  • Recognising increased responsibilities
  • Learning a new skill (but not for productivity)

By Eliott


[1] Breivik, G. (2007) Skillful coping in everyday life and in sport: A critical examination of the views of

Heidegger and Dreyfus. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 34 (2): 116–134.

[2] There’s a lot of work on ecological skill, but Cultural Geography’s special issue on skilled practice is a good start: https://journals.sagepub.com/toc/cgjb/25/1

[3] Sternad, D (2018) It’s not (only) the means that matters: variability, noise and exploration in skill learning. Vol 20, pg. 183-195.

[4] https://bigthink.com/videos/microgravity

[5] https://publications.rzsnsw.org.au/doi/pdf/10.7882/AZ.1989.010

[6] Biosphere 2 is likely the most famous of these, but NASA lists living condition concerns as one of its challenges for extended periods of space flight.

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