Skillful—what does that mean?

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Professional History

In the Buddhist tradition

Skillful means (upaya-kausalya) at its simplest, refers to an enlightened person’s ability to tailor their message to a specific audience. The concept emerged in Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra, written hundreds of years after Buddhism began, as Tricycle magazine explains. The Buddha went to great pains to adapt his teaching to his students. His teachings were conveyed in the local language and used familiar imagery and metaphors.

Communicators today may use “skillful means” to deliver the right message to an audience in the most effective manner. 

It is an act of compassion and care to clearly communicate worthy information that helps the receiver navigate today’s world—even, or perhaps especially, in business. Everyone’s time and attention is precious. As a student of Buddhism, I’ve found valuable applications for its teachings across many areas of day to day life, including my work. 

Additional etymology

I love learning where words come from and unlocking their core meaning for inspiration. Aside from the Buddhist concept of skillful means, the origin of the word “skillful” points to a culling, or distilling, with a sense of cleverness, to provide a better understanding of something or set it apart as distinct or special:

skill (n.) late 12c., “power of discernment,” from Old Norse skil “distinction, ability to make out, discernment, adjustment,” related to skilja (v.) “to separate; discern, understand,” from Proto-Germanic *skaljo- “divide, separate” (source also of Swedish skäl “reason,” Danish skjel “a separation, boundary, limit,” Middle Low German schillen “o differ,” Middle Low German, Middle Dutch schele “separation, discrimination;” from PIE root *skel- (1) “to cut.” Sense of “ability, cleverness” first recorded early 13c.

-ful word-forming element attached to nouns (and in modern English to verb stems) and meaning “full of, having, characterized by,”…

Beginner’s mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” begins one of my favorite books, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. In design and in life, I believe it’s important to be actively curious and set aside pre-conceived notions about what one thinks one knows. The teachings of zen help keep me refreshed and open to new ideas personally and professionally, even as years of experience provide a framework for deepening connections. 

Let’s explore together

Reach out (gp4design @ gmail) to chat about how I can skillfully enhance the way you communicate.