Culture TED Conferences

Three important life skills, according to Kate Stone

kate stone

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Yesterday, Kate Stone charmed the assembled TED audience with her tales of failing exams, living on a sheep farm in Australia, and developing genuinely interactive paper. Today, she shared three simple skills she’s learned along the way–and described why she thinks these are actually critical life skills.

1. Know how to dig a hole.

Stone was instructed to dig a hole for a cattle grid during her time farming sheep in the Outback of Australia. “You know how to dig a hole?” the farmer asked her. Pfft. Of course she did. Turns out, she had no idea. “He came back and just looked at how far I’d got. I thought I was doing a really good job, digging out the top soil, and working across the space that needed to be a hole.” Incorrect. Turns out, the most effective technique involves making the deepest hole possible, and then letting the surrounding earth cave in so you can shovel the earth away, nice and easy. Why is this relevant? “If you want to make change, if you want to make anything happen, you can either convince the whole world you’re right or you can affect a few people deeply,” she explains. The latter is easier. “If you’re right, they’ll tell some people who will tell more people. Focus on something deeply; let it infect everything else.”

2. Learn how to ride a motorbike.

Asked by one farmer who employed her whether she knew how to ride a motorcycle, Stone again led with a bald-faced lie. “I said I could, when I’d never ridden a motorbike in my life.” She wrote off at least four bikes on that particular farm, she confesses, though she argues that the terrain was hardly conducive to a beginner. “I swear I fell off every single day,” she says cheerfully. Sounds awful; so why is this a life skill? It’s all about your focus. “I have a distinct image of going down this little hill, I’d see a rock in the road and I’d think ‘I’m going to hit it! I’m going to hit it!'” she laughs. Invariably, she’d hit the rock and fall. But one time, she saw two rocks and couldn’t figure out which one to look at, so she stared at the gap. Herein lies the lesson. “Where you look is where you go. If you only see the way forward, you don’t see the obstacles. If all you look at is the obstacles, you’ll fall off.”

3. Figure out how to pour from a barrel of oil.

“With big oil cans, the holes are at the side on the top,” Stone describes. “The intuitive way to pour from it is to pour with the hole at the bottom.” But then the air can’t get in, so you invariably end up with a big mess. The first time she did this, her farmer boss asked her what on earth she thought she was doing. “Twist the barrel around, have the hole at the top so air can go in the top half and oil can come out the bottom half and you pour it out nice and easy. It made me realize that, quite often, the way you do something appears to be counterintuitive. Doing things the way you think you should do them is often the worst way possible.”