Credentials vs Skills vs Talent

What do you look for?


Most people in the world of work are looking for credentials. They’re the gates that people pass in order to appear better to others. Some put a lot of effort and money into getting these. Credentials can pay off because they’re good at fooling (most) people.

Credentials is one reason we got into the financial mess we did. Investments got rated triple-A when they were really junk. People trusted the ratings agencies, so these investments got called “safe.”

In other words, credentials are for those that don’t know how to judge quality. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong. They exist because the modern world is complicated, and we can’t be experts as everything.


Skills are why I love the web. They’re hard to show off, because they need to be seen in person. (If they’re talked about instead of seen, they become credentials!) But on the web, you can prove that you know what you’re talking about by just doing it.

Skills often pass off as talent, because people like to believe the myth of the “overnight success.” They might think you were born with it, and you can let them believe that. But most people can develop the equivalent of talent by working hard and developing the skills instead. In fact, with hard work, skills supercede talent.

This is where I think most people need to work at.


Talent is unprovable. If you have it, it shows, but most people still need the evidence (ie credentials) to get you where you need to go.

If you don’t have it, you can’t get it– but don’t worry. It’s likely that everyone around you that you think has talent probably has skills instead. So don’t feel left out. 🙂

The Pyramid

If you have talent, you can sometimes get away with not developing the skills.

If you don’t have the talent, you can work to develop the skills that you want or have instead, and you’ll end up in a great spot. (Learning to work hard is the first step.)

If you don’t have anything else, then you need the credentials. Otherwise, you might be able to skip them. In fact, I recommend it.

Most people say they need the credentials because they need evidence. That can be true, but it will always be the long way around.

Credentials make you pass through far too many hoops– consider how long it took you to graduate high school vs. how long you would have needed if you were doing it on your own time.

What is this post about? I have no idea. Maybe you can tell me?





24 responses to “Credentials vs Skills vs Talent”

  1. Pam Avatar

    Recently started reading your blog and am liking the experience! I know credentialed people who can talk the talk, write a paper or successfully take a test, but have very little skill/talent in applying that to everyday business much less getting others to work with them! Arg! Thankfully there is life outside the corporate world where abilities, talents, skills and the like are appreciated.

  2. Tamsen McMahon Avatar

    Credentials, in my case, actually shortened the path to where I wanted to go with my life (which, once upon a time, was to run an art museum).

    That field is all about credentials and paying dues. And no matter if your ideas are as good–or better–than someone 40 years older and more credentialed than you, you’re not going to get anywhere in that field (at least, not quickly) on talent and skills alone.

    So, six years and four degrees later I was the head of exhibition planning at a relatively significant regional art museum–at the fresh-faced (and cheeky!) age of 25, largely on the basis of those degrees and my recommendations of a well-developed personal network.

    Continuing on the credential path meant accruing additional experience…marketing, fundraising, institutional strategy and management, which lead to me to various other jobs, both in arts organizations and out, in a slow meandering path to…not what I wanted anymore. I figured out just recently that what I really do, what I’m really good at, (and what I’ve done in every organization in which I’ve worked) doesn’t even have a title, or an official role in most non-consulting organizations.

    But what I do (inelegantly: make change happen) does require talent, and skill–and experience (which I’d say is a missing ingredient in your pyramid). The credentials helped me get that experience faster, and at a higher level, than I would have otherwise. The credentials provided access, but the rest was up to attitude and ability (my take on your talent and skill classifications). And they still come in h

    As a counterpoint, my husband, who actually now has the job I had 10 years ago–head of exhibition planning, but at a major art museum–started in the field as a museum security guard. So, other than an unrelated bachelor’s degree, he doesn’t have “credentials.” He “only” has his experience gained through 18 years of talent, skill, and very hard work…but I’d say his story is a credential in and of itself.

    So perhaps there are different types of credentials: awarded and built. Both are earned. And both require experience to have any meaning, or to exist in the first place. But like most things, their value is determined by others–and situationally.

  3. Tracy Lee Carroll Avatar

    Tamsen, I agree with you on the point of different types of credentials. Funny, I just had a talk to my 13 year old HS freshman son who is having a tough time adjusting to the flow of HS. I went into the whole spiel of how some doors close on you if you don’t have the obligatory, traditional credentials. I’ve had it happen to me. My most favourite job got rid of their part timers and as a PTer that worked 50-60 hours/week, I would have loved to move to FT, but alas, I was missing the elusive piece of paper that said I had gone to school to learn the skills I was already demonstrating. It never made sense to me.

    In the long run though, I may have sold my son short by not giving him the whole story. For as I don’t have the traditional creds, I have accomplished much including owning three businesses (soon to be four), helped usher in new technologies and educated many in varying skills and talents. My real life resume is chock full of things that was either not listed on any course offerings list at the time or never will be.

    I’m living an undefined life, created by me and and only for me. The possibilities are unlimited because I have the courage to venture forth into uncharted waters…

    And now I ramble. Bottom line, some need lines in order to know where to colour in and that’s fine. Others create the lines to contain their colourings as they go. Neither are wrong as long as you are doing what’s right for you.

    1. Craig Avatar

      An army with officers who’ve never been in the trenches is about as worthless as a company with managers who’ve never worked the job they’re overseeing. Anyone who cannot see beyond credentials is either inexperienced or, even worse, has experience they learned nothing from. Either way, they’re not worth working with.

  4. Whitney Avatar

    I think Marcus Buckingham does a great job at defining skills vs. talents, and helps you recognize your own individual strengths.
    You can develop strengths into talents, by supporting this area with skill sets of course. But just like a painter isn’t all about the brushes or a writer about the pen, the “skill” is a set of tools you develop a facility and mastery with over time, but the talent in self-expression, in creating captivating narratives or dramatic paintings come equally from the talent within, not just the tools and experience using them.

    1. Craig Avatar

      Newspaper babble…

  5. Christina Avatar

    I’m going to have to agree with both of the other commenters. Sometimes credentials might just be a roundabout way to getting where you want to go… but in other situations, it’s the *only* way to get there. My primary source of income is through teaching, and I can guarantee I never would’ve been hired at any of the schools I’ve worked at if I didn’t have my masters degree. When it came to my writing positions, though, Julien is entirely correct: they wanted to see what I’d already done.

    1. Craig Avatar

      This is probably why teaching is overwhelmingly staffed by pretentious cretins. A Credentialocracy is no match for a meritocracy.

  6. Tom Rau Avatar

    If you have to judge someone or something you don’t know, credentials are one of the few things you have to base your decision on.
    Of course nowadays you often have the chance to get more information through new media. Check for blogs, network profiles, wikis, etc. But the again, these are credentials that show that someone has either the skills to do all of this or that he/she is very talented. So how do you find out which is true? I guess only personal contact and time can tell you that. Here social media might be of help, as we can get the opinions of others on this person, or product. It’s up to you to decide how much you trust other peoples opinion.
    As you say, “we can’t be experts at everything”.

  7. Sabera Avatar

    Julien, I can’t relate to this post more. For so many job seekers out there, who’ve been looking at roles beyond the ones that they worked in when employed, these 3 words play on our minds every single day. Should I explore my inherent interests and change my career path? (talent) Should I volunteer and intern in an area I am interested in, but don’t know much about? (skills) Or should I go back to school and get a job via an additional degree? (Credentials).

    And then, what makes life more frustrating is the fact that some job profiles have criteria like “5 years of work experience after a Masters degree or 10 years of experience after a Bachelors degree”.

    You made a point there when you said “Most people in the world of work are looking for credentials. They’re the gates that people pass in order to appear better to others.” Most people. That really leaves little room for the scores of unemployed out there.

    Personally, I am nurturing my talent (writing) and building on my skills (volunteering to learn about social media), which I hope someday will take me where I want to be.

  8. Ross Kimbarovsky Avatar


    Your conclusion (that credentials can be less important) was a key motivator when we founded crowdSPRING and invited graphic designers from around the world to compete solely based on skill and talent, and not credentials (Tom – this answers – from our perspective, your questions about how you judge someone if you don’t know their credentials).

    I wonder if you’d put formal education into the credentials or skills category. Many learn informally – and develop good skills. But does that mean that a formal education, like credentials, is less important?

    1. Craig Avatar

      Credentials are not the same thing as formal education. They’re typically (though not necessarily) related.

      In the end, skills are the *only* thing that matters when it comes to accomplishing something. All other things being equal, an organisation that has a strong meritocracy will always outperform a credential-ocracy.

  9. Shannon Paul Avatar

    I have lots of talent. I don’t mean that to be arrogant, it just means the lessons are different for me. It makes me a little lazy at times since I don’t need the same level of discipline others often need for great results.

    When I was young I played the piano – I played the piano so well that I often went to big competitions to play for judges. My piano teacher can attest to the fact that I would put off practicing until the last minute just about every time. This would infuriate him to no end. One year he resorted to pounding a drum stick on the piano bench next to me while screaming, “you go in with shit and you come out with roses”. I think I was 12 at the time.

    Anyway, if you don’t cultivate the discipline when you’re young, you eventually have to do it anyway. I don’t play piano anymore, but the same sort of thing applies to a lot of other areas in my life. I’m fortunate to be good at a lot of things. But, it also makes me impatient, bad at failing and um… a little undisciplined.

    So, while it may be a more linear path to cultivate skill without innate talent, everyone has to work to develop skill sooner or later in order to stay successful. Talent can only go so far. Life isn’t fair, but we all have a different set of tools and lessons to learn along the way — at least that’s what I think.

  10. Joshua Guffey / Avatar

    Excellent post Julien! Yeah, that’s all I got to say. 🙂

  11. Diane Brogan Avatar

    Excellent post Julien and oh so very true.

  12. Parris Whittingham - New York Wedding Photographer Avatar

    Firstly, thank you for sharing your insight and view….very simple yet powerful. As an artist, I used to find myself really jealous with people whom I viewed as less “talented” than me finding success in school and later in their careers.

    In time, I have learned that we each have all three and use them accordingly. My passion for connecting with people and storytelling has led to many different creative skills. When I needed a “day” job, I was forced to codify these talents and present them as “skills”.

    Using this talent (storytelling), I have received a few mentions and awards which get recorded as “credentials”. I think everyone has innate talents , however, we often get side-tracked and lose focus of these gifts. As I have become more clear about my talents, my work, happiness and relationships have deepened. Again, great article Julien. Thank you.

  13. Rufus Shepherd Avatar

    When I read this line “credentials are for those that don’t know how to judge quality” a quote from Tommy Boy popped into my head.

    “I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull’s ass, but I’d rather take a butcher’s word for it.”

    Now, can you tell me why that is? I dunno, but it all somehow seems very related and comfortable.

  14. Doug Haslam Avatar

    Julien (and all commenters),

    I heard you reference this topic on the most recent Media Hacks (co-starring Julien &%^$! Smith) and was intrigued. Like most people I know, I come from the “get a degree” mentality that was less available to the previous generation. My father did not complete a college degree (my mother did), but you can bet all five of his sons did.

    Why? Opportunity. Not having the piece of paper means making your own way– which is probably why the most common stories of college dropouts succeeding are entrepreneurs.

    another status/credential myth: Ivy League Schools (I did not go to an Ivy)– How many Fortune 500 CEOs went to Ivys? 11% (Fast Company). Again, those schools open doors, but talent exists outside that circle.

    My personal thought? Though I have the college degree– and still feel I needed it for several reason- I no longer care about it like I did when I was 22. More importantly, since I moved into public relations (something I did not go to school for), I have never had the slightest urge to get my “APR” accreditation. I’m sure the training for it is great, but I never have felt that I have been held back because I didn’t get it.

    Something to think about if you are part of a group that wants to adopt standards.

  15. Raul Avatar

    I actually believe that there’s a place for all three (skills, talent and credentials). I have a PhD and an MBA and wouldn’t trade the world for the experience of going through the process of getting the credentials. I have applied the skills I learned while getting the credentials in a variety of settings. The talent? Well, I’d be non-modest if I talked about that 🙂

    Great post!

  16. Chris Burdge Avatar

    I would throw experience and chutzpah/kahones into that mix as being valuable. But they won’t carry you far without some skills and or talent.

    As someone who chose to travel and go right into the work environment vs. obtain credentials I know that success is not dependent on having them. Having said that I have RESPs for both my kids as I believe it’s becoming harder to get by without those credentials. But if they decide to travel instead I won’t deter them.

  17. Adrian Bashford Avatar

    My friend Kneale just prodded me to look at this post, which brought back some memories:

    While we have come to the same observation via separate routes, I took a stab at your question, “What is this post about?”

    My conclusion:

    “Whenever a choice needs to be made for a new employee, or new business to collaborate with, you ideally will find the one that has the right education & certifications, deep experience with evidence of great results, and passion for the product or service to be provided. But if I can’t get all three, I’d make sure to pick passion & experience!… more and more jobs these days have job descriptions without a clear education path, or dubious ones. Also, if you aren’t getting the results you want from your business, does it make sense to keep getting people from the same sources? Try focusing less on education & more on passion.”

    In my post I roughly equate your ‘talent’ with ‘passion’, your ‘skills’ with ‘experience’ and your ‘credentials’ with ‘education’.

    Thanks for your post!!

  18. Adrian Bashford Avatar

    Gah, no edit feature!!

    Instead of “My friend Kneale just prodded me to look at this post” I meant to say… “look at your post”… which then reminded me of my old post… not trying to blog flog here.


  19. Howard Stein Avatar

    I think it quite funny the way you dropped this post, it was getting into some tangled territory. One has passion, one works, skills increase and people call it talent. The mystery is why the passion slices so thin, why we seem to be drawn to this sliver of endeavor and not the one next to it as much. If I go further I’m going to get lost too.
    Shut up and dance is the best advice sometimes.

  20. Craig Avatar

    The worst type of people of all are the ones who get their credentials, declare themselves experts, and then sail through life thinking that’s enough. They’re worryingly common in my experience.

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