A Soft Spot For Soft Skills


What were you doing in 1997?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was hitting bookstores in England; Hanson's MMMBop was tearing up the charts; Dolly the Sheep was becoming the first cloned mammal (did you know she had six lambs?). 

Personally, I was in a cubicle, working at my first job out of college as an electronics buyer in downtown Boston for a company called Teradyne. (My career plan at that stage of my life wasn't much more complicated than "become employed").

The highlight of working at Teradyne was when they sent me to San Jose
to audit the inventory of one of our semiconductor suppliers.

I rented a Ford Mustang convertible and drove up the coast on Highway 1, pulling over from time to time to get out and watch the ocean crashing against the rugged rock formations just off shore. It was beautiful, and hooked me on moving to California (a feat I accomplished about 10 years later).

But in the meantime, I was back at Teradyne, dealing with the monotonous day to day tasks of working for a big company.

To make matters worse, I didn't really have the best people skills. I didn't go out of my way to be friendly with anyone other than co-workers who were close to my age. I rarely took initiative or volunteered for new projects, preferring instead to play email and phone pranks with my friends.

(Ok, here's an example: I once sent an email to a friend that had a button that, when she clicked it, automatically emailed a "hi" from her to all 6,000 people in the company. Two guys from the I.T. department paid me a visit after that one.)

As you can imagine, I didn't rapidly advance in my career there - in fact, I stagnated until I left. At the time, I didn't realize that one of the big reasons was my lack of soft skills.

When I work with high school students and even people getting ready for graduate school, I see the same problem expressed in a myriad of ways. You can play along by checking the ones on this list you've experienced:

  • ignoring emails and even texts
  • passivity when obstacles are encountered
  • unwillingness to read and follow instructions
  • waiting for direction as opposed to self-responsibility
  • difficulty planning and scheduling 
  • and overall, poor / spotty communication skills

Surprisingly, even some of my smartest and most personable students have had trouble with some (or all) of these. 

Now admittedly, I, too, lacked a lot of soft skills when I was young. My point is that having these skills matters - not just in the workplace, but in college and grad school.

For example, they'll help forge relationships with professors in college - relationships that can be crucial to help get into grad, law, med, or business school in the future. And of course they'll help people get along with their co-workers, bosses, and other people who will help them advance in their careers.

The Bottom Line

Lacking soft skills isn't a problem that magically goes away after going to college. I'm living proof of that. So I hope more high schools, colleges, and employers will make soft skills courses mandatory - at least until playing pranks on people becomes a real job.

Questions For Discussion

1. Did you watch the MMMBop video I linked to?

2. Is it even possible to be in a bad mood while that song is playing? (I don't think so.)

3. Do you have any ideas about how we can better ensure younger people develop strong soft skills?

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