I am constantly surprised by how many clients express dismay at not having in-depth knowledge of a particular field. They are convinced it would serve them better (that is to say, at least in most cases, allowing them to make more money) to specialize than to be the generalist that they consider themselves to be. In truth, if measuring one’s qualifications along that overly simplified spectrum, with one end being extensive knowledge of a narrow subject and the other being a somewhat superficial level of knowledge about a wide variety of things, it is probably true that deeper knowledge will make you more qualified, and therefore more competitive, for a variety of positions* But that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at qualifications.
Increasingly, it is the soft skills (such as the ability to empathize, to relate, to connect, to simplify, or to persuade) that are valued, and will be richly compensated. An article in the August 16 Washington Post by Tyler Cowen, entitled “Humans rejoice, you’re smarter than machines,” notes that “The future of the American economy will prize people skills above all else. Mark Zuckerberg was a psychology major, Steve Jobs also had a liberal arts background, which he drew upon to make Apple products attractive and compelling. I wonder, however, if manipulation shouldn’t be added to the list. Precisely because we are able to identify what others are feeling, we can use that knowledge to influence their behavior. So the future of human employment isn’t just about the caring doctor, it is also about the marketer, the nudge…., and the advertising executive.” I name the general category of these soft skills “integrative skills,” as they are skills primarily involved with connecting things, rather than mining them deeply.
The very same issue of the Post cited above reported on the personal qualities of the most successful entrepreneurs. Again, they were “soft” (and the first four, integrative) qualities: helping others succeed; being generous with one’s abilities, knowledge, and connections; curiosity**; ability to spot gaps in the marketplace, maintaining a long-term vision; ability to pick oneself up after a failure; and flexibility.
MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book, The Second Machine Age, that today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work in which tech takes care of routine tasks so that people can concentrate on what mortals do best: generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.
So how to improve these skills? It’s a relatively simple matter to acquire additional knowledge of a technical subject, to become a better programmer or coder. But how to improve one’s soft skills?
There are classes on developing interpersonal skills (the Dale Carnegie Institute offers a well-regarded two day course), and of course hundreds of books (ideally containing or with an associated workbook) and articles. It is also valuable to identify someone you can observe closely (e.g. your boss or a co-worker) who excels in these areas. But most effective, in my experience, is coaching. Specific attention to developing these skills has been extremely successful for the clients with whom I’ve worked on this. There’s a lot of role play so that the client has an opportunity to connect with the feelings associated with employing these qualities.
In closing, let me remind you that NOTHING is more important than building skills that you can employ in building contacts and nurturing relationships. It is connections that power (or at least used to power) most successful people.
* Note, however, that in depth, detailed knowledge is something at which computers will get increasingly skilled, reducing over time the value of humans possessing that knowledge.
** I rate curiosity very highly as a skill. Only by looking at something and wondering how it got that way, or how it might be different, can you really hope to get a full understanding, and therefore be able to grow smartly from that place.