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The Great Big Insult About Soft Skills
By David Harder on February, 17, 2020

The Great Big Insult About Soft Skills

“How can you say such hurtful things to people? Words Matter! Seriously, how do you sleep in your car at night?”

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog


Soft skills deserve a big fat apology from most human capital, training, and sales professionals.


Why do we so easily dismiss the very skills that can make anyone successful?


Possibly because these are the skills that require courage to develop:


  • Sales
  • Presentation skills
  • Developing influence
  • Building an active online presence
  • Skillfully asking for help
  • Learning how to fluidly and graciously connect with others.


The thing is, Courage Skills become more and more important as our society speeds up.


During the Inspired Work Program, our participants define what they really want and realize the influences that are in the way. One of those influences rests in our willingness and skillfulness in drawing healthy attention to our selves.


The most common internal pushback is the inner statement, “They’ll hurt me.” It is true that as we become more visible, we increase the possibility of getting hurt. But, when we lower our visibility, we increase the probability of starving. As a result, the norm is to draw just enough attention to get by.


Unfortunately, that behavioral norm turns the careers of many adults and their children into pained mediocrity.


In the academic world, I had the great fortune of becoming friends with Cathy Sandeen, Chancellor from the University of Alaska. For years, Cathy has studied the impact of change on education. Accelerating change driven by the exponential growth of technology is giving us a world where today’s average college graduate will change careers, not jobs, 4-6 times.


Most everyone is already encountering mind-boggling change. The negative results are factual: About half of America’s workers now characterize themselves as “underemployed.”


Turn off our TVs, set down our snacks, stop checking out on our phones, take a break from our games, and give the world around us some attention. As per our children, the greatest gift we can give them is high-quality attention. I’ve been given the great privilege of working and developing some of the most skilled leaders in the country. Many have had difficult childhoods where they had to grow to survive. Others have had parents that gave them constant and high-quality attention.


Once, I interviewed Leonard Maltin at Paramount Studios. He told me, with an almost surreal state of wonder, about having a love affair with the movies since he was a little boy. When Leonard was 15, he published his movie review by using the school lithograph. In the middle of our interview, Leonard asked, “What is your favorite film?” It took me a moment to respond because there are so many. In a couple of moments, the thinking became organized, and I said, “Right now, Avalon is my favorite film.”


So much about him was summarized with his response. His eyes flooded with tears, and he asked why:


I said, “It is such an eloquent tale about how a tightly-knit and loving family fell apart by simply watching and paying attention to something that wasn’t that important.”


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Avalon is about an immigrant family that comes to America the land of abundance. The movie opens in Baltimore just after World War II. A few family members have arrived from the old country. They walk through the city on July the 4th with fireworks bursting in slow motion overhead. They are a tight-knit and highly engaged family. The grandfather owns a furniture company. Many of his relatives come work in the store. Every night they gather around a huge dining table. They gossip, crack jokes, insist on feedback from their children, and often relive painful memories. They cry with the sadness of what the war did to members of their family, and the dire straights of their old country.


One afternoon, the grandfather comes home to make a big announcement. “We are going to make a fortune selling this!”


He was holding one of the first Television sets. In the next frame, the family has moved from the table to the living room. Everyone stares at the TV. It is the beginning of that family’s decline. Instead of giving each other attention they were giving it to something that would give nothing back in return.


Today, we can actually predict how life will probably turn out how someone uses his or her technology.


We live in a new world! Advancing technology is rapidly taking away task-based work. This is not and should not be a political issue. But, I cannot find any political leader telling the American people what to do to successfully enter the future of work. We talk about a 3.8% unemployment rate while not bringing up that about half of our workers now characterize themselves as “underemployed.” You know, holding down 2-3 jobs to feed the kids, wondering what happened to the graduate degree as we serve coffee with a smile, hoping the human resources death angel isn’t coming around the corner as we hide in an obsolete job.


This out of sync situation is probably our single biggest source of today’s turmoil.


In a world moving so quickly that jobs, clients, and needs change in weeks rather than years, “connectivity” is now the most important collection of skills to thrive in this new world. Yep. I’m suggesting that we treat the skills more honestly by giving them a dismissive precursor. It’s a bit like telling passengers on a sinking ship that the lifeboats are so uncomfortable, maybe they better run back to the Lido Deck and have a last meal.


At Inspired Work, we call them “Courage Skills.” We propose that everyone does the same. Just this one step raises the probability that we will practice more courage. It’s really, really tough to find a characteristic in the human behavioral warehouse if it isn’t truthfully labeled.


Instead of hiding through isolation or throwing ourselves into the modern frenzy, we learn how to draw healthy and effective attention to ourselves. If we haven’t done this before, if we’ve avoided that skillset at all costs, then the learning itself will include discomfort. We learn how to draw healthy attention to ourselves.


  • Define and express our brand (Everyone has one)
  • Graciously connect with others in a variety of circumstances
  • Learn how to athletically find the needs and expectations of others
  • Work on sales, presentations, reaching out, asking for help until you are skilled enough to enjoy it.
  • If you don’t believe you can do this, get someone to help.


One of the telling facts about today’s political leadership is that our Senator’s average age is 61.8 years old. Congress is a very youthful 57.8 years old. I get to point the problem because in the old crocodile category called “baby-boomers.” How can these people possibly guide us to the future when their most common promise is to take us back to the past? How can we help people understand what to do when we tell them to move from coal mining to trucking. “There plenty of jobs there.” And yet, technology is taking truck driving positions from 5.2million openings to about 600thousand in just 7 years.


I success now hinges in our ability to fluidly and harmoniously find the right people to help us, to connect with. Recognize that drawing and giving attention isn’t something most of us learn in school or at home.


Today’s average family communicates 7 minutes a day and 4 of those minutes are spent correcting or arguing.


The results of this cultural shortcoming are adult beliefs such as:


  • “I’m not a salesperson. Never will be.”
  • “I would rather die than make a public presentation.”
  • “I’m flying below the radar.”


Sadly, the figures don’t touch upon individuals that grew up in emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Bring up the specter of attention this us and the reaction is violently opposed. I had the first two. The only way that I worked through it was to keep calling prospects! When I went into sales, I stuttered. But, it was through persistence that I became far more comfortable with sales because the alternatives were pretty bleak!


The need to build courage skills into our educational system would require teachers that haven’t spent much of their adult lives running from the learning experience. We can’t find a school system at any level that requires these skills to graduate. The impact of this skill deficit shows up in every area of American culture. Attorneys used to have an almost guaranteed entry into high paying task work. For decades the one difference between two attorneys with equal technical skills that spelled out which one became partner was the one that brought in business. Legal Zoom turned that upside down. Now we have former associates suffering from slave wages without realizing it is time to learn how to connect.


Last year, my colleague Mary and I gave a presentation to a community organization. In the end, the group handed out a “Student of the Month” award to a Junior from a local school. She was so shy that she refused to walk up to the podium to accept the award.


What’s going to happen to her?




What’s going to happen to those of us who persist in the safety of isolation?




As we enter the biggest restructuring of work since the Industrial Revolution, it is easy to get swallowed by the disruption. But, the biggest opportunity here is to do the work we love, do the work that matters, put technology to good use, and let go of mind-numbing work.


What we are discovering here is that finding the work that we love has always improved the lives of our graduates and clients. Now, it is hard to envision much success without it.


Brought to you by David Harder, President – Inspired Work, Inc.


Schedule 15-Minutes to Discuss Your Workplace or Career with David (Here)


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