“It doesn’t really matter how good they are at their job if no one wants to work with them.”
That’s what my dad told me when I posed a question to him a couple of months into my job as a hospital pharmacy technician says James. I was confused about the turnover rate of pharmacists. These were people who had most likely been at the top of their class throughout high school and college, gained admission into pharmacy school, and then beat out a number of other candidates to land this job. They were required to have a high level of proficiency, clinical knowledge, and the ability to make quick decisions in stressful situations that often involved patient care. This was the baseline level of skill. Table stakes. As long as they had the minimum, they were qualified for the job.
So what was it that set some people apart from others? Why did some move up and get promoted, even though their coworkers seemed “just as qualified?”
At a certain point, technical proficiency levels out. When a company needs an accountant, for example, there is a specific skill set they need. It’s difficult to show that one person is ten times better at accounting than another. The same goes for many other fields.
So what sets you apart?
It’s all the other stuff.
Professionally, it’s called soft skills. Cynically, it’s called touchy-feely mumbo jumbo. Practically, it’s what makes people want to work with you and opens up doors to more opportunities.
Most soft skills boil down to the cliche things everyone already knows: treat others how you want to be treated, communicate well, be respectful, have empathy, don’t lose your temper, and so on.
Soft skills could also be termed leadership qualities. They are tough to quantify, but you know them when you see them – initiative, resilience, persistence, dependability, responsibility, emotional intelligence, humility, adaptability, and so on. When looked at from this lens, it becomes obvious that these are not just professional skills, but life skills.
These are the skills you need to succeed in all facets of life – personal, professional, family, and community.
These skills seem intuitive and easy and have a huge payoff.
So why aren’t more people focusing on developing them?
Developing yourself requires dealing with a certain amount of pain and discomfort – and not a lot of people are willing to put up with that.
Take a rubber band for example. It has utility. It’s useful for a number of jobs. People look at it and know exactly what to expect. However, the rubber band is only useful when it’s stretched. When the rubber band is at rest, it cannot do any of the jobs that it’s capable of. This is analogous to how many of us use, or don’t use, our “stretch”. We know our capabilities, but to actualize them requires possibly uncomfortable stretch and tension – exercises that will work muscles that we aren’t accustomed to using. This is the gap we must overcome to reach our potential. To progress past where you are by definition means breaking the bounds of familiarity.
The Prophet (ﷺ) once said about Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar, “Abdullah is a good man, I wish he offered the tahajjud (night prayer)1.” Growth requires far more than simply being good, it requires you to stretch.
Identifying our opportunities for growth means grappling with our shortcomings. It’s not comfortable to hear someone tell you that you have an abrasive communication style or are too impatient, difficult to deal with, or even too nice to get anything done.
Overcoming discomfort is critical to leadership development. A person may be proficient in hard skills such as accounting or software engineering. Those skills get them in the door. The moment a person is elevated from that work to a leadership role, the demands change. Instead of doing the accounting work, you have to learn how to direct someone else to do that work. For someone comfortable with spending all day in an Excel spreadsheet, shifting gears to asking someone else to do that work on your behalf can be extremely uncomfortable. How do you ask? What if they don’t know how to do it? What if you’ve asked them multiple times and they’re still not doing it?
When a software engineer encounters a problem while writing code, they fall back on hard skills to solve the problem. Looking for a solution to this is within their comfort zone, and their knowledge of programming will help them find it.
What about when you encounter issues like your manager telling you that your tone is abrasive even though you feel you are speaking normally? Or people do not want to work with you on projects because you have a reputation of being stubborn and difficult to work with? What if you get feedback that you are too slow at making decisions and are holding up the team, even though you feel you are doing your due diligence to be thorough? What if you are giving a presentation you prepared months for, only to get feedback that no one was able to follow what you were talking about?
The solution to these questions is outside of our comfort zone. It is uncomfortable to admit we have a problem with these areas, it can be embarrassing to ask others for help, and oftentimes we do not know how to quickly find a solution.
This is the discomfort that holds many people back.
We have a mental barrier that we sometimes fail to recognize when it comes to personal development.
Society values the hard sciences – that is, fields of study that determine an objective truth. Mastery of engineering, chemistry, medicine, math, programming, and other similar fields are easy to measure and prioritized due to capitalistic gains. Progressing in such fields is deemed as possessing a high level of intellectual ability.
The converse is often true of the fields that relate to soft skills. Storytelling, communication, teaching, people skills, and so on are much harder to gauge. These aren’t the skills that traditionally get your foot in the door for a job, so we deprioritize them. The irony, of course, is that once your foot is in the door, these are the skills you need to excel.
Many people, unfortunately, do not see it that way. When it comes to advancement or growth, their inclination is to double down on their hard skills. If they have a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, get a master’s in electrical engineering. If they have one certification, go out and seek another one in the same field. These are no doubt valuable, but they do not develop the soft skills needed.
Think of how many sports teams move on from a talented player (who may have a physically irreplaceable skillset) because of a negative attitude or a toxic effect on teammates. On the flip side, people who may not be as technically talented are able to achieve more by virtue of people wanting to be around them or have them involved.
It’s easy to understand why hard skills are so valued. They are quantifiable and often have the most logical and direct correlation to a successful career. This is why every Muslim child of immigrants jokes that they can be anything they want as long as it’s a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Culturally, it is part of our identity and we introduce each other based on occupation. For example, “Meet so-and so, a physician.” We never hear, “Meet so-and-so, he’s really good at taking critical feedback and changing his behavior.”
Those hard skills will help create opportunities and get your foot in the door. The soft skills you develop will take you where you where you want to go. The title of a Marshall Goldsmith book conveys this message well – “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”
Personal development obviously requires investment. The challenge is, we assume that we naturally develop soft skills as we progress through our lives. Accumulated experiences it not the same as growth. A person can do a job for 20 years, but if they have never put effort into their own growth, all they’ve done is repeat the same year of work 20 times.
“Maturity does not always come with age, sometimes age comes alone.2” – John C. Maxwell
Any type of personal growth requires intentionality. You must actively make it a priority and seek out ways to invest in yourself with the purpose of growth.
Investing in your personal growth means intentionally focusing on three key areas: education, experience, and relationships. No one else on earth shares the exact same intersection of those three elements as you. This is where you have the most potential to develop what makes you uniquely valuable.
Investing in your education is a lifelong process. The mistake most people make is they stop actively learning once they attain a certain degree or certification. As the saying goes, readers lead and leaders read. The videos you watch, the podcasts you listen to, the people you follow on social media – all of that content consumption is a form of education that informs your world view. Your daily educational intake should contain some type of religious development as well as something else. That something else is unrestricted – it could be reading about leadership and marketing, listening to a political podcast, or even taking a cooking class. As long as you intentionally make learning a daily habit, the investment will compound exponentially.
Investing in your experiences may not be as familiar a concept as education. College is a great example of a time when you can invest heavily in experiences. Those are usually the years where you can work multiple types of jobs or volunteer for different types of organizations. Even in a professional environment, you can look to try working on projects or serving in committees outside of your actual job role. In short – find a way to keep trying new things. You can try teaching at Sunday school, go parasailing, attend a comedy show, see a live sporting event, volunteer for humanitarian causes, travel to new places, and so on – the list is absolutely endless.
Investing in relationships is what you need to stay grounded. Put intentionality into strengthening family ties and cultivating stronger friendships. The more you progress, the more important it becomes to have a strong inner circle of people to rely on. People close to you are experts on you. They recognize when you’re making mistakes without realizing it. They are the ones who can call you out when you are doing something wrong. Unfortunately, for many people, as they progress and move upwards, they tend to surround themselves with yes-men instead of people empowered to give them critical and honest feedback.
Take the pharmacist example from the beginning. When someone is tough to work with, they may not recognize it. By the time they receive that feedback in a professional setting, it is often too late. People in your inner circle should be empowered by you to give you that type of candid feedback while you still have the ability to fix it. Chances are if your co-workers have noticed a negative characteristic, your friends have too. Rely on the people around you to identify those things and proactively work on them.
Investing in relationships is also a cheat-code for education and experience. Find people you want to connect with, like community leaders, or others you look up to, and reach out to them. Take them out to coffee, exchange emails, and find ways to learn from their experiences. We usually have a mental barrier when it comes to this. We assume people are too busy or would not want to spend time sharing their experiences. The reality is people are more than happy to share what they’ve learned and help people on the same path. When you make a genuine effort to reach out and connect, you will find that even busy people will make time to help.
The ideas of self-investment, valuing soft skills, and embracing discomfort are not mind-blowing concepts. The default behavior of most people is avoiding discomfort, prioritizing hard skills, and being passive about self-investment. This not only answers the question of why people don’t focus on developing soft skills, despite the immense benefit in doing so – it also makes the path forward clear.
A mindset of intentionality is required. We must willingly embrace discomfort, reprioritize our personal development goals, and find ways to actively invest in ourselves on a daily basis to grow and fulfill our potential.
1. Chapter: Excellence of Standing in Prayer at Night (212). Retrieved September 1, 2020 from https://sunnah.com/riyadussaliheen/9/172
2. Maxwell, C. John, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently (Thomas Nelson Inc, 2010), 31.