Rejecting the Soft Skills Fairy

A couple of months later, the Dare Conference still swirls into my head at least once per day. Great experiences are like that — they don’t just affect you on the particular day, but for months and years afterwards. Kathy Sierra recently wrote a brilliant piece about how great talks are a user experience (and so the speaker is really just the UI).

Dare Conf was one hell of a user experience.

I still can’t really articulate everything I learnt. Everything I heard. Everything we experienced as a group. Dare felt like early SxSWi. Like you were connecting with people who just got it. Who were simultaneously so different and so like you. Who were taking the time to learn some pretty hard shit, together as colleagues rather than as combatants. Who were deliberately opening themselves up to the scary change, the frightening ideas, the things that might just change the world.

[I appreciate that if you went to much more recent SxSWi you are probably wondering what I’m smoking: read this excellent post by Anil Dash on the web we lost.]

I know I’m doing things differently. Whether it’s realising when my amygdala is hijacking me, remembering to “get in the car” as my friend Neil exhorted, or using Dave Gray’s culture map to illustrate to an organisation why the delta between what they SAY they believe in and what they ACTUALLY believe in is hurting them.

The thing I most want to share with you today about Dare though, is one of the slides from Karen McGrane‘s excellent opening keynote:

Karen was highlighting that in our industry we have (and highly prize) technical skills, but to be really effective we need the others too — we need to be able to work with others (External skills, as she puts it), and we have to have to be able to work with ourselves (Internal skills).

I’ve been managing people for a number of years now. I repeatedly see this play out: someone who is technically brilliant slowly becomes incredibly frustrated that they don’t have the impact they want to have. If they’re lucky, someone helps them to realise that they need to not only be clever and technically brilliant, but they also need to have the soft skills (External) to get other people involved and they need the self-compassion (Internal) to manage their internal frustration at this not being as easy as the stuff they’re already good at.

The only difference between those who managed to develop those skills and those who don’t? Belief in the Soft Skills Fairy.

The Soft Skills Fairy has a wand, and if you were touched with it at birth then you have soft skills. If you weren’t you don’t and can never develop them.

Sounds silly, right? Seriously though, people seem to believe this. The people who believe that anyone can be taught to code, that design skills can be learnt, honed, developed, these same people believe in the Soft Skills fucking Fairy.

The truth is much harder to face: everyone can develop these skills. But it is hard, it takes work, and no one has a magic wand to wave over you to make it happen overnight.

Do yourself a favour: reject the Soft Skills Fairy. Invest in yourself. Make time for learning some of those soft skills in between the technical skills; they are both essential to being awesome at your job. Find people who are good at this stuff and ask them how they learned. Find ways to practise, outside and inside of work. Find people who will tell you the truth about whether you’re getting better and then ask them.

It’ll be hard. It’ll be worth it.

If you want a ready-made safe environment to learn some of these things, come to Dare Conf Mini in January in London. There’s still a £100 discount if you grab an early bird ticket by Monday 18 November. [UPDATE: You can now get a significant discount by using code MERI at checkout too — thanks to the organisers!]

As you’ll see from the line-up, I’m speaking (and running a full day workshop on Practical People Skills) but honestly, I’m hugely excited about what I’ll learn from the other folks speaking and attending. I imagine Dare Mini is going to be another incredible experience and I’ll walk away doing things differently. Better. And I’ll continue to utterly reject the goddamn Soft Skills Fairy.

7 Comments

  • So true!

    I was once one of those soft skills bereft, technically adept people (doing UX design and BA work, and leading a software dev team). I was certain I was absent soft skills; and I self-justified this alongside my “I can’t get them because I’m an introvert and kind of Aspie as well” chant.

    Luckily, I’m married to one of the best soft-skills people I know. She leads and mentors people almost entirely from a soft skill perspective. I had the needs, and then the way, drummed into me.

    I wouldn’t say today that I’m awesome on the soft skills side, but I am a hell of a lot better than I was.

  • 100% agree. I used to be shy and typical introvert but then realised I’m missing a huge part of life. Then I done some research, read several books on social skills, body language and begin experimenting step by step with being more extravert. It worked! I’m still not a Morgan Freeman of public speeches but I can handle many of social situations I couldn’t before.

  • I wouldn’t say I’m brilliant, but I’m highly technical. And I’ve known for a long time that I don’t have “soft skills.” And I’ve worked hard to improve them, knowing that they’re necessary. But there’s one problem with this situation: When it’s already difficult enough to try and muster this, being technical and/or introverted, and then to turn around and get shit on by people in management. At first glance, it seems like “soft skills” are a good idea, right up until that point some “manager” decides to turn the other direction and say “oh well, too bad, so sad” or “it’s just business.” That’s the real problem with people who reject soft skills — they may *help* get things done sometimes with people who’re more chatty, but other wise, they’re a waste of time and a distraction. (As it’s said: the introvert mostly understand the extroverted world, but the extrovert goes nuts trying to turn inward and can thus never understand.)

  • […] at the Geek Manager site, Meri Williams recently blogged about a phenomenon she sees play out among her teams. A technically brilliant person “slowly […]

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  • […] a myth that you either have these skills or you don’t—which Meri Williams calls “the soft skills fairy.” But that’s like saying, “You can either code JavaScript or you […]

  • […] There’s a myth that you either have these skills or you don’t—which Meri Williams calls “the soft skills fairy.” But that’s like saying, “You can either code JavaScript or you can’t.” You didn’t […]