First, balance

The way we used to teach kids to ride bikes is all wrong. The trick is to get them, from a very young age, onto a balance bike so they can spend a year or two wooshing around by pushing the ground and, in the process, they slowly learn balance.

Image by Burley Bike

Then, when they’re ready, “learning to ride a bike” is just about being comfortable with a higher seat and learning to pedal.

Think how much harder we make it with training wheels: kids learn to ride and pedal, and, mile after mile, it’s reinforced that balance doesn’t matter at all. Then one day we take off the wheels and say, “keep riding this bike you’ve been on for years, you’ve just got to unlearn the not-balancing part.”

This kind of misdiagnosis happens every day in our grown-up life, only this time “balance”—the core skills we expect you to develop by unlearning all sorts of bad habits–are the long list of “soft” skills that are devalued by the very label.

Here’s a  starting list of the grown-up-skills equivalents of ‘balance’: a good attitude, not getting ruffled easily, apologizing in a genuine way, being deeply curious, willingness to hear and adjust to feedback, knowing how to consistently write in a professional but human way, being straight with people, caring, responsiveness, honesty, being in touch with your emotions at work, learning to say what you really think, demonstrating respect, disagreeing constructively, not overreacting to criticism, actually believing that, sometimes (even when you were positive you were right), it will turn out you were totally wrong and someone else was totally right, saying ‘let’s go for it’ even when you’re not sure it will work out.

Skills for this century

The deadline for applying for Seth Godin’s summer internship is tomorrow, May 31st.  And the last 15 applications will be discarded, so today is effectively the last day to apply.  It’s a two-week internship from July 22nd to August 2nd.  All the details are here.

I thought the skills Seth is looking for were pretty indicative of must-have skills for the next century, no matter what line of business you think you’re in.  Everyone doesn’t need all of them (though why wouldn’t you learn all of them at at least a minimal level, since today you can, easily)?

Still, it’s impossible to argue that anyone is allowed, any more, to have none of them.

Seth_internship skills

Basically, the list boils down to:

  • Coding
  • Design
  • Writing good copy
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing projects
  • Hustle

(I, too, give bonus points for Monty Python trivia but I’ll admit that feels a bit arbitrary.)

Not a bad list, though, sadly, it compares terribly to what we’re teaching in our schools (including business schools).

On this last point, if you have kids or you care about education, you really must watch Seth’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” talk at TEDxYouth.   And once the video inspires you, read and share Seth’s full manuscript with the parents and educators in your life.

Saving lunchtime

The other day I got lunch at Bowery Eats, a cooking supply store in Chelsea Market that also happens to have a sandwich bar.  My timing was terrible and when I got there at 1:20pm, there was a long line plus a stack of phoned-in orders.

Bowery EatsMore than 10 minutes passed and I still hadn’t gotten my Peter Parker wrap (avocado, warm portabella mushroom, lettuce, a bit of mozzarella, and vinaigrette on a spinach wrap).

10 minutes isn’t long, but it’s more than a couple of standard deviations away from the mean in terms of how long you expect to wait for a sandwich.  Plus, five people with higher order numbers than I had gotten their sandwiches, so I started to get antsy.  I asked the woman at the counter how things were coming, and if they’d lost track of my order.

That’s when things got interesting.  She smiled.  She went to the back to check on my order.  She explained that it was taking longer because they heat up the mushrooms in the oven.  She checked again a few minutes later.  And then, 15 minutes in (five minutes after I’d first asked how things were coming), she actually said to the staff, in Spanish, “I’m not going to put any more sandwiches out until we finish up Order 31.”

And, I swear, I hadn’t made a big fuss at all.

Because of her, not only was I not annoyed, I was impressed.  Her job description might appear to be taking orders, getting customers’ money, and giving them sandwiches, but she was a natural at knowing just what to say and how to say it, with a smile, to make me feel attended to.

This knack is something I look for in hiring fundraisers.  Sure they need storytelling skills and passion and empathy, they need a thick skin and a dogged determination and the ability to build relationships.  But all the truly great fundraisers I know are also….something that this woman had.   “Polite” is the word that comes to mind but that doesn’t capture it, though people who naturally have good manners have some of the trait I’m looking for.  It’s more an unspoken knack to let someone know that you see them, that you’re paying attention, that you are a concierge for them within your organization.

It’s not the easiest thing to test for, but after you conduct your interviews of your top candidates, you can take a step back and ask everyone who interacted with the interviewees: how did they make you feel?



(p.s. thanks to DC Foodrag for the picture)

Hard skills, soft skills, real skills

There’s a whole set of things that feel concrete and objective and are easiest to talk about: writing, financial modeling skills, project management, writing a decent PowerPoint deck, etc.

And then there a whole set of “softer” skills – skill in building relationships, how well you manage a meeting, whether or not you successfully deal with uncertainty.

And then the real biggies: Are you a great judge of talent? Do you consistently build trust?  Are you courageous?  Does your presence and do your actions make people better at their jobs?  Do you inspire people?

The challenge is that there’s an inverse relationship between how important a skill is for long-term success and how easy it feels to talk about it.

“You’re still not where you need to be in building a cash flow statement” feels safe.

“I’ve not seen you show consistent success in gaining a sense of shared ownership around your good ideas,” feels like emotional thin ice, so we don’t go there enough.

On some level we know that the second conversation is orders of magnitude more important than the first, but since it feels (inter)personal, less objective and harder to talk about, we avoid having it and stay in the safe (today) but dangerous (in the long-term) space of “stuff that you can learn in a textbook.”

Sooner or later, we have to learn how to talk about the real stuff.