Your most important skill set: It's not what you think

Your tech savvy and a Ph.D. can't compensate for a lack of this essential.


If you’re reading this, you’re interested in improving a skill set.
Or you’re my mom (who, I should add, is also interested in personal growth).
What is the most important skill that today’s tech-savvy, ultra-competitive, digital marketplace demands?
Depending on your field, there are certainly barriers to entry that you must overcome to even be considered. Engineering firms don’t hire painters to design bridges. Maybe a company insists on a college degree, even if it’s not really necessary.
But beyond those gates, there’s really only one indispensable skill. And it’s not new.

It’s the ability to relate well to people. Seth Godin calls this “emotional labor.”
It’s difficult, challenging work. What is emotional labor? Just a few components are:

  • You know how to smile and you do it often.
  • You listen, without interrupting, when someone is talking.
  • You can give eye contact without staring at your shoes.

Advanced tasks of emotional labor include:

  • Confronting someone with firmness and fairness, while not destroying their dignity
  • Negotiating
  • Going to a social event, alone, when you don’t know anyone

Emotional labor is equally important for introverts and extroverts and each will face their own unique challenges.
How important is it? A few years ago an author named Amy Chua wrote a book called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” where she vigorously critiqued American parents for producing a society of entitled wimps.
She had some good points. But Chua also revealed that she:

  • Wouldn’t let her kids go to slumber parties
  • Wouldn’t let them watch TV, play video games or make crafts
  • Forced her daughter to do 2,000 math problems a night when she came in second in a competition
  • Rejected her children’s birthday cards because they lacked excellence
  • Threatened to burn one of her daughter’s stuffed animals unless she played a piece of music perfectly

Columnist David Brooks pointed out that the great value in these allegedly throwaway activities is that they teach us how to relate to and thrive with others.
“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.
"Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms ... is really hard. … This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.”
No amount of skill can compensate for a disruptive, socially dysfunctional, volatile personality.
The great news is that, if we’re humble and teachable, we can all improve our relational skills.
We grow by doing, by confronting our social fears (we all have them), by persevering. By starting small, if need be.
At that next event where you don’t know anyone, head to an empty chair at a full table. “Can I join you?”
The adventure begins.