Some months ago another father in my son’s Scout troop learned that in addition to being a business consultant, I teach courses at the George Mason University School of Management.
“Oh yea,” he said. “You guys in the colleges teach all the hard skills – like management and finance and statistics. That’s good.”
There was a pause. I could see he was trying to put a good face on what he was about to say.
“But that’s not the really good stuff,” he continued with a sly grin. “You know, the important stuff, the soft skills. That’s what matters – the soft skills about how to really live.”
“The important stuff? The stuff that matters?” I asked.
It took a while for what he said to sink in. Yes, the soft stuff. The good stuff. He was talking about the lessons on how to live, not just how to work.
I began to think about what this father of several teenagers had said. He had gone on to add that he was working with his son to take an acting class. And to enroll him in some cooking lessons (which would be supplemented by camping with the Scouts). And of course, this dad was planning to have his son travel overseas.
Now I’ve been fortunate enough to know a few actors – some good ones. I know people who like the theater. And I even like opera (after all, I’m a graduate of Indiana University, which has a great music school). But I haven’t met a lot of dads who believe that acting classes will help junior find his way in the world and learn to “man up.”
So I thought about this some more.
I believe this father was right. Not only right, he was brilliant. It is the soft skills, the life skills, that give us a fighting chance to become successful. This father was not so concerned about love of theater, or even having some outside activities for his son. Dad was concerned about confidence. Dad was thinking of poise. Dad was wondering how best to teach his son the public speaking skills – and public presence – that would carry his son through the rest of his life.
How many of us know bright people – successful people – who simply go cold at the thought of having to speak to an audience?
How many of us really know how to cook for the boss, or to entertain, or to even hold the fork at that first job interview over lunch?
For that matter, how many of us know how to survive our first interview? And more importantly, how to behave in that all important conversation outside the interview – the awkward real conversation, the one with our prospective boss’s secretary, his peers on the golf course, or (gulp) the boss’s wife?
And what else don’t we know, or haven’t been taught?
How many of us, in some serious way, were taught how to work with the team at the office? Come to think of it, how often do our teams at work actually work at being a team? Dilbert wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t so true. Business schools actually do a great job working on team theory and skills. Biology majors? Not so much.
How many of your friends have any interest in international business, foreign affairs, or a foreign language? I admit, especially here in Washington, there is some definite interest. Outside the Beltway, it’s just not seen as relevant. And yet it is precisely those “foreign” affairs that now determine the unemployment rates of places like Yuma City, Fort Wayne, and Decatur, Illinois.
Ask yourself: How many of your fellow citizens truly understand the role of the American military? Who among us, outside the uniformed military, has studied military history or the thinking of our military leaders today on the proper use, and the limitations, of force? And yet, what was the single biggest contributor to our national debt during the past decade?
In my view, all that is the “soft” stuff. How to speak in public. How to interview for a job. How to get promoted. How to be successful in work. How to have a successful marriage. How to be a good citizen. How to think about issues of war in peace in the coming election. I contend that this is the important stuff that teaches us how to live in the world. And this is the hardest stuff to learn.
In my next blog I will look at some of the subjects that should be required lessons for this school of life.