I learn new words and phrases every day. One phrase I learned not so long ago is “soft skills.” Now whenever I use a new word I take a chance on using it wrong, so I will beg your forgiveness in advance just in case I do. As I understand it, the phrase “soft skills” encapsulates the set of things that my daddy would’ve referred to as “knowing how to keep a job.”
You see, when people hire you, they aren’t hiring you because you are smart or a good person or nice or pretty--okay some might be hiring you because you’re pretty. For the most part, they are hiring you because they want a job done. They will be giving you money so you can take part in an activity that will make them money. It’s the way the world works.
This means you are going to have to show up; this means you need to be on time; this means you are going to have to do what you are told.
If you don’t like it, then I suggest that you become the boss. The trouble with this is that, likely as not, the boss got to be the boss by being the first one there and the last to leave...or marrying his boss’s daughter, but I digress.
In any case, these soft skills are very important because if the boss needs something done you likely can’t do it when you are still in bed--unless you’ve decided to pursue success through other means, but there I go digressing again.
As a teacher, I am paid to teach the “hard skills” as opposed to the “soft skills.” At the university, we teach wood technology and writing; art and accounting; physics and physical education. But tied in up the details of that are the soft skills.
I grew up with the myth that Einstein didn’t go to class. That may have been true; I don’t know. The effect it had on me was to be relaxed in my attitude toward those attending my classes. If they figured they could learn it as well without me, then I figured they were grown-ups and could make that decision themselves. This was reinforced by the encouragement “don’t be the sage on the stage; be the guide on the side.” This is the belief held by some that students don’t learn very well through lectures. I’ve heard this again and again--in lectures.
What I’ve discovered over the years is that, while there are students who manage to get good grades while only coming to class occasionally, most of the successful ones show up every day. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this is because I can magically pour knowledge in a kid’s brain if he is in the same room with me. I think that it’s because if he can haul his body out of bed everyday and drag it to class to have a bunch of math thrown at him that at least two things are going on.
Page 2 of 2 - The first of these is that he’s made a decision that school is a priority. The second is that he has learned the soft skill of showing up.
The soft skills are actually an indicator of some other things that have gone on in a person’s life. I am sure there is a scientific way to put this, but down home we would say that the young person “had been raised.” This means that as a child they’d not simply been given birth to and fed a Big Mac every once in awhile. It means that they were part of a family, were taught right from wrong, were taught responsibility. It means they formed bonds of respect with members of their family. And..I mention this last because it might be most important...they were taught to delay gratification.
Oh, yes, that. Back in 1967, the Doors did a song called “When the Music’s Over” in which they declared, “We want the world and we want it NOW.” It’s not gotten any better since then.
I will speak to my own subject and let others speak for theirs, but learning mathematics requires that you delay gratification sometimes until you are dead. It takes an odd sort of duck to be gratified by what we do. Just saying. Many times the gratification comes when you realize you’ll never have to take that class again because you finally passed it. It can be a good feeling, and I do my best to make it that way. (If this were an email, I would’ve put a little smiley there to let you know it was a joke. It’s part of that delayed gratification thing.)
Quite frankly, if you’ve mastered delaying gratification, the world is your oyster because it is the key to learning, to working, to making money, to saving money, and, in quite a large number of cases, to a happy life. It is a soft skill. I can reward it in the classroom, but it must be learned at home. That means you, Mom and Dad.
Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com.