A Hard ‘Soft’ Skill: Self-awareness is not evenly distributed.

Published in “Inside Higher Ed: Opinion Blog” by Matt Reed on July 18, 2022 

Friday’s Inside Higher Ed featured a thoughtful piece about a survey that measured how various “soft skills” are valued by employers. It’s well worth the read, though the soft skills it measured were pitched at a higher level of abstraction than I prefer. A term like “critical thinking” can mean so many different things to different people that what looks like a consensus around it could be a measurement error. 

Here’s an example of a more specific soft skill: How do you respond when a suggestion of yours is shot down in a meeting when you think you’re right? 

Navigating that situation successfully requires a combination of self-awareness and situational awareness. The latter is, in many ways, the easier part. After some time in a given setting, you can usually (not always …) predict how the boss will respond to an idea that lands sideways. But knowing how you will respond is harder. 

Self-awareness is a soft skill to the extent that it’s difficult to quantify. I’d guess that it’s only loosely correlated to formal education; my grandfather dropped out of the ninth grade and knew exactly who he was, and I’ve known people with graduate degrees who have no idea who they are. Self-awareness isn’t a fixed quantity, and it doesn’t especially lend itself to multiple-choice quizzes. But it makes a tremendous difference, particularly in higher-level positions. 

In a situation like the one above, knowing how to control your emotions can make a tremendous difference. And that control needs to work at two levels. External control is about managing how you come across to others: Do you blow up, silently seethe or shrug it off? Internal control is about managing to make good decisions even when your adrenaline is high. Can you manage to keep a long-term perspective even as your heart pounds in your chest? 

Admittedly, judging by some very powerful people, self-awareness isn’t a prerequisite for success. But it helps avoid disaster, and I think it’s likely to lead to more decent treatment of other people over time. I’ve reported to people who had it, and I’ve reported to people who didn’t. Given the option, I’ll take the former every single time. 

The classic role of classes in fields like history, literature and philosophy was to help students develop a sense of who they are and of how people behave. (I wish I could find the source, but there’s a great quote to the effect that the gift of historical study is gaining a sense of how things don’t happen.) In my own experience, I can report that taking identity-based classes about identities that are not my own was incredibly valuable. They pushed me to question things that I had thought were simply given and to reflect on some visceral reactions in hopes of changing them. It wasn’t always easy or fun, but it wasn’t supposed to be. If nothing else, they helped dislodge the illusion that there’s only one way of seeing the world. 

When I’ve hired for temperament as opposed to experience, I’ve never been disappointed. Yes, there’s a baseline of skill involved in many jobs, but it’s easy to overrate that. A narcissist may be intelligent and even talented, but you’ll never stop regretting that they’re around. Lack of experience is much easier to fix than lack of self-awareness. 

By Kai Kelley Jr. (he/him)
Kai Kelley Jr. (he/him) Assistant Director, Entertainment, Media & Arts Career Community