When I was 13 I started my first band. From the age of 10 I was really into rock, heavy metal and any other guitarcentric genre of music. One of the teachers at my school heard one of our songs and asked what type of music we were playing. I responded; “We play neo-classical, speed, heavy rock!”. I was serious! This was what we were playing! But the teacher just looked confused and said; “It sounds like rock music.”
“Wait a minute! This sounds like Rock and or roll!”
I quickly learnt that it didn’t really matter what category people put our music in as long as they enjoyed listening to it. What did matter however was being put in a box. When certain people learnt that we made “rock music” they were reluctant to come and hear us play or come to any of our gigs. It was hard to explain to people that we were influenced by jazz, heavy metal, neo-classical music as well as good old fashioned rock and roll. It was clear that a negative cognitive bias had already sunk in and there was no way of persuading some people otherwise.
The last time I was in a bookstore was over a year ago (I buy all my books online), but the visit left me dazed and confused because of this very reason. I wanted to get a book that discusses how to design a business so that in effect, you have no competition (Blue Ocean Strategy – highly recommended if you’re into this kind of stuff!). After walking around for ages and not finding it, a member of the staff took me to the “self development” section. It was there! Looking around this part of the store, I was shocked…I had inadvertently read a ton of books from this section. But as far as I was concerned none of these books were “self development” books. In my mind self development 99% of the time is some “guru” telling you that anything is possible and motivating you to get off your butt. I know that a lot of people also view self-development in this way. But how can learning about business models, learning about how to make money, learning how to be more charismatic by studying the greats, how to get better at speed reading or public speaking be considered self development? It’s the same reason the music I like to play is considered “rock music”.
Me, (not) playing “rock music”
It seems that “self development” is a catch-all category. The result is that some awesome life changing books which can teach people important skills to live a good life are being lumped together with books which just try to motivate you a little. Some well respected books are being lumped together with (let’s face it) garbage. How can something like the Blue Ocean Strategy be in the same section as “The 7 Secrets of Awakening the Highly Effective Four-Hour Giant, Today“?
I started to wonder why certain books were being dumped in the self development section and it made me realise that it’s because people don’t know how else to categorise these books. If people want to learn about how to become a better leader or become more charismatic then where else could you put such a book?
The main reason why this irritated me so much was because of the implication that certain skills can’t be learnt or that certain subjects are so “soft” that they might as well be dumped in this undefined category. How did this come about? It’s because traditionally society favours so-called “hard subjects” such as science and math much more than “soft subjects”. It doesn’t matter how much science there is behind certain topics. Because they’re not science or maths in the strictest sense they are regarded as less important and to a certain extent illegitimate.
I would argue that “soft subjects” and “soft skills” are some of the most important skills to attain. I am sure we have all met that computer nerd who is a genius when in his bedroom, but then when you put that person into a social situation they’re just plain odd. How can someone like this be expected to lead a team or work well with others? Soft skills such as speaking freely, being honest, resonating with people, being caring, changing oneself when necessary, a willingness to see peoples true selves are the most valuable skills nowadays, especially since “hard skills” are being automated and therefore have become less valuable to the market.
I think “hard skills” are more favoured by society as they are more easily measurable. Usually we measure “hard skills” as “number of correct tasks done” plotted against “time”. It’s supposedly much more difficult to measure things such as leadership and empathy. However, books such as Good to Great by Jim Collins (which has a lot of science and research behind it!) prove that traditional metrics such as economic growth increase when people concentrate on “soft skills”. It’s just that these “soft skills” don’t have an immediate observable impact and the traditional metrics don’t reflect what really happens behind the scenes when “soft skills” are applied.
Often in peoples professional lives, when they receive criticism, they mistake this feedback as a critique of their “hard skills”. But most of the time when people get criticism at work, a large part of the negative feedback is actually because of their “soft skills”. However, due to a reluctance to acknowledge this – both by the person giving the the critique and the person receiving it – it is often dismissed as nonsense. A lot of the complaints doctors or nurses receive is of this type, but due to the medical world being so obsessed with science and hard cold facts, patient feedback is often dismissed as a waste of time.
Another reason I think that people have a negative cognitive bias towards these “soft skills” is because they aren’t traditionally taught at schools and therefore people think that certain skills aren’t learnable. I can’t even imagine a lesson about social interactions, how to communicate emotions or how to gain more confidence in yourself being taught at school. I am sure that if maths wasn’t taught at school, we would bump into someone who was good at it from time to time. We may come to the false conclusion that they just have a natural ability for the subject (in the same way that we may believe some people are just natural born leaders). It would be incorrect however to believe that maths cannot be taught. Of course some people have a higher natural aptitude, but we can all get better at it. The same is true of these “soft skills”, but most people haven’t realised.
If it were up to me I would re-categoriese the good “self development” books and put them under the “skills which weren’t taught at school, but which are learnable (even though you may not initially believe so) and over time will have a massive positive impact in your life” section. I know, not as catchy, but at least this way we can hope that less people would be deterred from reading some really great books.