बुझ्नेलाई सिरिखण्ड नबुझ्नेलाई खुर्पाको बीड …
This popular Nepali proverb means, in other words, that if you have a diamond, it is only worth something to you if you recognize its value and put it to good use. If you don’t, the precious diamond is as good as a piece of rock. I learned this and many other pieces of proverbial wisdom when I was growing up in a small village about 20 kilometers outside the Kathmandu valley. I remember many small incidents from my village life. Back then, those …
…incidents did not mean anything deep to me. However, now many of those incidents have become management mantras to me. I am always amazed at how one can relate management theory to rudimentary learning in a village. I would like to recount one such incident that serves as a clear example of the importance of soft skills in our professional careers.When I was growing up, there were two 13-year-old village boys, Surya and Baadal, whom I knew very well and still do. Even though they were cousins, they had very different characters. In addition to his studies, Surya would spend time playing around, talking, joking, meeting new people, and debating and arguing with others. He would never give up and always wanted to have fun. Baadal, on the other hand, was serious, more focused on his studies, and considered it silly to be talking to people for no reason. Both of them did well in their studies.
I am going to recount an incident, which I vividly remember, that happened about 25 years ago. The two boys were attending a family wedding party, to which I was also invited, when their grandfather asked them to go up to each and every guest and introduce themselves. Surya, the extrovert, loved the opportunity, and did what his grandfather said almost immediately. Baadal, the introvert, did not like the idea, and excused himself after meeting a few guests. The boys’ grandfather summoned them after an hour or so and asked them to summarize what they had found out from the conversations with the people they had met. I, about 17 years old then, was watching the whole thing with great curiosity since I enjoyed seeing Surya saying “Namaste” and introducing himself to everyone at the party. I was sort of jealous of him because I did not get the opportunity to say hello. Then I said to myself, “Okay, he is not my grandfather and I am just an invitee here. Also I am not a kid any more!”
Surya, the extrovert, summarized his findings in three points:
1. I do not remember half of their names, but I made sure they remembered mine
2. Some of them thought I was a crazy kid but I still didn’t stop
3. They were all having fun and loved being at the wedding party.
Baadal, the introvert, who had hardly met 10% of the crowd, summarized his findings quite differently. Here is what he had to say:
1. The crowd was very noisy
2. Some of them were talking about how bad the food was
3. Some of them thought Surya was a silly kid.
Look at the differences in their analyses. Surya was not only an “extrovert,” but also a better observer, positive thinker, and a better summarizer. Furthermore, he had a “don’t give up” attitude toward the task. Baadal, on the other hand, picked up a lot of negatives and put all guests in the same category without finishing his work.
Only much later did I realize that these two boys portrayed two very different personalities and attitudes. And it took me several years to understand their grandfather’s reply to them. He said “Drishya Dristikon Ma Bhar Parchha,” which in English means what you see depends on how you see it. He went on saying, “I am not trying to pick negatives here, boys. Try to learn from every step you take and learn to make yourself distinct and clear to others, because what is important is how others see you rather than how you see yourselves.” I did not understand what he meant then and I am sure those kids didn’t either. But the way he lectured his grandchildren was very powerful and left a lasting impression on me.
As I think more about those kids (both of them are adults now). I am reminded of two different kinds of skill sets: soft skills and hard skills. Many of us do not worry about soft skills, but are eager to acquire hard skills which can be quantified. Before explaining the importance of soft and hard skills, I would like to recount how those two boys are faring today.
They continue to reflect and possess their childhood characteristics to a large extent. The ‘introvert’ is now a medical doctor and the ‘extrovert’ has made it big after several business failures.
It was an easy path for Baadal, the introvert, as he continued to do very well in school and got a scholarship to do his M.D. He opened up a clinic and happily settled down. He now has good earnings, and he still does not care about others. He sees his patients only because he has to earn a living and because it is his job. Overall, Baadal does not like associating with other people and has a pompous nature. He is proud of what he is and his arrogance has not changed. He blames everyone but himself for what is currently happening in Nepal. 2
Surya, the extrovert, graduated from an average college, but always remained outgoing, soft spoken, and adventurous. At the age of 22, he started a business by borrowing money from his grandfather, but managed to lose it all. However, his grandfather asked him not to give up. After three different failed ventures, he had the bright idea of establishing a western style cleaning service. He started the business by borrowing Rs. 10,000 (which was then US $ 3,000) from one of his friends. It was so successful that in three years he became a wealthy businessman, the owner of a large service company with over a thousand employees.
A couple of years ago, I met both of them at a party. Baadal does not like his cousin’s business because he thinks his cousin is exploiting workers. I found it hard to believe that he still picks the negatives and complains like he did 25 years ago. Baadal does not like the fact that his cousin, with little success in college, is a hundred times richer than him. He blames the system and believes that smart people in this country are undervalued. Again, I was astonished by Baadal’s rude comment. After all, who is the smarter one here – the doctor or the entrepreneur?
These two cousins reflect two different personalities that we see all over the world today – from a little village in Nepal to big and glamorous cities in the U.S. We often find people enriched with either soft skills, hard skills, or in select cases, both. There are many with hard skills because that’s what we learn at home and in most of the schools. We are used to measuring things up. Parents measure their child by the grades they score rather than by the things they learn that are important in life. Colleges select students based on their SAT/GRE scores and GPAs rather than by the soft skills they possess. We all judge people accordingly because we, too, were once measured like that and are used to such quantitative measurement.
What, then, are soft skills? They are very difficult to define, and almost impossible to measure. But, we can instantly recognize a person with great “soft” skills. Some of the soft skills that people appreciate are: the willingness to take risks, positive thinking, a great sense of humor, the ability to step up in emergency and critical situations, effective communication skills (tone and body language), the willingness to participate in discussions in areas outside of core competencies, the ability to mix up and communicate with people other than regular buddies, the ability to get tough, the ability to express frustrations and excitement openly, and so on. These skills are not necessary to get good grades in school, but are of paramount importance in the overall development of a person.
How are we to acquire soft skills? Some people have them at birth, some learn from their parents and friends, and some acquire them in their workplaces, whereas some never do. And it is never too late to learn these skills. There are opportunities every minute in our lives to hone our soft skills, starting from a meeting room to the dinner table.
Recently, I was talking to one of the elder family friends of Surya and Baadal. I took the opportunity to learn more about their childhood (when they were 5 to 15 years of age). The revelations were interesting.
Surya was raised by his mother because his father passed away when he was five, whereas Baadal was raised by both his parents. Surya was one among five children his mother had, while Baadal was the only child of his parents. Baadal had a very protected and pampered childhood. His parents would fulfill his every demand (note that demands were not of helicopter rides from Boston suburbs to Las Vegas, as he was from a middle class village family). His parents would not let him hang out with neighborhood kids and would always take pride that their son was a top notch student in his class. The special treatment Baadal got led him to believe that he had access to privileges that others in the village did not have. Surya, however, always sounded smarter when people outside the school talked to him. Relatives were surprised that he was not doing as well as Baadal in school. Surya’s mother would ask her kids to treat everyone with respect, and loved seeing her kids play with neighborhood children. She also made it clear that she had limited resources and would not be able to fulfill each of their demands. She used to tell her kids that to succeed they had to be a good and likable person. She always reminded them that their father was one of the best in the village when it came to making money and helping villagers, even though he did not have a city education like some of his contemporaries did. She had seen people failing in life because of the lack of social skills in spite of a great educational background. She always emphasized the need of speaking up and trying new and different things because one never knows what one ends up doing in life. Thanks to his upbringing, Surya started to ponder more and more about these things through his adolescence. It became clear to him that there was more out there than what he could learn in school. Baadal had his entire world inside his text book. This summary made me understand why Surya could not do as well as Baadal in school, though he was smarter than his cousin.
This issue of hard skills and soft skills becomes even more relevant among those with a strong technical education (particularly engineers and medical doctors). In the last 26 years of my career, it has become very clear to me that 90% (maybe) of technical graduates come out of school lacking significant “soft” skills. Yet, they do not realize their shortcomings since no one reminds them of the need for “soft” skills. These techies are usually singing their own songs and reading their own books. The question is – can they go back to their childhoods and do the kind of analysis I did here for Surya and Baadal? However, you cannot always relate things back to your childhood and adolescence. Many people change during their high school and college education because technical schools tend to carve them up to certain “hard” skills. I have seen this among many of my friends.
We want the best of Surya and Baadal. Surya was an extrovert and Baadal was focused. Can you be both focused and an extrovert? Yes. Surya could have been asked to focus on getting good grades in school while also being told of the importance of knowing things that go on outside of school. Soft skills can be acquired while traveling and eating, while playing and while attending school, and even while reading books. Surya’s mother did not have that idea. Surya finally succeeded on the lesson of his grandfather, but he could have failed miserably and never achieved anything. One lesson – never give up – from his grandfather really helped him. “Not to give up” is the equivalent to getting focused. Surya was sort of lost, not knowing how to prioritize, during his adolescence. That problem persisted a few years after college, until his grandfather asked him not to give up, and advised him to take one thing that he had started and see it to completion.
Baadal could have done as well as Surya if he had some of Surya’s skill sets. Baadal is too scared to make mistakes and taking chances is not in his book. He continues to follow that lesson even today, and he pretends to be happy about his achievements. But he is not. A happy person always has some appreciation for others and always has good things to say to others. They also always see opportunities for improvement. All these things are sorely missing in Baadal’s life.
If we shape ourselves to the best of Surya and Baadal, we can have not only enjoy the moment but also come out as winners every day. There is a battle in every minute of our lives, and winning or losing it depends on one’s attitude. There is a saying in Nepali, “Ek Thakkar Chaudha Buddhi,” which, in English, means you can learn 14 tricks for every blow you receive. Those 14 tricks are not ready made for us. We have to possess the skills to grasp them. Surya learned from his grandfather how to learn from mistakes. He once mentioned to me that those who have the skill to carefully analyze their mistakes and extract lessons from them will definitely come out victorious. He also said to me that those who become arrogant after some success eventually deprive themselves from even more success in the future. He further reiterated that the quest for success does not guarantee success if you do not have patience, the willingness to take risks, a strong belief in yourself and in what you are doing, respect and appreciation for others and a determination to work hard.
I constantly refer back to things that I have learned from Surya and Baadal. I have great appreciation for them both for what they have accomplished, and I am grateful to them for sharing their feelings with me. Hats off to Surya for his entrepreneurship and to Baadal for his focus and determination! And let us learn lessons from their lives, mistakes, and careers.