Soft Skills Are Just Skills

Alex Hormozi used to believe it takes three things to make a successful entrepreneur: skills, character traits, and beliefs. After thinking about it more, however, he simplified his model down to just two dimensions: skills and beliefs. Why? Because character traits are just more skills.

“Patience,” Alex says, “is just a general term for lots of little skills. If you want to become more patient, you want to do things that patient people do. [But] if I can train someone to become more patient, then patience is a skill.”

When someone is blocking you in traffic, you can choose to honk or choose to wait in silence. Every time you wait it out, you’ve exercised patience — and that reinforces your “general attitude” of patience. It makes it easier to be patient the next time you check out at the grocery store as well. So actually, your attitude is a skill that gets put to the test whenever patience is required, and, like any skill, the more often you use it, the easier it becomes to use it again.

Therefore, when we describe someone as “a patient person,” all we are really saying is that they have demonstrated patience in thousands of situations. Some big, most of them small. That gives us confidence in that person’s ability to further demonstrate patience, and we communicate that confidence — be it in their ability to wait, persist, or pay attention to the little things — by describing people’s “character traits.” It’s nothing more than an efficient way of talking about complex skills.

Patience is a more complex skill than Excel because while Excel is limited in its albeit large functionality, patience is not. It applies in an infinite number of scenarios. In order to not have to list 17 different examples each time we want to say that someone is good at not losing their temper and therefore a great pick for a job as a mediator, we just lump all the times they’ve shown restraint together and call it “patience.”

When needed, we can always be more specific. “She is really patient with kids.” “He is patient in answering questions.” “They are patient drivers.” It’s much easier to zone in again on particular scenarios we want to stress while using the umbrella term than to explain someone’s life story to sell the idea that, “Hey, since this person stayed calm in situations A, B, C, D, and E, they’re also likely to keep their cool in scenario F.”

Since it is so efficient and ever-present — after all, which HR department does not ask “character trait”-related questions — you probably won’t get around this labeling issue entirely, but it helps to remember that, at the end of the day, attitudes are just complex sets of many little skills. Those sets might be harder to measure than how long it takes someone to design a logo, but they are measurable — and trainable — nonetheless.

“Hard skills are just skills that are easy to measure,” Alex says. “Soft skills are just hard to measure. But they’re both 100% skills that you can train and improve.”

“If we say, ‘Man, I wish that guy had better people skills,’ what we mean is a hundred micro skills. ‘I wish you would smile when someone walked into the room.’ Can I train someone to do that? Absolutely. ‘I wish you would greet someone by their first name immediately every time they walk in the door.’ Boom. That’s trainable. ‘I wish you wouldn’t interrupt.’ Well, we can give someone a cookie every time they don’t interrupt someone and let them finish their statement, and then we train them.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the value of looking at self-awareness as a cognitive state rather than a character trait. “The difference between self-awareness as a steady set of ideas about yourself and a cognitive state you can practice is the same as the difference between knowledge and intelligence: one leads to a never-ending struggle for more, the other provides a daily standard that’s possible to live up to.”

Even more importantly, however, when you look at soft skills as just skills, not god-given talents you may or may not have won in the genetics-and-nurturing lottery, that opens the door to you believing they can be acquired by anyone — even you — at any age, in the first place.

Instead of forever lamenting your lack of creativity, you can start with one tweet a day and take it from there. Rather than settling for “your grumpy nature,” you can begin making an effort to smile when people pass you in the office. And as opposed to writing “bad temper” on your secret, internal résumé, you can hold on to your video game controller after falling into the same tar pit for the seventh time.

At the end of the day, almost everything can be learned. Life happens in our actions, not in our heads. Soft skills are just skills, and if you break them down into the tiny behaviors they consist of, you can learn patience, resolve, and kindness the same way you might learn to drive a car, write a book, or cook a mean lasagna: with lots and lots of practice.

Trust the process, have faith in yourself, and when, one day, someone calls you “a beacon of patience,” all you’ll remember is that you chose not to honk in traffic this morning — and that if it comes to it, you’ll make the same choice again in the afternoon.