For all of you who are career go-getters, have you ever considered what makes you valuable in the workplace? What about the skills that you weren’t necessarily taught in a traditional classroom setting?
Throughout my academic career, I’ve learned and gained a lot from being inside the classroom. The structured learning environment of a classroom taught me hard skills in math and science and how to follow instructions, but these are totally different from the skills I gained outside of it. And although many Americans believe our schools should be doing a better job of teaching soft skills, most schools don’t.
If you’re in the job market, you’ve probably heard more and more that “soft skills,” and interpersonal skills are heavily sought after by employers. Upon reflection, I’ve discovered that many of these skills I developed through my experiences in extracurriculars and other opportunities outside the classroom.
In response to this, I’ve compiled a list of eight of the most valuable soft skills I’ve gained throughout the years that I didn’t learn from simply sitting in a classroom.
1. Managing conflict and collaboration
In any position, being able to work with people in a productive, collaborative manner and manage conflict with others is an invaluable asset. This is something that I learned through more exposure to working with different groups of people in various positions, and only through doing that did I understand the actions of this skill may look different in every position you take. Many of these skills I acquired as part of a student-run public relations firm and as a teaching assistant where I frequently ran into many differing opinions, attitudes, and conflicts that I had to manage and resolve.
In the PR firm, I got to see both sides of the roles of being the supporting general member, and as the account executive, a.k.a. the leader. In these roles, I had to work with everyone on my team in order to do something for our client. I not only had to collaborate and manage conflict within my own team, but as an account executive, I also had to communicate with my client and manage conflict with them. Whether it was adapting a graphic they didn’t like or changing our phrasing in an ad, I had to help find the best solution. This experience taught me what productive collaboration truly is: working with others to achieve a common goal.
In my position as a teaching assistant, I had to work with the rest of the teaching staff to come up with the best solutions to problems students dealt with, any scheduling issues, and how to best teach course material. I had 22 of my own students to teach and mentor in break-out sessions, and it was this position that best taught me how to manage conflict. In both of these positions, I found that in managing conflict and collaboration, patience, open-mindedness, and adaptability were always key.
As I began dipping my toe into the professional world, professionals and my professors alike kept repeating that students like myself need to go out and network. I nodded my head and smiled as if I knew what that meant.
In my sophomore year of college, I joined a pre-professional organization for my major, and in my first meeting, I walked into a room full of people I didn’t recognize, and the members of the executive board talked about professional development. I was terrified. I felt so out of place and in over my head. They kept saying the word “networking” over and over and horror washed over me when I realized I honestly didn’t even entirely understand what that looked like or how to do it.
I began to understand that networking is making meaningful connections with people professionally. Though petrified, I decided that this was something that I had to figure out on my own, and realized my classroom experience wasn’t going to be the place to truly learn this. I had to just do it.
As an introvert, it can be nerve-wracking for me to start conversations with people and market myself, but I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to become more familiar with the unfamiliar. I kept doing these things until I felt significantly more comfortable sticking my hand out for a handshake and giving an elevator pitch. This was a skill I could’ve only attained from just going out there and physically doing it and practicing until it became second nature.
Do you ever feel like maybe you’re not creative enough? Me too. The good news is that there’s a creative in everyone—it may just be in hiding. There are ways that we can find our inner creativity.
How do you learn creativity? A lot of my creativity had to be honed in my free time, where I put energy into things like reading, writing, watching TED Talks, and teaching myself new skills. After joining the high school yearbook staff, I ended up getting really into photography and graphic design. My brother gave me a hand-me-down DSLR and I ran around everywhere with it, practicing framing and composition. The world seemed so much more fascinating through a camera lens; I saw minute details that I used to miss because I became more aware of detail. I tried my hand at designing things. I came up with some of my best writing ideas, projects, and even videos I made with a friend.
I think one of the keys to creativity is finding something that inspires you and makes you happy, and giving yourself the freedom and space to allow it. When you surround yourself with things that inspire you and you give yourself permission to consider the thoughts you usually push away as ridiculous or unimportant, you free yourself from limitations, and in this, you may find some of your creativity.
Being tasked with leading a group of my peers was daunting at first. I wondered why they trusted me with that task when I felt in over my head, but soon it became clear. My advisors saw something in me that indicated I could handle seeing the full picture while directing people and also collaborating. But I only realized that because I was in that situation to begin with; otherwise, I would’ve never discovered my leadership skills. It also taught me what my idea of leadership even is. In leading a team, I always consider what each member’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests are, so that I can best delegate tasks.
Perhaps gaining leadership skills means running for leadership positions in organizations you’re in, or asking your manager for more responsibilities where you would be leading. Perhaps volunteering for a nonprofit could help you gain some leadership experience. Even just working on a personal project for fun with family and friends could give you some experience in delegating.
5. Project management
People always talk about time management, but I don’t think project management gets enough attention. Project management has been defined in multiple ways, but to me, it encompasses the acts of organizing, managing, monitoring a project with a certain goal in mind, and typically also includes managing a team. This is a skill that requires a detail-oriented eye to check for quality and an understanding of time and budget constraints while also being able to see the big picture.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely did not learn this from a class. Perhaps there are business classes out there that teach these skills that I haven’t taken, but I learned this from taking the lead in ongoing projects. I learned from taking on opportunities where I got to take the lead on projects and had to implement the tactics that make up project management such as creating my own website, creating content and PR plans for clients, or my projects making videos. These experiences have taught me how to boost team morale, best use our skills, and how to communicate with clients to meet their wants and needs, as well as providing them work on schedule.
If you don’t have much project management experience yet, you could start small by running your own projects. See how much time and money you could save in a project for work or on a personal project and figure out the best way to achieve efficiency and quality.
6. Emotional intelligence
Do you keep hearing people say “read the room?” That’s an aspect of emotional intelligence, which I define as being how you handle interpersonal relationships and generally, just having empathy. It allows us to truly relate to others and understand their experiences and feel their emotions, both of which help us to communicate more effectively and make us kinder people. Personally, I think it’s just important for being a solid person.
Employers want workers with high emotional intelligence because it means they’re more self-aware, better at problem-solving, and are empathetic. This translates into being employees that people want in their office.
Personally, I genuinely think I gained a lot of emotional intelligence early on in life from reading so much as a child. I was able to put myself in the characters’ shoes and experience what they saw and felt. As I got older, I met more people who broadened my view and challenged me, and I always made an effort to see from their perspective. I also spent some time doing CBT—cognitive behavioral therapy—which really helped with learning self-awareness. If you feel like maybe you could use some work on learning how to be more empathetic or increase your emotional intelligence, it’s been shown that we can always practice increasing our emotional intelligence.
7. Communication skills
Small talk is such an underrated skill. Have you ever sat in the chair at the hairdressers or at a doctor’s appointment and it’s just… silent? Like there’s this weird tension because neither of you knows what to say? It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. I had quite a few of those experiences as a self-proclaimed extremely shy, awkward child, and I only got better and more sociable with increased exposure to talking to others (and the help of some extroverted friends at first). Communication is a skill that can always be improved.
If you’re like me and breaking the ice sometimes makes you nervous, remember: people love talking about themselves. If you don’t know what to say and don’t want to use the old weather small talk, ask them a question about themselves! Even paying someone a compliment like, “Hey, I love your top,” can go such a long way. If you’re going to an event where you know you’ll be mingling with people, you could even rehearse some icebreakers to help you feel more comfortable.
Another skill I think people don’t practice enough in conversation is active listening. Do you ever find yourself in conversations half-listening to someone and spending their time talking, crafting what you’re trying to say next in your head? We’re all guilty of it from time to time, I think. Rather than listening to respond, you should instead listen to understand, while paying attention to others’ body language as well. Your responses will likely be much more thoughtful and heartfelt and this will really help in communicating with others.
8. Public speaking
The dreaded public speaking. Clammy hands, a racing heart, and aggressively fast speech rate are my personal symptoms.
I don’t think I actually even got remotely comfortable being able to stand in front of even a small group of people to say anything until I became a TA. Getting the attention of college underclassmen who don’t care about a class they might’ve been taking to fulfill a general education requirement was sometimes a feat, and getting a laugh out of them was impressive. But this experience forced me to become more confident with an act that originally terrified me and left my knees shaking and voice wobbling.
Public speaking is a skill that requires lots of practice and exposure, and something I found to be incredibly helpful is recording a video of yourself presenting something, and then critiquing it. You could set up your phone and give a little presentation by yourself, or if you have a friend or family member do it (even better). By doing this, you get a grasp on how you look, some habits you might not even be aware that you have, and your presentation style. It’s amazing how many filler words we humans use when we’re nervous and not paying attention to it. It’s also a good idea to go in with a clear idea of what you’re presenting; every presentation is like a story. And every story requires a beginning, middle, and end to help guide the audience. With public speaking, practice is key and it’s never too late to learn!