Soft skills

posted 09 February 2006

I hated them the moment I saw them.

Sitting together on an early morning tube, her hand enveloped in his as she lay her head on his shoulder. They were pretty in the way that plain people who've had a lifetime of excellent food, little stress and expensive dentistry can be pretty: not naturally striking, but looking as good as someone with their features could possibly look: healthy, well-scrubbed, full of youth. She was thin and dirty blonde, with heavy eye makeup that was carelessly applied. He had mousy brown hair in a carefully-cultivated shaggy mop reaching to his chin.

Without seeing more than their faces, I already knew who I was looking at, but a more careful examination revealed more details. His crumpled suit was very expensive, and peeking out from one of his unbuttoned cuffs was a beautiful and clearly expensive watch of sleek, modern design. Then another member of the same species boarded the train: this one tall, with more faux-shaggy black hair and designer stubble. He knew the pair, greeted them, and they had a brief conversation: "where are you working these days?" "Kensington," said one, "Bank," the other. Where they worked merely added further weight, but their voices confirmed it. The children of privilege, living a selectively bohemian existence in north London, waiting for their careers to take off.

These are not "spoiled rich kids." I dislike that kind too, but this kind are more subtle. They don't live off daddy's money: they just know that it's there, in case they get into real trouble. When they need some medical treatment it'll be on daddy's insurance, and the best quality money can buy. They may be taking the tube to work, but they're wearing expensive cologne they got for christmas and wearing the expensive suit that mother bought for them as well. They don't need daddy's money; they have all the trappings of wealth.

I didn't hate them personally. I'm sure if we met we'd probably get on quite well. I hate what they stand for, the culture they represent. The fact that we'd get along just makes it worse. I hate their understated self-confidence, the rock solid underpinnings of their self-assurance that come from living amongst a whole culture of people who are In Charge. It gives them an attitude, a posture and a tone of voice that will propel them effortlessly through their careers, putting them in charge of people who are smarter and better-qualified than they are who will nevertheless be grateful to have them. Because they have soft skills. People who are promoting them won't have consciously noticed the nice suit, the expensive watch, the cared-for skin, but the way these things combine into an almost visible glow of success is what guarantees them a successful career.

I hate the way the culture you grow up in is one of the best predictors of your future success, over and above your intelligence, education or will to succeed. I hate the way knowing the right person will get you further than being the right person ever could. I loathe the way that they will probably never consciously realise that this is why their life sails along so easily. But above all, I hate the possibility that I may be one of them.

I hate the whole concept of soft skills. I hate even more the way physical possessions subtly affect our interactions with each other. The ability to speak eloquently, to override disagreements with whithering sarcasm or well-timed wit, the cheerful self-confidence of the born manager all irritate me enormously. Because you can't be taught these skills, you can't even really hope to acquire them. You either grew up in an environment where you developed them naturally, or the chances are low that they will ever come to you.

It makes a mockery of all the time and effort I have invested in acquiring my hard, technical skills to know that someone lacking them but better able to communicate their success could overtake me. But even worse is the sneaking suspicion that I may have let myself use these black gifts of persuasion and influence. The nagging doubt at the back of my mind that maybe I'm not as good as I believe I am, maybe I'm just good at telling people how good I am. That doubt poisons my satisfaction whenever somebody thanks me for a job well done or mentions my hard work.

The very existence of these people devalues my own hard-won skills and makes me doubt their authenticity. I hate them of because of the parts of myself I see in them. I hate them because they make me feel like a fake.

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