Over the last decade or so, science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) studies have been sold to students not just the key to career success, but as the only way to be competitive in the 21st Century. The result of this has been that public education, already restricted to teaching that which is tested, has shifted its focus to STEM subjects, at the expense of others. While there has been an arguably positive outcome of the focus on STEM (such as a push to get more girls interested in hard sciences, and more women in technology roles), this tunnel vision approach has been “a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do.”
This recent article from The Washington Post tells us that Google has finally figured out what many of us have known all along–that soft skills are more important than hard skills when it comes to career success. How often have you heard something like this: “Oh, he’s brilliant, but he has no social skills. He can’t carry on a conversation!”? Sheer intelligence or technical acumen will only get you so far, and as the study commissioned by Google reveals, neither will get you particularly far if not complemented with soft skills.
What are soft skills? They’re amorphous, fluid, hard to define, but easily recognizable. They’re things like empathy, compassion, communication, sharing, kindness. In short, they are the things that make us human. I’ve talked to thousands of people during the course of my career, and the number one thing that people want from their coworkers and managers is empathy. Technical knowledge does not even make it into the top three.
Technical knowledge is great, but it isn’t the only skill you need. Without the ability to work with people and to think critically, technical know-how is simply a commodity. In the real world, people work with people they like, not with the person who scored in the 99th percentile on the exam.
Study STEM if you like, but don’t feel that you must. Hard skills may open the door for you, but they alone will not carry you through your career. Historians, English majors, economists, artists, and social scientists, are all good at critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. STEM is a good path, but not the only or even best path for future jobs.