Jessica Watkins is a 31-year-old, unassuming, small-framed geologist with an easy smile and former member of a Division I national champion rugby team. She is many things, including an astronaut-in-training, but she’s not a pilot…yet.
When NASA selected her from a field of 1,800 applicants to be one of 13 individuals being trained for possible space travel to destinations like the Moon and Mars, how well she could handle a jet did not top the list of preferred competencies. She was chosen for her soft skills.
“The ability to work in a team is something that’s increasingly important, especially for long-duration space flights,” she said, “especially to Mars, which is a two-year mission. You want to like the other three people!”
If your job requires you to speak Russian, spacewalk, recycle your urine or fly a Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic jet, NASA figures it can teach you these things. But being able to keep a level head in stressful situations is highly valued.
Soft skills include the ability to think creatively, communicate clearly, act ethically, demonstrate flexibility, show respect, have a positive attitude and build trust. But, because we call them “soft skills,” in the past, they may not have gotten the same respect as “hard skills,” which are teachable and measurable, like operating a giant robot arm while orbiting the Earth at five miles per second.
Nonetheless, in a 2015 TEDx Talk, Muskegon Community College philosophy instructor Andy Wible of Michigan explained, “These are the skills we need to navigate the 21st century.”
Turns out research shows we choose our cars, services and employees because of qualities we like. Leadership expert, motivational speaker and author of “Start with Why,” Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
Sinek says there are a lot of companies that make computers, electronic readers and smart phones, but the Apple brand is associated with quality. Consumer habits, as well as how long we’re willing to wait for an Apple tech at the Genius Bar, clearly show how much we like that.
Hard skills are things we learn; soft skills are things we practice, and just because they’re soft doesn’t mean they’re easy. For example, we hear a lot about the importance of listening. Sitting still and staring at people while they are talking is not necessarily listening. Ears are important, but listening requires full body engagement. Eye contact, an alert brain, open body language, focus, facial expressions and verbal feedback are all part of it.
Being in the moment is how we know we are truly listening. This definitely requires practice. I suggest surfing. When a wave is coming your way, you are listening, you are paying attention, your body is responding. You’re probably not thinking about your grocery list or checking Instagram.
Sinek also said, “We follow those who lead because we want to.”
Basically, we want to work for and with people who are likeable. One of the simplest ways to become more likeable is to smile. If smiling is not natural for you, try holding a pencil horizontally in your teeth. Research shows that you can trick your body (and others) into believing you are smiling by merely using those facial muscles. You can force yourself to be happy!
Whether in space or on Earth, being great at human interaction is a highly desirable trait. And, so far, if you’re good at soft skills, a robot can’t take your place, even if it’s holding a pencil in its teeth. QCBN
By Bonnie Stevens
Bonnie Stevens is a public relations consultant. She can be reached at email@example.com