Learning on the Job: How to Build Soft Skills

When I was about to graduate from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Majoring in English had been challenging and rewarding, but left me with far fewer “technical” skills than my business or pre-med classmates. Sure, I had learned how to crank out research papers, juggle three different novels at the same time, and somehow cull together study guides from quirky professor’s rambling lectures… but what good would that do in the professional world? 

Within a few weeks of starting my first job in fundraising, I quickly realized that technical skills and know-how can be acquired in both the classroom and in an office setting. Most of the skills you need to know are taught on the job. I was taught how to navigate the donor database, process invoices, reconcile credit cards, and all the other nitty-gritty stuff. It was the soft skills that my English major taught me — time management, communication, concise writing — that proved to be most valuable. 

Soft skills are behaviors, traits, or attributes that improve how you work and interact with others. The great thing about soft skills is they can be acquired from any type of job. You don’t have to go to college or work at a competitive agency to develop your soft skills. Some of my most-utilized soft skills (multitasking, troubleshooting, and interpersonal skills) came out of the retail job I had throughout high school and college! Soft skills not only benefit you by making your life easier, but they also help you collaborate better with others and produce high-quality work. 

The downside? You can’t really follow a tutorial or watch a webinar to learn soft skills. You could Google “How to stop feeling nervous during meetings” (Not that I’ve tried this. Definitely not. Nope.), but you won’t actually gain those skills until you put them to work in your everyday life. Though you could probably find helpful resources online for certain things like time management or stress relief, nothing can replace real-life applications. 

So, if Google can’t solve this problem, where does one start?! First, look inward and identify your weak spots. Do you tend to procrastinate? Often make careless mistakes? Is it hard for you to delegate? Honestly evaluate your growth areas and take small steps to improve. 

At my fundraising job, I found that I was often making silly errors that didn’t reflect the detail-oriented person I knew myself to be, like spelling mistakes or forgetting to click “save changes” in our database. After careful reflection, I realized my careless mistakes were a result of not giving myself enough time to complete projects, and being forced to rush through them. I started carving out space on my Google calendar for certain tasks to ensure I had enough time to get through them. 

Once you’ve completed an internal soft-skills evaluation, look outwardly and seek feedback from others. I am the first to admit that this is really difficult and uncomfortable to do. But, the ability to accept feedback/criticism is actually a soft skill in itself (!) which requires attention and practice. 

During one-on-ones with your manager, ask if they have any performance-related suggestions for you. Or, if you’re working on a team project, do a “post mortem” (a recap conversation) and ask if you could’ve done anything better. FYI: They might not explicitly say the words “if you had better time management skills…” It may come out as “We could’ve started earlier and been better prepared.” Read between the lines and think of ways to implement that feedback next time. 

Sharpening your soft skills is an ongoing process that requires care, attention, and investment in yourself… and sometimes, that can be tiring or uncomfortable. You’ll thank yourself over time as you grow in areas that benefit you not only professionally, but also personally!

Originally published on March 22, 2021.

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