How to learn soft skills

Acquiring some skills is mostly about deliberate, explicit information transfer. For example, one might explicitly learn the capital of Missouri, or the number of miles one can drive before needing an oil change, or how to use the quadratic formula to solve quadratic equations.

For other skills, practitioners’ skill rests largely on semi-conscious, non-explicit patterns of perception and action. I have in mind here such skills as:

  • Managing your emotions and energy levels;

  • Building strong relationships;

  • Making robust plans;

  • Finding angles of attack on a mathematical problem;

  • Writing persuasively;

  • Thinking through charged subjects without bias;

and so on. Experts in these skills will often be unable to accurately and explicitly describe how to do what they do, but they will be skilled nonetheless.

I’d like to share some thoughts on how to learn such “soft skills”.

Usefulness of non-true stimuli

If you read a chemistry textbook, it makes sense to ask after each sentence: “Is this true?”. If the answer is “no”, “no”, “no”, for a sufficient number of sentences, you should probably abandon that book and look for a better one. Chemistry textbooks are supposed to be made out of statements you can trust—statements you can add to your file of “trusted explicit claims”, in such a fashion as to make you better at chemistry. When a book fails at this property, its main value is lost.

Not so, IMO, for soft skills.

You can test ideas in your “inner simulator”

Your “inner simulator” is CFAR’s version of the distinction between profession and anticipation. Basically, your “inner simulator” is the part of you that can play movies forward to determine what to anticipate: “Do I have time to turn left before that car reaches me?”; “What will she do, if I approach and say ‘hi’?” (that is: what does my inner movie-player show as the next scene, when I play it a movie in which I walk up to her and say ‘hi’?).

Your inner simulator is probably more accurate than your explicit models in domains where you have a rich experience base, such as social phenomena, and day-to-day physical phenomena. It is probably worse in areas where you have good book-learning behind you (e.g., you may have an accurate conscious model of the bystander effect, but still mismodel this when you anticipate without conscious adjustment). Your inner simulator is also the place where learning *must* land, if it is to affect your automatic system 1 responses (such as the perceptual patterns, and the trigger-action habits, that play into many soft skills).

IMO, most “soft skills” books are not trying to add explicit statements to your store of “trusted explicit/​verbal statements”. Instead, they are trying to evoke experiments to try out in your inner simulator—bits that you can then keep, or not, according to whether they feel promising when you imagine trying them out. Later, you can try the promising bits out in the actual world.

Example: Roommate

To see how this can work, imagine you’re in a tricky social situation. Perhaps your roommate, Fred, is easily offended, and also keeps leaving the kitchen in a state of total mess. You’ve brainstormed a number of options for talking to him, but they all seem likely to end badly, and so you find yourself in the self-help section of the bookstore, looking for, well, help.

As you browse, you notice a lot of advice that you’ve heard before—advice like “imagine what things feel like from Fred’s perspective” and “explain what’s in it for Fred; find a way to appeal to his pride and self-interest”. You could’ve generated a lot of this advice yourself. Nevertheless, much of it is advice you hadn’t actually tried, in Fred’s case. You find yourself moved to actually try it as you read—the stories in the books pull you to actually want to see things from Fred’s perspective, and you begin spontaneously picturing how he might be feeling. You also find different sentence-stems in your head for how you might start the conversation—sentence-stems seeded, in part, from the stories you read in the books—and some of them seem promising.

Some of the books also contain statements that, as far as you can tell, are outright nonsense. One suggests that the only reason you or Fred have any problems is that you weren’t praised enough as children. You try on that perspective as well, but it feels yucky and nothing new clicks into place, and so you move along to the next part.

In this case, the books are acting, not as a source of trusted information, but as spur to your own process of anticipating, perceiving, desiring, and planning—and, in this way, they are useful.

Example: Reading a good “woo” book

As I read “Bonds that Make Us Free”, I read many explicit statements I disagreed with (such as statements about a Christian God). I took these in as poetry: I tried to imagine the world the author saw himself in, and to see myself in the same world, so as to have more access to the way he was parsing human phenomena.

The book also contained many stories, all of which “rang true” in my inner simulator (they matched the world as I anticipated it), but which formed new patterns when placed next to each other. I felt my intuitions update as I read—I felt the stories take patterns I had previously half-seen, and pull them into full conscious awareness.

I left the book with a changed perception of how rationalization patterns affect close relationships, and with an increased ability to separate from my rationalizations and see the people close to me. I left also with some new freedom from social shame. These changes did not come about via trusting or deferring to the author; they came via trying on his perspective, and finding that pieces of the pattern he was pointing to “clicked”.

Try it!

One way to try this is to read a book. But, since books’ usefulness is not just about their accuracy, it can *also* be surprisingly effective to just write your own book—or, at least, to write 5 minutes of it. You can think of this as a way of getting system 1 unstuck from its default pattern.[1]

Set a 5-minute timer (I):

Pick a soft skill, X, that you’d like to get better at. Then, set a 5-minute timer (yes, an actual one — thinking for “about 5 minutes” doesn’t work nearly as well). Spend those 5 minutes explaining to yourself, in writing, how to do X. (For example, if you picked “networking at conferences”, you might spend the 5 minutes brainstorming on what the key tricky bits are, and on strategies for navigating them. E.g., “I’m not sure how to start conversations. So, at the conference, I can watch and see what sentence-stems other people use. I can also just start with ‘Hi, my name is Anna’, or with ‘Oh, are you Dr. so-and-so? I loved your paper on such-and-such’. That starter sounds promising, actually; I should try to skim abstracts and Google at least a few papers before the conference….”)

(You might consider giving this a try right now.)

Set a 5-minute timer (II):

This exercise was created by Zak Vance, and is one of my favorites. It’s seriously worth 5 minutes of your life to try this one out. Pick, again, a soft skill, X, that you’d like to get better at (e.g., “networking at conferences”). Now pick a different skill, Y, that you’re already highly skilled at (e.g., “programming” — Y can be a soft skill or any other sort). Now, set a 5-minute timer, and spend 5 minutes explaining (in writing, or aloud to a friend) how skill X is really actually just the same as skill Y, in the sense that anyone who is fluent in skill Y already knows all they need to know to be good at X — they just need to apply their Y-skill to X. (Your goal, as you do this, is to create a very short guide that enables anyone who already knows Y to hit the ground running with X.) You can see my example (taken from the seed “networking at conferences is really just the same skill as programming”) in footnote [2].

It’s important, of course, not to believe everything you generate in such an exercise — after all, it was secretly written by a *beginner* in Skill X. But, again, you can use it to brainstorm ideas to try out, and to thereby get your system 1 intuitive search pattern out of any local optima you may be caught in.

Some good “soft skills” books to try reading:

Bonds that Make Us Free, by Terry Warner
An Open Heart, by the Dalai Lama
Feeling Good Together, by David Burns
Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
Self-therapy, by Jay Earley
Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin (the audiobook is much better than the paper, IMO)
The Core LW Sequences, by Eliezer.

You might also just try going to the bookstore and locating a new “soft skills” book, by scanning through a few and seeing if any “speak to you”. Books of the relevant sort can be found in the business, self-help, continental philosophy, and spirituality sections, as well as in sections focused on particular soft skills such as writing or problem-solving.

As you read:

As you read a soft skills book (or the results of your own 5-minute timers), you may wish to ask about each paragraph:

  • Is it true? Can I use it to update my explicit model of Skill X? (Yes, explicit models are still useful!)

  • Even if it’s false—is there something near it that is true?

  • If I free associate from here, do any of my past experiences click into a new focus?

  • What feels fruitful/​interesting about this idea? About ideas I can free associate to from here? Does this improve my implicit space of hypotheses?

  • As I read this, can I visualize myself carrying out soft skill X in a usefully different way? Do I find my intuitions changing?

  • How can I climb as thoroughly as possible into the frame, feeling, groove, or worldview that generated this book? And once I do that, does anything new click into focus?

Do consider adding your favorite books, or book-reading strategies, in the comments!

[1] System 1 stuckness of this sort seems to be almost ubiquitous. For example, I type and drive quite a bit, but my typing and driving skill are pretty similar to what they were several years ago; my conversational skills improve more, but they seem to have some of this same “trying the same things again and again” flavor. In this context, even random noise seems helpful to jumpstart learning.

(“Learned blankness” seems related here as well; one somehow gets stuck in an ontology; the goal of soft skills books is often to help a person jumpstart out of it.)

[2] The example I generated from this seed, in 90 seconds:

Networking at conferences is really just the same skill as programming. The three programmers’ virtues of Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris will take you all the way there, as will basic principles such as analytic thinking and code reuse.

Re: Laziness: Many folks who set out to network at conferences work hard, and push themselves to talk to lots of people. But in fact, some conversations are predictably much higher value than others. Be Lazy: plan a bit during your plane-ride to the conference (or during a boring talk!), so that you know *who* you’re hoping to have *what kind* of conversations with, and can position yourself accordingly.

Also, when you approach a new person, see it as an opportunity to *practice* and *debug* your greeting, as a re-usable code module, instead of treating it as a one-off task to separately sweat about and make throw-away code for. And, afterward, review it briefly in your mind — and see if you can create a way to refine it.

You might also look for “test cases”, much as you would when debugging — you might approach people who you already know by reputation, or who a friend of yours has secretly already approached, and see if your interaction pattern is similar to what you’ve heard. You can use “test cases” of this sort to find out how your results compare to others, and to gain valuable info for debugging your own routines.

Note that, to show a real example, the text above is the first thing I generated when I gave myself 90 seconds to type from that seed—it is a typical case, not a selected case—and certainly not a vetted guide to networking. Nevertheless, you can perhaps see how this sort of rationalization(!) process might be helpful to seed learning.