Way back in the beforetime of the 1980s, when giant hairstyles roamed the Earth and "hacking" was still a synonym for "coughing," I went to computer camp. And the most useful thing I learned was not that I could break the newly installed computer terminals at my local library by pulling up a command line and typing:
10 PRINT "I love rock and roll"
20 PRINT "so put another dime in the jukebox baby"
30 GOTO 10
No--it was that the most useful factor in any technological development has nothing to do with product design, coding, or features. It's all in using your brain to ask, "Is this the best way I can use this technology? Is this really going to work out well for me in the long run?"
(In the case of breaking the computer's adorably insecure user interface? It did not work out, because I incurred the wrath of the librarian. She did not hesitate to remind me that 5th graders who enrolled in summer reading programs ought not irritate the people responsible for giving out the free Baskin-Robbins coupons.)
Being able to ask and answer forward-looking questions is something falls under the broad umbrella of what consultants and career specialists call "soft skills," i.e., the thought processes, learned behaviors, and social habits that help us manage our relationships. But soft skills aren't confined to the workplace. They're especially crucial in our personal lives, and in the aspects of our personal lives most directly affected by our technological use and habits.
Soft skills are the skills we use to determine what our own boundaries are online; how we enforce those boundaries; and how we deal with situations when our friends, loved ones, acquaintances or coworkers violate those boundaries.
Soft skills are the skills we use to build bridges across previous divisions--to use technology as a way to maintain relationships or to repair them.
Soft skills are the skills we use to have difficult conversations with people about their online activities. They're the skills we use to negotiate the division of responsibility when setting up a household media archive--or to negotiate the division of that archive when the household break apart.
Soft skills are the skills that help us communicate effectively in a wide variety of situations, even ones that we have not encountered before.
Soft skills are also the skills we use to make the leap from "We should do that" to "Here's how we're going to do that." They encompass successful negotiation with other people, and the ability to set priorities, triage tasks and manage your time. Soft skills are the skills you need to assess information and decide what's useful or relevant to you.
Soft skills are the skills you need to put personal technology into an appropriate and life-enhancing context for yourself and the people whose well-being you protect.
Over the next 11 columns, I'll be reporting on some of the ways in which technological challenges have turned into soft skills challenges for people at home and at work. And I'll be telling you what soft skills the pros recommend people develop, and how to get those skills.
I'll be looking at a wide variety of situations best described as "the collision between modern technology and human nature," from how to keep your Nana from giving your inheritance to that nice Nigerian prince, to how to navigate the debate over kids and screen time.
I would love to hear about the soft-skills challenges you're facing when it comes to personal and professional tech in your life. Please don't hesitate to reach out on Twitter or via email.