How To Get Better At Everything

It doesn’t take more than a minute to figure out if the person seated next to you on a trans-Atlantic flight is gonna be a problem.

And, on a trans-Atlantic flight, that binary code’s all you care about. You’re (probably) not gonna really be friends; all you want to do is get through the next seven hours or so unscathed and disease-free. So if the dude or dudette seated nearby fails that test, it’s time to take measures to ensure seat reassignment. Which measures are at least as life-saving as the floaty stowed under your seat.

But while that binary approach to dealing with a prospective seatmate on a BA triple-7 is fine for flights, it doesn’t really cut it for longer-term relationships. You need something more from a prospective employee or business partner. And, just like you need something more from others to get into bed with them, you’ve got to offer more to prospective partners or employers to make sure you get into the beds you’d like to occupy.

Start Here For Real Self-Improvement
Start Here For Real Self-Improvement

You’ve got to be better than everyone else. And one surefire way to help your odds at being better than others is to make your future self better than your current self at everything you do.

So this post is about doing everything you already do a little better.

And it’s about the single little thing you can do pretty much anywhere (including a trans-Atlantic flight) to build better-you skills as fast as possible.

Soft Serve

Do you remember that split-second in recent history when it seemed like maybe the techno-programmer-engineer geeks would start running the world? It was like a bad Revenge of the Nerds sequel playing out in slow-mo everywhere from Silicon Valley to Scandinavia.

Startups and Fortune 500 companies alike were drooling over the Lisbeth Salander-styled hacker types who could turn old-line business models into super-fi codes and apps and bits and maps. And then, in a bid to cut out the old-line business-type middlemen, some of those keyboard cowboys started running their own companies. And some even did pretty well at it. For a little while.

But programming prowess does not a complete person make. And most Zuckerbergian entrepreneurs out there ended up either needing to bring in professional managers who can run companies somewhere other than into the ground, or they ended up just running their companies into the ground themselves.

Which is a lovely business school parable and HBS case study and discussion topic. And is pretty unsurprising for anyone who’s ever had to work with a tech geek. Because tech geeks, like all geeks, are awful to work with. For all their technical savvy and quantitative firepower, they usually just don’t get it.

And therein lies the rub: If you’ve already got it, you don’t need any more of it; if you’ve never had it, you don’t know how to get it; unless you’ve already got a line on it, you’re pretty much shit out of luck.

How is a technically savvy but socially inept geek supposed to figure out how to not be a socially inept geek anymore? If you’re a geek, you’re already kinda socially ostracized. You don’t get many chances to flex those social-skill muscles. And so they weaken and wither and become as soft as the skills you need to really succeed.

Because here’s the thing: More than any hard skills, employers want soft-skilled humans who “get it.” I’d have never hired a tech-strong/social-weak person at my firm. They’d have killed the biz.

Soft skills make someone better at everything they do because it means they have empathy and understand where others are coming from and are therefore more valuable to everyone – including themselves. They “get it,” and they’re highly valued because of it, even if they’re not the fastest coder or whatever. Those same people also make the best entrepreneurs because they’re more likely to get someone else to do what they want.

And, by the way, it’s really not just the tech geeks who could stand to improve their soft skills. We can all buff those muscles.

Hard Truth

The groovy news is that gettin’ big in social skills is a lot easier than gettin’ big in the gym.

The secret weapon is no more difficult than picking up a good paperback.

According to the research, reading the right kind of fiction builds social skills by exposing the reader to social mores and deft (and un-deft) handling of interpersonal relations and the consequences of advantageous social positioning. The research summarily makes a Romneyesqe “compressed experience” argument for reading.

Because social skills or soft skills or whatever you’d like to call them are just skills, they’re learnable and improvable. And reading fiction’s a killer way to go about the otherwise tough and slow task of building skills at understanding other peoples’ minds and emotions and building empathy.

Reading fiction helps you read people and get good results from social interaction. (And social interaction, by the way, is a part of everything we do.)

Some fiction, though, seems to be stronger than other fiction at all this. So, at the risk of imposing my own views too heavily, I’ve compiled a handful of my favorite authors for supercharged social savvy that you might find useful in helping you become better at everything you do.

Tom Wolfe

There’s no more masterful modern writer than Tom Wolfe at understanding and cataloguing and then mercilessly flaying social power structures. For the most beautifully rendered social status landscapes, and the most darkly satisfying decapitation of all society’s sacred cows, look no further than Wolfe.

But for all his razor-sharp critiques of society, he more or less provides a roadmap for the most efficacious (as well as least useful) ways to get ahead by using social skills to one’s advantage (or not). So he’s a great go-to writer for that compressed experience we’re all after.

One unsurprising favorite of mine is A Man in Full, which provides a dual case study in how-to and how-not-to get ahead in just about any social situation. Another favorite that seems to be un-loved by most, but which nevertheless does an outstanding job of portraying the “right” and “wrong” ways to go about getting what you want from a social perspective, is I Am Charlotte Simmons.

If every engineer and programmer out there were handed copies of these two books, the world would be a much brighter place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

The idea that fiction helps build social skills rests upon the notion that understanding others’ minds is critical to being socially adept, and fiction is a keyhole through which to peer upon the workings of others’ psyches.

Nobody shows us the suffering and tormented and contradictory and impulsive “other mind” better than Dostoyevsky. Notes From Underground is a masterclass in the tortured psychology we all suffer. Crime and Punishment also invites the reader into a divided mind and subjects both protagonist and reader to profoundly nose-shattering self-face-punching.

The power of these books seems to be in their ability to get you, fair reader, to identify with an obviously troubled protagonist. What better way to understand others’ minds than to try grappling with your own? Once you’ve seen the contradictions and compulsions in your own head, you’re more likely to observe those same dynamics in the cabesas of others.

Lee Child

“FL,” you say, “you just grouped Lee Child in with Wolfe and Dostoyevsky. Are you snorting bath salts right now?”

Right. I get it. Lee Child’s books aren’t exactly gonna make any college lit curriculum. But there’s more to recommend a good Jack Reacher novel than there are ways to abuse bath salts. (For the uninitiated, Jack Reacher is a recurring main character in Child’s books. And bath salts aren’t just for soaking in the tub.)

Most important for our purposes here, Reacher’s a character who showcases the power of wrapping ramrod personality strength in an easygoing-ish exterior. In other words: You can be principled and still be easy to get along with; you can be fun and still get shit done. A strong personality doesn’t have to be difficult.

Plus, Child is masterful at social dissection and doesn’t have much patience for societal b-s, so there’s plenty of great truth in his fiction that gives some voice to the collective other mind. For example: “Poor people are fat, and rich people are thin. That never happened before.” (Make Me)

Also, since we’re talking about all this, can someone please explain to me why Tom Cruise is the movie version of Jack Reacher? Reacher’s six-foot-five. Not five-foot-six. C’mon, Hollywood!

For a great Hollywood-quality introduction to Reacher, I like Persuader for its excellent opening act.

John Le Carre

Interpersonal cachet and personality strength and trust and deception and social slipperiness are the currency of the spy. They also happen to be pretty much exactly what’s needed to do well in the most common moments of everyday life.

Le Carre either is a really good writer, for a spy. Or he was a pretty damn good spy, for a writer. Either way, he seems accomplished at both. And both require an intense scrutiny of peoples’ motivations and fears and weaknesses and moralities. And so there’s probably nobody better to learn from in this respect than this bro.

Particularly well done in Le Carre’s works is the slow unfolding of characters, who reveal themselves incrementally and contradictorily. Just like characters in real life. And who require deft handling to really understand. Just like characters in real life. And who are probably trying to screw you over. Just like characters in real life.

They’re all good, but A Perfect Spy is the most complex and intriguing and devastating of Le Carre’s novels. In the end, it can be read as a study of the price we pay for being too good at the social game.

Albert Camus

Yes, there’s a risk to developing social skills that are “too strong.” You can arguably lose yourself. Maybe.

But the greater risk is the one realized by not effectively using empathy and an understanding of the other mind to your advantage. The Stranger is Camus’ exploration of just that concept: “the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

In other words, there’s no glory in “being right” or “honest” or “yourself” if that right, honest self is disagreeable to everyone else. Because everyone else will sentence you to death. And you may even be forced to speak some French. So you might as well make things easy on yourself and play the social game, even if you don’t really believe in it.

True Lies

And there you have it: Five authors whose fictional works are probably more true than any non-fiction out there, and whose stuff is seemingly tailor-made to build social savvy and empathy and help all of us get better at everything we do. Oh, and whose books can easily be carried onto trans-Atlantic flights and then hidden behind when your seat mate turns out to be Lisbeth Salander.

I’ve shown you mine. Now you show me yours.

Hit me up in the comments box below, Luchadores: Tell me your favorite fiction writers and why they’re boss for building social skills (like a boss).


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