Social Skills

Occasionally, I will go back and reread some of Paul Graham’s essays, of which I am a huge fan. Recently I re-stumbled upon Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas. I had somehow missed his recommendation to read How to Win Friends and Influence People, so I picked up a copy (the 11th printing, from 1937, as per his recommendation). What a worthwhile read. The book describes several things that will make you say “now why didn’t I think of that?” I tend to have a good temper (at least most of the time), and I feel that the points made in this book will allow me to take advantage of that to help advance my relations with others.

That being said, I would like to add to what Jessica Mah, who I have had the pleasure of meeting while in Silicon Valley, said about geeks, startups, and social skills. I feel that the social skills Jessica is (or was) looking for in a cofounder are by far not teachable by a mere book. I have met many of the types of people Jessica refers too (I go to Carnegie Mellon, which has more that its fair share of smart people, both with and without social skills), and have found that they generally fall into the following categories:

  • Don’t Realize – These people simply undervalue the importance of social skills to their lives. They feel that the pursuit of knowledge is sufficient to make them successful entrepreneurs. For them, a book on human relations will at most allow them to realize the importance of human relations, it will not teach it to them.
  • Don’t Know – These people realize that social skills are important, but for one reason or another (too shy, don’t know where to start, etc) aren’t developing them. The best a human relations book can do for them is help them build the confidence to start being more social.
  • Don’t Care – These people are the real tough case, and I’ve been fortunate enough to only have met a few. These people consider themselves so high above the rest of society because they think they are better at something than everyone else (the most common is intelligence, but I’ve found “Don’t Care” people who are so because they feel they are more socially capable than others…paradoxical, I know). They see no need to be more social to people because they’re better than them anyway. These people are difficult to work with, and I have yet to be able to interact with them calmly (like I said, a good temper most of the time), so I will not give my opinion on them.

Note that most these people are more than capable of being successful, but problems arise when they try to go into business with these beliefs. Ignoring or undervaluing human relations is a huge problem, since by definition the field of business and the art of interacting with others go hand-in-hand.

The key here is that the basic concepts of human relations…those the allow for the concepts taught in human relations books to be applied, such as sincerity and kindness, cannot be taught. The attitudes and body language that convey these feelings to other people must be learned by doing.

So, to all the geeks out there, get the hell out of your rooms. If you’re in Silicon Valley, go to Super Happy Dev House and Lunch 2.0. If you’re at college, join a club, whether it be juggling, robotics, or debate, at least you’ll be meeting people. Even if you’re shy, merely watching people interact constructively will do a world of good.

Update – Apparently Jessica didn’t mean to imply that social skills can be taught by books…changed my wording to reflect this.