A few years ago, I saw a video by a Harvard professor on competences for adapting to a changing world. Frankly, it was embarrassing. It was the biggest load of pseudo-intellectual garbage I’d ever heard.
Still, the world is changing. It’s becoming a more complex place. I guess that’s always been the case, but the rate of change appears to be accelerating. Given that’s the case, then what are the real capabilities people will need to distinguish themselves--to become the leaders, the innovators, the success stories of a new age?
Fortunately, as a veteran of the high-tech industry, I’ve known and worked with some of the most capable and accomplished folks around. Here are five competences that not only set them apart, but are becoming more and more important all the time. No, they’re not new-age business school jargon. Some aren’t even new. But what’s important is that they work.
1. Drown out the noise.
We live and work in a world that’s so overloaded with information, communication, and gadgets that fighting that irresistible and constant tug to text, tweet, and check our email is becoming harder and harder all the time. That trend is not likely to change anytime soon.
Ability to focus and prioritize has always been critical to success in just about any field, but these days, managing distraction and not succumbing to its addictive qualities has become remarkably challenging for even the most disciplined among us.
Make no mistake. If you can’t focus, you can’t get things done. And if you can’t get things done, somebody else will.
2. Recognize the bullsh*t.
When you question assumptions, claims, and viewpoints instead of just accepting them as gospel, as in "I saw it on the internet so it must be true," that's called critical thinking. It’s fundamental for smart decision-making. And that, in turn, is key to being successful at just about anything.
The concept dates back thousands of years to Socrates and Buddha's teachings. If you question conventional wisdom, challenge the status quo, and avoid collectivism and groupthink, you’re in good company. They’re all facets of the same concept.
Here’s the thing. There’s so much garbage out there in the cloud, in social media, in blogs, on TV, in self-help books -- you name it -- that your ability to question what’s real and what isn’t, to reason logically and not generalize from a single data point, is more critical today than ever before.
And, in time, the world is only going to become more and more complex and, that’s right, full of stuff.
3. Be more than an avatar.
It’s ironic that, with all the hoopla over personal branding, self-expression, and the “Me” generation, I find that people are becoming more and more like internet avatars every day. In other words, there’s a tendency to hide behind our own social media creations. To become sound bites personified.
More than ever, we need a sense of humility and self-awareness to remind us that we're flesh and blood humans. That we’re not always the insanely great business leaders, managers, entrepreneurs, partners, parents, whatever, that we hold ourselves out to be.
Not only that, but the sheer volume of noise and time we waste on mindless distraction makes it that much harder to stay in touch with ourselves, to be quiet and reflect on what’s going on inside, to understand what our emotions are trying to tell us.
And don’t even get me started on political correctness, that insidious worldwide trend that dumbs us all down to the lowest common denominator so no single individual is ever left out or made to feel uncomfortable or, God forbid, offended.
In a world of indistinguishable lemmings, where everyone tries to be different and, in so doing, ends up behaving exactly like everyone else, those who are genuine and self-aware will have a big advantage.
4. Truly connect with people.
Communication has always been the means by which great leaders achieve great things. But these days, communication occurs in sound bites, status updates, text messages, and tweets of 140 characters or less. More and more, communication is one-to-many, not one-to-one.
The problem with that is it’s mostly superficial and nobody’s got time to pay attention to even a tiny fraction of all the gigabytes being blasted at them every day.
As for all the online social networking we do, none of it’s even fractionally effective when compared with a simple real-time discussion or meeting.
Sure, the ability to write and speak effectively is perhaps more important today than ever before. But if you have that unique ability to listen and really hear what people are saying, to empathize, to really relate and truly connect with folks, then chances are you’ll be writing tomorrow’s success stories.
5. Get things done.
The idea that successful executives, entrepreneurs, and business leaders are typically driven by high aspirations is nothing but a popular myth. Most of those people didn't get to where they are by walking around with their heads in the clouds. They got there by putting one foot in front of the other and getting stuff done.
If they’re not motivated by grandiose dreams, then what does drive successful people? It’s usually one of three things: their job and a strong sense of personal responsibility, out of necessity to put food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads, or to bring a product to market they think is cool and that people might actually want or need.
Regardless of the reason, they get people working toward a common goal. They deliver the goods. They get the job done. They satisfy the needs of their customers. And in so doing, they take care of their families and stakeholders. That’s how things work in the real world.
These days we have more rhetoric, debate, analysis, studies, theories and research than ever before. We have more grandiose ideals than ever before. We have more rules and regulations than ever before. The challenge to get things done has never been greater and the need for leaders with that capability has never been more imperative.
That’s what I think you and your children will need to adapt to a changing world. Now, what do you think?
This column originally appeared on Inc.com.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.