am I just a sympathy hire with no real skills?

A reader writes:

I am in my late 20’s and have had what some may consider a “tough” life. I’ve overcome a few obstacles (think addiction, gang violence, prison, broken family, homelessness, etc.). A big part of my personal life involves using public platforms to share my story. Before I turned my life around, I was a very unwell person who did a lot of harm. I am far from perfect, but I try to make amends daily.

When I share my journey, I feel I contribute to a greater purpose. Helping others is simply my small piece to make the world a bit better, reduce stigmas, and let people know it can get better.

I have worked at a (privately owned) company for over five years and my story is known, especially with senior management with whom I have developed close relationships. The field I work in is not related to mental health or addiction, but, as with many privately owned companies, boundaries can get a bit blurry. (For example, I’ve provided multiple staff members with guidance when they have approached me about a struggling loved one, which I’m more than happy to do. It’s never interfered with work.)

There are no measurable KPI’s indicating my success, but I’m liked overall and my past “hustle mentality” has allowed me to cultivate a strong work ethic. If I don’t know how to do something (which I often don’t), I will Google it and figure it out if it’s the last thing I do.

Over the years, I learned as I went, was promoted to management, built a team, and received a pay increase that exceeds 70%. I am also a full-time student. I am blessed beyond belief and so grateful for all the personal support at my company.

Throughout my personal struggles, I developed an ability to read people, tone match, identify who is important to connect with, and basically … “fake it till you make it.” In any given moment, I can be exactly who you want me to be, and I can do whatever is required of me. In my past, these were essential survival skills used to fuel my addiction, make money, and keep a roof over my head. These days, my intention is to truly help people (personally or professionally) and work hard, but these skills feel manipulative. I often feel like I’ve been successful at this company because of my ability to connect with the right stakeholders on a personal level and because they feel bad for me.

I only have soft skills, and it’s simply my ability to genuinely connect with people.

Recently, I have considered starting a side business (think freelance work with small business owners) and it’s something I’m passionate about! Plus, I could see it being scalable. But I’m facing big mental barriers holding me back.

Every time I make progress, what I’m guessing is imposter syndrome interferes. It’s thoughts I assume other people have about me, such as:

– “She’s only been successful in the past due to her soft skills and ability to connect with the right people – she can’t provide any actual value.”

– “She has no measurable metrics signaling high performance.”

– “She is just the token hire at this company, so why try? Everyone just loves a ‘comeback’ story, and every company needs a ‘personality hire.’”

– “There are other people in this field who are way better, with degrees.”

– “She has no measurable metrics signaling high performance.”

On a personal level, I am well supported with friends and therapy to work through low self-esteem and trauma. But from a career perspective … I’m feeling stuck.

On one hand, I want to listen to these thoughts and stay in my lane. But on the other hand, I realize that I’ve done some way riskier and scarier shit over the course of my life than trying a new endeavor. Do you have any advice?

The thoughts in your brain don’t line up with the facts in your life!

If you were just employed because of your comeback story, it’s really, really unlikely that you would have been promoted to management, built a team, and received those enormous pay raises. That’s just … not a thing that typically happens. Sure, occasionally someone gets hired out of sympathy, although it’s relatively rare since businesses aren’t charities. (Even charities aren’t usually charities when it comes to their hiring! They need to hire people who will help them meet their goals, not just someone in need, unless their charitable mission is literally to provide jobs.) But people hired because they inspired sympathy don’t tend to get promoted and receive massive raises if their work doesn’t warrant it. (Or if they do, there’s some unusually serious dysfunction and bad judgment above them. Does that line up with what you know of your company?)

And it’s definitely not true that “every company needs a ‘personality hire.’” That’s also not a thing. If your brain is telling you otherwise, your brain is undermining you.

You’re also devaluing soft skills. Soft skills are really important — they help you understand other people’s priorities, allow you to better “translate” between parties (“Rick is saying X but I can tell Jane is hearing Y”), make people more willing to approach you for help, make other people’s jobs more pleasant, and on and on. But it’s also unlikely that you only have soft skills. If you did, I doubt you would have been able to build a team or accomplish the other things you’ve done in this job. Which leads us to…

It’s true that some jobs don’t lend themselves to easy quantitative metrics (like “increased customer base by X” or “raised $Y”). But all jobs lend themselves to qualitative metrics, and it sounds like it would be useful to think about those. Examples of meaningful qualitative measures include things like “service X regularly draws unsolicited praise from people who use it”; “all event logistics run smoothly, meaning no lines at the check-in tables, seamless transitions between speakers, and AV equipment is glitch-free”; and “revamp our trainings so that all staff feel comfortable using our software to do their jobs effectively, as measured by an annual survey.” These are largely qualitative, but still establish a bar for expectations and a standard by which reasonable people can agree on how well you’re doing. Ideally your manager would be working with you to develop those metrics so that you’re all on the same page about what success looks like in your role, but you can create them on your own too — and it sounds like that would help you accept that you’re doing well.

Also: if your manager were talking about why she was glad to have you on staff, what would she say? What about coworkers who seem to appreciate your work? Have you brought something new to your work that’s different than what was being done before? Made improvements or done something that got better results than your employer had been getting before that? What’s been the outcome of your actions? Try imagining someone who’s fairly mediocre at your job. What would be different about how they operate from how you operate? All of these questions can point you toward a framework for understanding why you’re successful and what you’ve achieved.

But backing up a bit, all of this is coming up because you’re nervous about starting a side business. Your brain is giving you a bunch of reasons to hold back … but, frankly, all of those reasons suck (for the reasons above). So first, I think you should think about why your brain wants to hold you back. Maybe it’s just imposter syndrome, as you say, but the thoughts you’ve described seem like more than that: you’re actively insulting and devaluing yourself.

You mentioned you’re in therapy in part for low self-esteem; this thinking is almost certainly part of that, so it’s a good thing to bring up with your therapist. Questions that could be interesting to explore in therapy, if you haven’t already: Why does it feel safer to let yourself believe you don’t have much to offer? Where did you pick up the idea that you don’t? (Family of origin, I’m betting.) When you imagine moving forward with confidence, what feels scary about that? Is it the risk of the rug getting pulled out from under you? What would happen if that happened? If it turned out you did overvalue your own skills, does whatever outcome you’re afraid of there match up with the likely outcome?

On a more practical note, the good thing about freelancing is that you’ll be literally taking your skills to the open market and seeing how much other people value them; it’s a lot harder to hide a lack of substance as a freelancer. My hunch is that you’ll find out people value your skills a lot more than you think they will. Why not test it and find out?

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. Grace*

    OP, you are RESOURCEFUL. The fact that you even Google something to try to figure it out speaks volumes of your ability to learn and adapt. You won’t (or maybe you will) believe how many people don’t even take that small step on their own. You’ve gotten to where you are on your own merits. Please don’t sell yourself short!

    1. many bells down*

      Agree! “if I don’t know how, I’ll Google it and learn” IS a skill! My job thinks I’m a tech genius when all I do is Google “how to fix sharepoint syncing”. Knowing how to 1. find the answer you need, and 2. apply it are both valuable skills.

      1. SpaceySteph*

        This right here. Knowing how to find information is much more important than knowing information. We ALL will eventually come across something we don’t know, but those who know how to find and learn will never be stopped by that.

      2. Generic Name*

        Agreed! I’m betting when you look something up on google, you’re not just clicking the first link, doing that, and everything goes perfectly. I’d bet you, like all skilled researchers, look through the results, find one that seems reasonable, try it, and if it doesn’t work, you try another method from the search results.

      3. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Googling feels easy if you’re good at it, but it’s not if you’re going to do it well. There are different sources to evaluate and sift through, you need to know how to phrase your question in the first place, and most of all in OP’s case what are you doing with that information once you have it. Are you looking and saying “oh that sounds hard” or are you really digging in and learning something – be that a skill, a philosophy, raw data, whatever it is. We devalue “just google it” because the *tool* is available to everyone, but a tool does not wield the same power in all hands.

        1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Wonan*

          This is so true. My husband is so bad at googling things sometimes.

          OP I completely agree that being resourceful is such a valued skill. It’s definitely one of my strengths, if I don’t know something, I’ll do whatever to figure it out. It’s always been admitted by my bosses. Not only are you being resourceful, but you’re displaying the willingness to learn new things, which is also a great natural skill to have.

          (Also, I’m going to patiently wait for the end of the year when you update us all on how well your side business is going!)

        2. ecnaseener*

          And it’s getting harder — there used to be a lot less procedurally-generated gobbledegook on the first page.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            I JUST had to have a conversation with my inlaws about how it’s not a real result until it doesn’t have the word “ad” next to it. It definitely gets more difficult with monetization and just the exponentially growing amount of STUFF that’s out there.

        3. Cat Tree*

          When I was in college 20 years ago, just as search engines were catching on, I actually had a mandatory 1-credit library class which included a lesson specifically about searching for things on Yahoo and Google. It was immensely helpful as a starting point which I built on over the decades.

      4. Hannah Lee*

        “Knowing how to 1. find the answer you need, and 2. apply it are both valuable skills.”

        I still remember a field trip to the public library when I was in 3rd grade. The teacher emphasized this as the main lesson from the day:

        “It’s not as important that you know a lot of stuff off the top of your head, as it is that you know where to find information when you need it, that you have an idea of where to look, who to ask”.

        That has stuck with me, for decades now, because it is SO true. Thank you Mrs Aziz and all the librarians who showed us the ropes at the library that day.

        (and later, in my science studies, realizing that a key skill is recognizing what data you’re missing, what questions you need to be asking, so for example, you know what to look for at the library, or to search online/in conversation or what experiment you should run to gather information if it doesn’t exist anywhere yet)

        LW has that down in spades! Add in the soft skills of working with others, gaining their trust and being someone other people want to collaborate with, and being able to gather people together for a cause/project/whatever? That is workplace (and life) gold right there.

        Imposter syndrome, self esteem struggles can be a bear, especially if you’ve come from a distressed or challenging past where when things went wrong they REALLY went wrong, so all the ‘Danger Will Robinson’ alarms are going off anytime you take a risk.

        I like Alison’s suggestion of thinking through the risks of the venture, or whatever LW’s next steps are to tease out what LW is worried about vs likelihood of those things happening. A back to basics SWOT analysis might be helpful too about the freelancing project, as a way to structure that review, and depersonalize it a bit, get it out of murky dead of night thoughts and on to the page where you can dismiss it, or address it. For example, it might highlight one area where you really could use outside expertise, support, and you can make tracking that down one of your action items to go forward. As part of the normal course of things you’d do when launching any project to increase chance of success. (so again, not a personal failing, just the normal reality of doing new stuff)

        1. Siege*

          That third paragraph is exactly the lesson I wanted my college programming students to learn. No one knows all the code. You’re a better programmer if you can assess the problem, tentatively identify the solutions that get the result, and then go look up the code, the problem, the solutions, or whatever it takes to let you complete the project. I’m not a super whiz at Excel, but I’m able to complete complex projects with it because I can articulate the problem into something a search engine can understand and keep digging till I find it.

          Knowing how to find the answer is a huge skill, OP. Don’t sell yourself short.

      5. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yes, honestly in so so so many jobs that’s one of the best skills you can have.

        A strong work ethic, the ability to learn and adapt, and the ability to figure out how to do things you’ve never done before are all things you have acknowledged were essential skills for getting by in your life–don’t discount how useful they are in other situations too! Those are all highly valued things in a ton of jobs.

        It sounds like you are good at your job, people like working with you, and they like you personally too. You’ve built something great for yourself, be proud of that!

      6. I Have RBF*


        My Google-fu is a big part of my value add in a job. I know I don’t know everything, and can’t reasonably know or remember everything. But my ability to look up and synthesize solutions from the results is critical to my job. What makes me more senior is knowing what I’m looking for, what keywords to search on, and how to use the data that I find.

        I tried to teach a junior person how to do this – how to use an index in a tech book, how to read a man page or a help menu, how to search for stuff on Google. They would not even try to learn, and thought that they should just ask me, or someone else. When they moved to their own site this attitude led to a pretty spectacular failure.

        Relevant interview question: “If I told you to do something that you didn’t currently know how to do, what would you do?”

    2. ArchivesPony*

      EXACTLY! I’m in a FB group and there 10s of questions that get asked that people could just google (and it infuriates me LOL because I’m so use to googling before asking) to find the answer.

      OP because you not only know how to google but also how to descern which results would be the most useful is a super skill! Sleuthing out which results are reputable and not scam is awesome!

      1. Siege*

        Yep. A forum I’m on has a very international user base so people will just mention things that are normal to them and then there’s always three threads asking what a Christmas pudding is or something easily searchable like that.

    3. diasporacrew*

      I came here to say just that. I volunteer with an organization as a subject matter expert where one of my tasks is to answer questions other volunteers asked on our mailing list or messaging app. To me, so many of the questions I field would be easily be solved with a Google search, but it’s definitely a skill not everyone masters.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      OP, There is another word for what you are doing when you go to google: Research. It is a skill that I use on a daily basis as a technical writer. It is one of the hardest things to teach new hires.

    5. Butterfly Counter*


      It seems like it should be so simple, but I was almost thirty (with a Ph.D) until someone told me to stop asking questions that google knows the answer to! I just figured if it was out of my realm of education and expertise, it was just a great void of unknowable information and I had to go to an expert to solve it. I’d had a lifetime of teachers and mentors just telling me what to study and familiarity helped me explore in those areas. But a totally new subject and I literally didn’t know how to start.

      I’m lucky that the penny dropped for me. For all my education, I was never a self-starter. That is something that you have that is, in and of itself, worth a lot to a lot of employers.

      (I also really relate to not having metrics in your job to tell if you’re doing well. I teach at the university level and cannot see if and where I’m making a difference. Is the student just smart, or did I teach them something? Students seem to like my classes, but is it just because I assign less papers than another professor? And so on.)

      1. MM*

        I’m pretty sure you did teach them something. It happens all the time, sometimes in really small ways. I was going over a list of key terms related to migration and when we got to remittances, a couple of students remarked that their families sent money back to other relatives in their countries of origin, but they’d never known there was a name for that. Learning! Anytime a student relates something in the current assignment back to earlier material unprompted, I count that as “I taught ’em something.” Same if they take feedback about an assignment or their writing skills and implement it on the next one. Sometimes they do pretty much tell you so flat out, but that’s obviously less of an everyday occurrence.

        Your first paragraph was helpful to me in that I’m on an academic listserv where people frequently send questions they could probably find answers to themselves, and I am constantly wondering why–don’t we all do research for a living? But it makes sense that they might be thinking of it as just going straight to a pool of experts.

    6. mreasy*

      10000%. Being resourceful and a quick learner is, in my experience, the most important asset a person can have when it comes to contributing. Well, and being a good and empathetic communicator! OP, everyone has worked with folks who look great on paper but don’t have follow-through, don’t share info, and/or aren’t able to think outside the narrow task. When I’m hiring, I would take 100 OPs before one person with a field-specific degree from a fancy school who can’t demonstrate the same skill set. Imposter syndrome is very real, especially when you’ve had mental health struggles (hospital stays in my past too), but you sound like a smart and flexible worker who is likely to find continued success. Congrats on your journey so far, and best of luck on new endeavors!!

    7. dePizan*

      Yep. I’m a librarian—and when I can’t find the answers to reference question through my regular resources, I do indeed Google it. So do my colleagues.

      And being able to filter out what is and isn’t legitimate or helpful information in a Google search and figuring out how to frame the question to get what you need is indeed a valuable skill that a lot of people don’t have.

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Having good google-fu is invaluable. I do it all the time to back up my arguments on Quora, how to make your own capsules (yay videos!), how the Mongolian Empire collapsed, what lovely tax changes will affect me this coming year, and Schedule A with gun and camera (also, that one pesky quest on FFXIV). Google is your friend. And sometimes you ask the most detailed question possible, and lo, find the answer you were looking for.

    8. Middle Aged Lady*

      My career was in libraries and a good bit of what we taught students was how to ask the right questions to navigate databases and Google, and how to know if what you found was rhe best information.
      We all learn things in different places. A degree doesn’t always mean you know what to do in different buositustions. I was on staff st libraries for 15 years before I got my masters, and the majority of what I knew came from the job itself, not the degree. Though I value for al education highly, it’s not the only route to success and knowledge. And soft skills can be the most important ones we develop. We all know the cowoker who is technically great, but doesn’t get along with others. I think you have imposter syndrome. Good luck in your career!

    9. Dan*

      This times a million.

      I work in government and trust me, OP, being able and willing to figure ANYTHING out for yourself is the most valuable skill someone can have in my opinion.

    10. I edit everything*


      I’m a freelance editor, and we editors don’t have every grammar rule memorized. We just know where and how to look up the things we don’t know. There’s more to it than that, of course, but I’m equally certain there’s more to you googling things you need to figure out how to do.

    11. goddessoftransitory*

      I read OP’s description of themselves and thought “I can’t imagine a company that wouldn’t move hell and high water to hire this person.” Good Lord, any one of the things they’ve been through, let alone all of them, would be enough to knock 99% of people off course permanently, or for years at the least.

      And OP, listen to what Alison is saying about soft skills. How many AAM letters are about dealing with coworkers who are technically brilliant or top sales people but horrible and toxic to work with on a day to day basis? People like that can destroy teams, departments, even whole companies. “Soft” skills are anything but secondary or fluff.

    12. Bridget*

      Right?!? I was going to comment the same thing. And soft skills ARE skills, most definitely! I too come from a background of addiction, and in my recovery I have learned how to be compassionate but still be able to detect BS. Sounds like you might too, and that is a skill that can’t be taught my friend. :)

      You have a great work ethic, you work AND go to school AND manage people, so you excel at time management. Alison is right, you would not have been promoted to where you are today if you lacked skills. Don’t be hard on yourself, you rock!

    13. Churro*

      One great thing that would be good to convey to LW is that, once they get past these feelings of work/career insecurity, they may gain an even greater sense of confidence about themselves.

      That process basically entails dispelling false notions and wrong conclusions about ourselves—that we all have by the way, just maybe not as dramatic as this example—and the sense of clarity that can result from this can be a real boost.

  2. Cyborg Llama Horde*

    I will also add, that on the occasions when I’ve found myself saying, “Does that guy actually do any work? Or does he just have the ability to make the higher-ups like him?” (and it’s usually, although not always, a guy), the person in question 1) rarely is in charge of a team, and if he does, usually I never see him meaningfully interacting with said team, 1a) that team is not generally effective, unless there’s someone else who’d doing all the work of managing it, 2) tends not to be someone who is liked by peers and people below them in the org chart equally well as higher-ups and 3) is DEFINITELY not someone that I or my peers would consider turning to about something difficult going on in my life.

    I really want to highlight #3, because it means that your coworkers not just like you, they TRUST you, on a personal level, and trusting a coworker is, in my experience, based as much on how they do their job as it is on whether they are personally likeable and good at saying the right thing.

    1. WellRed*

      I agree and want to add, for the most part, no one cares about your background like you do. Can you do the work? Are you pleasant reliable helpful etc? Do you get results? As a coworker or client, I’m unlikely to care about anything else including how you got your start. I trust that you can do the job! You can!

    2. Caz*

      My company goes in heavily for what they call ” values-based interviews”, which can also make interviews into much more of a vibe check than they used to be say 10 years ago. When I recently interviewed for an internal promotion (which I got, yay!) I was given a lot of opportunities to showcase my soft skills. When I got the phone call offering me the job I was told – not so bluntly as this – that knowledge and hard skills can be taught, but if the right soft skills aren’t in place then all the teaching in the world won’t turn the wrong person into the right one. Your soft skills are invaluable because they make you who you are! You can learn the rest, and it seems like you’re on the right track for that!

    3. Guacamole Bob*

      Adding on to one piece of your post: I think some of what OP is feeling can be common for managers at a certain level, who spend all day managing and coordinating and talking with people rather than performing individual contributor tasks. Building a successful team is a serious, quantifiable accomplishment in its own right that takes a lot of hard work.

      It was hard for me when I became a manager that I would literally take credit in my annual performance objectives for the work of the team (“lead a team producing X, Y, and Z quantifiable outputs”) without me doing any of the actual work. But I do contribute – I assign the tasks, get people training and tools, review deliverables, troubleshoot problems, coordinate between projects, give feedback, etc., a lot of which is hard to measure and made much easier by having good soft skills. But it feels way more nebulous than when I wrote the code or the report as an individual contributor.

      OP has a lot of other stuff going on emotionally, but “what do I even contribute here?” is not an unusual feeling for managers to have on occasion.

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        This is a bit of history. Robert Heinlein was once married to a woman whose job was, during WWII, to keep a group of scientists from killing each other and to keep them on task. Llamas are easy-peasy compared to scientists with egos. She did a wonderful job, and it was an extremely valuable job (there were other problems, but this part she did right). No, she didn’t work with Oppenheimer et al, but there were other groups of scientists who Did Things in WWII.

        If you can keep all the llamas headed in the same direction and not hate you, you’re doing it right.

  3. Myrin*

    For whatever it’s worth, OP, I don’t know you beyond this letter and yet I think you sound super awesome!

    Turning literally your whole life around – which is what you did; the “troubles” you talk about don’t just pertain to one facet of your life but everything, health, relationships, living situation, work – is NOT an easy feat by any means.

    It takes someone who is headstrong, dedicated, willing and able to use introspection and look at themselves honestly, a hard worker, and who genuinely strives to do better. It speaks to your (work) ethic(s) and character, and that is a whole lot by itself already.

    All the best to you and keep on rocking!

  4. Cat Tree*

    As a hiring manager, soft skills are more important to me than hard skills, and I work in a highly technical field. I don’t care if someone doesn’t know our manufacturing process of they have the soft skills to figure it out. Of course hard skills and experience count for something, but those are usually much easier to find and/or screen for just from a resume.

    1. SpaceySteph*

      Yup, another technical field here and we can teach anyone our technical info but soft skills are hugely important and very hard to teach. We have devoted years to creating a training for the soft skills we want, but the truth is that most people either have it or they don’t, the training is only helpful in the margins and for sharpening nascent skills.

      A lot of people undervalue soft skills, both those who have them and those who don’t, but they really make the difference between just decent and truly awesome in a lot of fields.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I am also in a technical field, and I blow people away with my efficiency. The secret isn’t technical wizardry; it’s that I communicate well enough that I understand all the requirements, can suggest ways of meeting those requirements that take less time, and only need to do the job once.

    2. Aerin*

      Same (although I’m a trainer and not a manager). I have interviewed plenty of people with great technical skills whose soft skills are lacking, and my recommendation for them is almost always a pass. I’ll take someone willing to find a tricky answer over someone who just knows the answer any day–because the latter will struggle when something unfamiliar comes up, while the former will take it in stride.

      And I will say I’ve contributed to a couple of “sympathy hires,” people who don’t look like a good fit on paper because they don’t have the right kind of experience but do have the right attitude, people who I pushed to a yes when the rest of the hiring team was ready to discount them. I’m happy to get them in the door and give them the opportunity, but after the training is done they have to stand on their own. And so far, the only one who didn’t quite work out with us transferred to another department and is flourishing there. No one cares–or even knows!–anymore that they were a less than obvious choice on their initial hire.

    3. Clisby*

      This reminds me of an article I read some years ago about why humanities degrees like English often prove really valuable in the work world. A hiring manager for Morningstar, the company that publishes all kinds of financial info and ratings, said something like: “It’s a lot easier for me to hire good writers and train them how to read financial reports than to hire accountants and train them how to be good writers.”

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        I was an English major and one of my professors always told us: “Someone at some point will snidely ask you why you’re an English major. And you can respond ‘because it pleases me.’ And then they then ask ‘BUT what will you *do* with an English degree?’ you can respond ‘whatever I want.'”

        And I will say, none of my fellow English majors ended up in the same field as each other. We all have wildly varying jobs and for the most part (knock wood) haven’t had as hard a time finding a job as some of our other friends with more specialized degrees.

        I know this is purely anecdotal and not everyone’s experience matches that. But I share this anecdote because I think it proves a point being made throughout the comments:
        Soft skills matter!!

      2. Justin*

        My fancy undergrad school graduated many an English major into very technical jobs. It’s unfortunate that that created a lot of McKinsey types but, you know, the point stands.

    4. CatLadyEsq*

      Not a hiring manager, but I have experienced the same. The older I get the more I see the value in soft skills. A lack of soft skills can torpedo a whole team. I’d much rather train someone on hard skills – so many soft skills really can’t be taught, but maybe at most learned through observation and experience. OP is way undervaluing herself!

    5. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      this! I spent a decade paid specifically to help super successful individuals develop soft skills and for so many people, it’s the HARDEST thing and therefore so valuable across the board. They do not come naturally to most, and there are entire coaching industries based around developing them. Soft skills land accounts, maintain trust with stakeholders, keep the public happy, ensure customers of success, and so much more. Please never underestimate them or yourself.

    6. Jojo*

      Another one from a technical industry here to say that soft skills are so important. My company actually changed the way they hire managers because so many of the really good engineers that became really bad managers managed to damage our reputation with our customers.

      Also, motivating people and manipulating them are two separate things. I’ve struggled with this one in the past thanks to some family of origin baggage. I wonder if that might be a good discussion to have with your therapist.

      Anyway, you sound pleasant and resourceful, and I wish I could replace several of my teammates with you.

    7. Ophelia*

      Same, I work in a very technical field, for which I have sort of the bare minimum academic qualifications. But what I have in spades is… soft skills. I /joke/ sometimes that my job is just manipulating people, but really it’s that all of the Science And Data in the world aren’t going to make much of an impact or be put to use without someone who can help important people with PhDs think about what they want to communicate about their work, who they want to communicate it to, and how to get to that point–on budget. OP, you’re calling these soft skills (and I often do, too), but in thinking about it, I’d argue that reading people, managing teams, being charming to clients, building trust–those are all pretty specific management skills, and it sounds like your company has rightly identified you as possessing them.

    8. Kelsi*

      This! I’m in the IT dept of a medium sized non-profit, and the number one thing that sets every member of our small team apart is our soft skills. We are EXTREMELY productive and efficient for a small team, because we’re all good at working with people–which results in efficiency things like: getting it right the first time (because we ask the right questions, and people trust us enough to give honest and thoughtful answers), solving minor issues before they become huge problems (because people are willing to mention things to us before they’re emergencies), streamlining data entry and analysis (because we maintain good relationships with our client-facing folks and they help us really understand the work they’re doing and how they do it). We hear feedback all the time from our client-facing folks that we’re so much more responsive/helpful than IT at their previous jobs.

      Our director of IT was an English major and is a poet in their spare time. Before working here (though they’ve been here a very long time), they taught computer & software classes and were a great teacher (so great that after some high-up agency folks took the class, they begged boss to come work here). Boss’s soft skills are great and it makes them a fantastic manager.

    9. Dante’s disco inferno*

      Piling on about the value of soft skills in highly technical fields. I’m in academic medical research and we hire people based on 2 things- soft skills and the ability to get things done. Everything else can be learned. OP, you have these skills over the top. Your company is lucky to have you as well as your future clients.

  5. Artemesia*

    If you feel you need more specific skills other than your excellent ‘soft skills’ then acquire those skills. And therapy to help sort out why you are self sabotaging and how to manage the insecurities should be helpful; if you are not making progress there then you might need a new therapist. All that time lamenting could be spent improving in the area you feel you lack. For me, when I would get into a whining spiral like this of self hatred it would be usually because wallowing was easier than doing the hard work to change my skills and performance. We all tell ourselves stories to dismiss our failings. Sometimes doing the work to improve the performance is a better choice.

  6. Just Another Zebra*

    Please, OP, don’t underestimate the importance of soft skills. They’re incredibly difficult to teach – more so than technical skills. Resourcefulness is absolutely critical to success, and it seems like you have it in spades! One of the things I am praised for most at my job is “Zebra can find ANYTHING if you give her an hour”. Being able to type the right words into Google and get a usable product IS a skill (admittedly, it took me a very long time to accept that, too). Sympathy hires don’t advance like you have. Sympathy hires don’t get phenomenal raises like you have. You aren’t a sympathy hire. So go. Start your business. Be resourceful, and be proud of yourself!

    1. ferrina*

      Yes! Soft skills are very valuable My current job is based around soft skills. Yes, there are some technical skills are involved, but my ability to connect with anyone, identify the right people for a topic, get those people’s support and be able to help people come together is what got me the job. Actually, the job was custom designed for those skills- the higher-ups saw me on a certain project and thought “we need someone like that for these other important projects”.
      Similarly, I used to work someone who’s main ability was that he knew *everyone* in the industry. He was a marketing director and could write copy etc., but his biggest value was that he had his finger on the pulse. You could ask him what the X stakeholders thought about Y development and can we collaborate with an influencer, and you’d get a succinct summary and a list of names. It was incredible- that kind of information takes a long, long time to build and he had connections I could only dream of. He has a superpower, and he uses that power for good.

      You know who else built their career on soft skills? Oprah.

    2. Rook Thomas*

      COMPLETELY agree — soft skills often require high emotional intelligence. Being able to communicate with people who use different communication styles is a skill. It might sometimes feel like it’s manipulative, but I think of it as being aware, paying attention and adjusting to better communicate and work together.
      You’re doing a great job and as many have pointed out, sympathy hires don’t get phenomenal raises and even if they get a promotion, it doesn’t mean they are successful with their teams and with their work. Be proud of yourself (and know a lot of us readers are proud of you).

  7. Hiring Mgr*

    Starting a business is stressful and challenging for anyone, whether you have impostor syndrome or not, so join the club :)

    You might want to connect with others who have started similar businesses – usually people will love to talk about how they got started, what their backgrounds were and so on. That might give you a better sense of “I can do this” or “Not yet, need to get some more experience in XYZ”, or “Hell no this isn’t for me after all”

    1. Ama*

      Seconded, I am in the process of starting a freelance business in a very specific niche field and I had the good fortune of starting to explore the field right as a very established person in the field decided to start a networking/support group for those of us who do this very specific work. It has been absolutely invaluable — both because it’s really helped me learn what I need to launch my business and make connections with others, but also it’s helped give me confidence that I’m fully capable of doing the work.

  8. OnyxChimney*

    If I don’t know how to do something (which I often don’t), I will Google it and figure it out if it’s the last thing I do.


    Throughout my personal struggles, I developed an ability to read people, tone match, identify who is important to connect with

    Are two of the most highly valued and rare skills in any worker.

    1. Anna Badger*

      right? there are so, so many jobs where a willingness to figure stuff out and the ability to get people to take that stuff on board ARE the job. and that includes senior jobs and jobs that are super important.

    2. Third or Nothing!*

      Agreed! I’d add on to #1 that it’s also valuable to know when searching has become futile and being able to identify the appropriate person to reach out to for help.

    3. morethantired*

      Sincerely! I wish I had the interpersonal skills the LW is talking about. It is a gift to be able to build relationships and make the right connections at work. If LW’s freelance work is teaching people to do that, I can think of at least 10 managers I know who would pay big bucks for that kind of coaching.

  9. Irish Teacher.*

    Honestly, it is highly unlikely you are just a “sympathy hire with no skills.” Apart from anything else, if the company just wanted to hire somebody from a difficult situation out of kindness, there are still plenty of people who have had troubles in their past and who are very skilled, so why would they choose somebody who wasn’t?

    And also soft skills are skills. They aren’t less important or just “nice to haves”. They are very difficult skills to attain and are very important. For some jobs, they are the most important thing. As a teacher, I think a teacher who had excellent soft skills but only average knowledge of their subject would probably be better in most cases than a teacher who had only very average soft skills but was a genius in their area. The exception might be at a grind school where the students are 16+ and most are high achievers and they are usually attending the school mainly or solely to get the best grades possible.

    Soft skills provide huge value.

    And yes, people love a “comeback” story but by that, they mean somebody who performs at a standard as high as or higher than those from more traditional backgrounds and honestly, they usually mean “shows no signs of coming from anything else than a perfect background,” because people like the “story” to play out like fiction. If anything, the standards tend to be higher for such people, not lower, because people like the hero of the story to be a storybook hero. It doesn’t mean the person gets promoted for meeting bare minimum requirements.

    1. Aerin*

      As I mentioned upthread, I’ve done a bit of “sympathy hiring.” I’ve got no formal technical training myself, and I’m always the one on the committee pushing to consider how an unusual background might be transferable to our environment.

      But that’s not always enough to push someone over the line to a hire, nor should it be. Even if I’m giving more weight to attitude than to experience, I still ultimately have to believe they can *do the job,* and if I don’t think they’re up to it I’ll pass. And that’s all just about getting them in the door, not about how their career proceeds once they’re here.

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        Yes, there is a big difference between making an extra effort to see the skills in people who might not have the usual markers of success (high grades, great references from internships, good interview skills, etc) and hiring people without skills because you feel sorry for them.

      2. ferrina*

        I tend to hire people from unusual/non-industry standard backgrounds, but it’s always for my benefit. These folks always have key skills that complement the skills we already have. Finding someone that has great customer service skills under pressure? Someone that can juggle conflicting priorities on tight timelines? These are soft skills that are as likely (if not more so) to be found at restaurants/retail/non-profit than along my industry’s standard track. Fancy degree has absolutely no correlation with the ability to navigate weird client requests.

        Agreeing with Aerin that I’ve never hired someone solely because they have an unusual background. That might get you to an interview, but you still have to impress me in the interview. I’ve got high standards and a background as a professional interviewer (including qualitative analytics). I’ve never hired someone I thought couldn’t excel at the job (except in one case where my boss made me hire the guy. He was gone in under a month).

    2. Sloanicota*

      OP’s internal narrative would make more sense if they were a low-level worker who had been retained despite lacking skills for their job. I’ve seen companies keep on some folks out of sheer affection, but they often end up in a kind of office manager role where the harder tasks have been farmed out to other employees, front desk person who only answers phones and can dodge the tough questions, etc. I remember some story where they still had a manual elevator lady because everyone loved her, even though elevators don’t need attendants anymore. But OP has been promoted and is managing a team! No company does that because they like someone’s background story. I promise.

  10. Richard Hershberger*

    We often hear two great (and contradictory) lies about the working world. One is that you don’t need to know anything specific to manage: an MBA gives you all the training you need to manage in any field. The second is that you need specific formal training for any good job, so go learn to code if you don’t want to end up flipping burgers. In the real world, starting at the bottom, learning on the job, and advancing according to the abilities you demonstrate is entirely typical.

    1. Angstrom*

      Yup. I’ve had a sucessful career in a technical field without the usual engineering degree. I picked up a lot of “hard” skills on the job, but my real strength is in the “soft” skills — finding the people with the needed skills and information for a given problem, and helping them to work together across internal divisions. Being able to connect with all sorts of people and facilitate communication is hugely important. If you’re the person that everyone wants on their team, there’s a good reason for it. Don’t undersell yourself.

  11. Saturday*

    Keep doing what you’re doing, OP. It sounds like you’ve totally got this, and if there are setbacks, you’ll deal with them, right? Because that’s what you do and who you are.

  12. Mandy*

    This is something I suffer with (which is imposter syndrome). When I start having these thoughts, I literally say to myself…stop this thought; this is imposter syndrome.

    Remind yourself of your accomplishments and allow yourself grace for any areas you need to improve. Your accomplishments speak for themselves and you should be proud.

  13. A Simple Narwhal*

    I say this kindly, but a company is infinitely more likely to see a challenging background as a liability and reject you than go aww they just need a chance. And sympathy would never lead to the promotions, opportunities, and achievements that you have accomplished – that’s all been you.

    LW, I’m just a random internet stranger and I only know you from what you have written, but
    frankly, you sound awesome to me.

  14. Ellis Bell*

    I’m so glad OP knows that this is imposter syndrome because I was just repeating “Hello Imposter Syndrome!” until I came to that paragraph. The whole letter is about undeniable resourcefulness and grit, and being solidly self critical instead of just believing in the most comfortable things. Which is good, but don’t go so far that you can’t believe your own facts about your own life. Sure, OP, hold yourself up the lens occasionally, but be moderate in your judgement. There’s loads to be proud of here.

  15. Saturday*

    “Why does it feel safer to let yourself believe you don’t have much to offer? ….When you imagine moving forward with confidence, what feels scary about that? Is it the risk of the rug getting pulled out from under you?”

    Alison is blowing my mind here. I need her to start a life-advice blog in addition to her work-advice blog.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I agree, I’ll be thinking about this. There is definitely comfort in maintaining a belief in low expectations and low standards. But it doesn’t serve you past a certain point.

  16. Insert Pun Here*

    Another possibility to consider: your soft skills make your job easier than it would otherwise be, and that’s making you feel like you’re not working hard enough/a sympathy hire/etc. Because soft skills actually make most jobs easier: people trust you, are more likely to help you out, give you the benefit of the doubt, etc.

    Also, if you are googling things to figure out how to do them, you’ve learned skills! This is how I learned to do nearly everything in excel, for example.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      And the things about work that are made easier via soft skills are HUGELY present in starting your own business.

      1. The Prettiest Curse*

        Yup, nobody wants to hire freelancers or consultants who are awful to work with!
        OP, one of the most useful skills you can develop through therapy is the ability to recognise when the voices in your head are spouting absolute nonsense, as they’re clearly doing in your case. Ask your therapist what you can do to recognise and re-frame or ignore negative self-talk.
        You sound awesome – best of luck with your new business!

  17. Juicebox Hero*

    How many letters appear on this blog about people who are technically proficient at their jobs but are an absolute BLEEP to work with or manage? :D

    A person who knows how to de-escalate conflict, speak to people about sensitive stuff effectively and kindly, clear up misunderstandings, and get along with everyone is worth their weight in gold.

    My uberboss is one such. I’ve seen him meet with people who are steam-out-the-ears furious with a big smile and handshake and fifteen minutes later they walk out of his office laughing and joking and slapping each other on the back. It amazes me every time.

  18. Governerd101*

    OP, please read Adam Grant’s newest book, Hidden Potential ( The book talks a lot about overcoming Imposter Syndrome and other folks who are in similar boats as you and how they became successful. The stories will likely inspire you! Adam is a great writer. It’s an easy, quick read that has made a huge impact for me!

  19. New Jack Karyn*

    It can be relatively easy to recognize intellectually where your challenge is. You know in your head that your feelings around this are almost certainly impostor syndrome. But it’s hard as heck to absorb it into your heart and gut, to work through it and reduce those feelings. This is what therapy is for!

    I can’t imagine working a job that I’m kicking ass at, AND going to school full time, AND considering starting a side business. All while doing therapy to sort out important issues. You’re doing impressive things, and we’re all rooting for you!

  20. thelettermegan*

    I’ve noticed sometimes with my low-estreem that I have to remember that people like me just because I’m a good friend and coworker, not because I manipulated them into liking me by being a good friend and coworker.

    Great managers tend to be people who are also just great to have around. Managers who can make meetings run smoothly, advocate for others, listen closely and mediate, find solutions, take on all the weird little research tasks (like googling), turn chicken sh*t into chicken salad, and effectively motivate teams. Management is a skill, and it’s very important and valuable.

  21. Hills to Die on*

    You’re already in recovery – so am I. I have been in one 12-step program for 30+ years. I recently started going to ACA / ACoA and it is changing everything for me in the best way possible. I hear lots of ACA in your story and much of that program addresses what you are talking about. Just FYI.

  22. Spicy Tuna*

    For the most part, unless you are in an industry that requires specific skills (like having a CPA license, or being admitted the bar), soft skills and work ethic are incredibly important! My last job was a huge step up for me, financially and professionally. After I was hired (to my shock!), I found out that a former manager of mine (at a different company) had also interviewed for the role. He had more “hard” skills than me, but they took a pass on him and went with me because of all of the unquantifiable stuff that doesn’t make it onto a resume.

    Both of my last two jobs required me to figure stuff out on my own with very little direction from managers. OP, if you are willing and able to do that, which is sounds like you do, you are incredibly valuable to an organization. Don’t sell yourself short. Corporations are about making money first and foremost. They don’t hang on to people who don’t belong there out of the goodness of their hearts

  23. OrigCassandra*

    Hey, OP. I just want to let you know that you kick my azz at soft skills, and it MATTERS. I’ve been working my whole working life to figure out how to do what you do.

    I’m… less hopeless than I was at it, and that’s something, but I don’t hold a candle to you.

    So take that with you, wherever you go from here.

  24. Hot Dish*

    I work in social services and I’ve worked with a lot of people experiencing the things that you’ve gone through, and I also hear a lot of feeling less than others who haven’t been through that stuff.

    I never say this to them because I don’t want to come off as minimizing what people are going through. But I hear All. The. Time. from people in my personal life: friends, family, coworkers who may not have dealt with nearly all the tough stuff you went through. These other people feel like they messed up, their life took a wrong turn, they’re not enough, they don’t have the skills, they’re imposters, etc.

    I have an advanced degree and years of experience, and I’m job searching and working to not devalue myself and what I could bring to another employer.

    All this to say that you’re far from alone. Also, you have all kinds of skills from life experience that other people didn’t have, so don’t devalue that! I know it’s not great to go through that stuff, but you did learn from it.

    Finally, i do believe that some of this is part of the human condition, and many of us have to do our best to not give too much weight to those voices in our head telling us we can’t do it.

    Best of luck to you and to anyone else struggling with this.

  25. ArchivesPony*

    OP, if you live near a university or college, see if they have a small business mentorship (mine does) or may be people there who might help you on the small business questions you have

  26. Cut and Run*

    I work in social services and I’ve worked with a lot of people experiencing the things that you’ve gone through, and I also hear a lot of feeling less than others who haven’t been through that stuff.

    I never say this to them because I don’t want to come off as minimizing what people are going through. But I hear All. The. Time. from people in my personal life: friends, family, coworkers who may not have dealt with nearly all the tough stuff you went through. These other people feel like they messed up, their life took a wrong turn, they’re not enough, they don’t have the skills, they’re imposters, etc.

    I have an advanced degree and years of experience, and I’m job searching and working to not devalue myself and what I could bring to another employer.

    All this to say that you’re far from alone. Also, you have all kinds of skills from life experience that other people didn’t have, so don’t devalue that! I know it’s not great to go through that stuff, but you did learn from it.

    Finally, i do believe that some of this is part of the human condition, and many of us have to do our best to not give too much weight to those voices in our head telling us we can’t do it.

    Best of luck to you and to anyone else struggling with this.

  27. juliebulie*

    If they gave you a 70% increase, then you are worth your weight in gold to them, and they probably cry themselves to sleep each night in gratitude that you still work for them.

    You sound pretty amazing, so I hope you can rethink your self-talk to reflect that.

  28. nofiredrills*

    As I moved from community service-based roles to my current corporate job I learned that basically everyone “fakes it till they make it.” I never really knew adults with corporate jobs as a kid, so it felt like they knew so much more than me at first. Nope. Many people don’t HAVE to develop the kind of drive you have to get to that point. You sound like a joy to work with!

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      “I learned that basically everyone “fakes it till they make it.”’

      This is one of those poorly kept secrets that really holds back people who are coming from less privileged backgrounds. If you grew up with corporate parents/mentors/whatever you have people who can coach you on these things. So much of success is being able to sell yourself convincingly, moreso than being a content or technical expert on any one thing in particular.

      Not that successful people don’t have skills or that those of us who have personal success didn’t work hard – but there’s a political and performance aspect as well. That’s not always obvious, and if you don’t know you’re going to be holding yourself to a much higher standard than the people around you are holding you – or themselves – to. So you won’t see your own success until you’re at 110%, while 80% is really all anyone needs to excel.

  29. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    “There are no measurable KPI’s indicating my success”
    Task for you, OP.
    Make some. Just sit down at a desk with paper and pencil…
    oh, you have a computer and keyboard? You can type and use word processing software?
    But you you just taught yourself, so it doesn’t… stop that.
    Write out your job description.
    List what you do and how you do it.
    Now describe how you have improved your ability to do it. Any points where you are considered the “go to person” for that? Probably are.
    List who you know in the company.
    How do you know them? Were you tapped for special projects? Are you tapped for help, advice, insight into the job? Probably are.
    Internalize THAT.
    Look, I’ve been doing my job for 30 years and once a month I read something/hear something that makes me think “I have no marketable skills. How am I even here? What the hell WOULD I put on a resume?”
    But then I think, they are paying me, so I must be doing something. Nobody is paying me to be here because they like me.
    People get a foot in the door all kinds of ways.
    So your uncle plays golf with the CFO; you went to the same high school as the comptroller; you were the mascot for the Toledo Mudhens and the HR director has season tickets. Maybe your story got you in the door.
    But it didn’t keep you in the office.
    And your company is not paying you, rewarding you, promoting you because of who you were five years ago, much less ten years ago.
    Good luck and well done.

  30. Dust Bunny*

    If you were just employed because of your comeback story, it’s really, really unlikely that you would have been promoted to management, built a team, and received those enormous pay raises. That’s just … not a thing that typically happens.

    Agreed Your worries sound like something you’d see in a movie, but not something that actually translates to real life. “Fake it till you make it” works for awhile, but at some point you’re no longer faking it and either you tank–which you haven’t–or you’ve figured it out enough to make it, and it sounds like you have done that.

    Also, a lot of people have job skills that they didn’t get through formal channels. I work in a medical school library, so I work with people all the time who technically have a lot more education than I do, but they have to come to me to find things in our collections or online. I went to school before Internet searches were much of a thing, too, so all of that was learned by, well, faking it on the job. Except I’m not faking it now because I’ve been doing it for years and I really do know what I’m doing, even though there isn’t a transcript or anything anywhere that says so.

  31. name of the day*

    i just want to say, i completely understand how you feel. i could have written this letter myself, it was actually jarring! have you ever thought about how class maybe plays into your feelings? i know for myself, i’m in a field at an institution that i thought i could NEVER belong in, and even though i’m successful, i don’t know that i’ll ever quite let that idea go. it’s a complicated feeling and i feel weird even really voicing anything about it, but i wanted to comment to tell you that you aren’t alone. and not to sound like an asshole, but you and i have something a lot of people will never have. you can’t teach what we earned. :) good luck to you.

  32. Lisa B*

    As a longtime hiring manager in a notoriously sympathetic industry, I can tell you that a sympathy vote might get you an interview, but it won’t get you hired. Based on how you worded a few things in your letter, your enthusiasm and determination to get the job done and be successful is what got you hired! And what’s keeping you advancing! You’re doing awesome, OP. :)

    1. Goldenrod*

      “I only have soft skills, and it’s simply my ability to genuinely connect with people.”

      Soft skills are HUGE. They are 100% the key to success!

      I would 100 times rather work for someone with strong soft skills but weak technical skills than the other way around. People without soft skills are generally terrible leaders.

  33. different seudonym*

    Two points, which I hope will be helpful:

    1) The term “soft skills” isn’t a put-down of those skills, nor is “hard skills” a form of praise. “Hard” just means “specific and easily quantified” while “soft” means “difficult to define succinctly, and related to the quality of the work.” It is literally more difficult to deploy soft skills, because you have to understand the whole context to use them effectively.

    2) Alison said to ask yourself what’s scary about potential success. Maybe it’s to do with leaving your network and all your baggage behind? it sounds to me like a successful freelance business would be made up of…. *clients who don’t know your story.*

    Somebody above said that your worries sound familiar, like what a lot of people in your position deal with. I agree, it’s very normal, but that doesn’t make it easy! good luck.

    1. Anonym*

      A very interesting point to consider! In your new freelancing work, there’s no chance the clients will be working with you because of your life story, which really challenges the idea that that’s fueling your value (which it clearly isn’t). They’ll work with you purely for your professional value. I can see why that would be unsettling given the thoughts you have on your current job.

      I hope you absorb all of this and return to it in moments of self doubt, OP!

  34. Critical Rolls*

    Dear LW, please see the reams of letters from people who are constantly interrupted by coworkers who never try to solve their own issues, or the ones about how to get others to use painstakingly crafted documentation. Even before your rare and wonderful soft skills, your resourcefulness makes you an absolute gem, and that independence will serve you well in your own venture.

  35. Sharon*

    I agree with everything posted above about soft skills being very valuable, but also, it can’t be true that you only have soft skills. Workplaces don’t pay people to sit around and make people like them – they pay them to do some sort of work. You may not have measurable KPIs, but you still have outcomes/accomplishments? What work would have to be done by somebody else if you left? Did you give presentations, answer questions, write a newsletter, keep a website updated, onboard clients, stick to a budget, manage people to successful outcomes? What work would you be delivering to freelance clients? Those are skills you have. Don’t sell yourself short.

  36. Michelle Smith*

    (1) As someone who really had to work on developing soft skills but has plenty of credentials (including degrees from prestigious schools), I completely agree that you are undervaluing them. They are huge and you should not discount them as being “just” soft skills.

    (2) Being good at connecting with people and being able to use that to your advantage doesn’t have to feel icky. You’re in management and considering entrepreneurship. There is an incredibly easy way to make it so that you don’t feel bad about how you’ve been able to use those relationships to move ahead – use your power to help bring others with you! Use your role as a manager to help your employees cultivate those soft skills, use your connections to help them move up professionally, and look for ways you can champion other people’s work, particularly those on your team.

    (3) Remember that starting and closing a business is not the same thing as failing. Every new venture or endeavor teaches us something. The only way we fail is if we want to do something and we never even try. Don’t give up before you’ve even started. Launch the business.

  37. Generic Name*

    My husband has a similar background. He grew up in poverty in a dysfunctional/abusive family. He spent years homeless/involved with drugs. He got himself out of all of that and made a career for himself. He is an amazing husband and father, and he is, quite frankly, an extraordinary person. Like you, he doesn’t think he’s anything special, but that’s BS. Just getting oneself cleaned up and out of that scene takes extraordinary effort. You’ve not only done that, but you’ve excelled at work. Give yourself the credit you deserve. I’ve been working for nearly 20 years, and I’ve never seen a “pity hire” of someone with a rough background and no skills. What I’ve seen is the opposite. People with a cushy background and no skills is far more likely to get hired. Also, I really hate the term “soft” skill. Communication and reading people is a skill! And it’s one that is far harder to teach, than say, math. You have skills. You have grit. You have perseverance and persistence. Those skills aren’t easy to come by.

  38. Freelance Bass*

    OP, you can do this!

    A huge part of freelancing is being personable. You’re selling your personal brand as much as your service, and so many people don’t know how to do that effectively. If you can network confidently, build and maintain relationships, and have even a basic understanding of social media, then you’ve got this in the bag.

    My one piece of advice is to take steps to avoid burnout before it happens. Having a full-time job as well as a side business is a big time commitment, and you need to take care of yourself too!

  39. AnotherSarah*

    Starting a business is hard and nerve-wracking, and in the process you’ll discover just how much you don’t know—and that’s humbling! But it seems to me, OP, that you’ve been in that place before (i.e. before your current job and transformations) and you’ve excelled! So do also cut yourself some slack for feeling apprehensive but know that it’s EXACTLY the “soft skills” that will help you develop the business and guide you in the right direction. And even in a worse-case scenario (the business isn’t viable), having good soft skills will let you exit gracefully. How many letters do we see here from people who have “hard” skills (or manage someone who does), yet can’t dig themselves out of a hole because they can’t build relationships, navigate hard scenarios, etc.?

  40. JustaTech*

    LW, first, you are amazing.
    Second, to give you a piece of trendy corporate-speak, the thing you have got (that a lot of people and organizations don’t have) is a “growth mindset”.
    Look at your letter and see how much you’ve grown! See the resilience! Those qualities are incredibly valuable to you as a person, you as an employee, you as a student, and you as a potential business owner.

    I had an all-day seminar on how my department could become more resilient and build a growth mindset, and one of the first things the trainer explained was that these are difficult qualities to develop, but they’re super valuable, and we should expect to spend months developing them. Now, would a trainer say that, and would a company pay for that training if they didn’t think it was valuable? (And it’s not just MBA buzz words, there’s research behind this.)

    And if you ever need to contradict that voice that says bad things about “soft skills”, remember that those are the same skills used by diplomats to do things like prevent wars. They’re highly valuable!

  41. ecnaseener*

    The most successful person I know is the one who can talk her way into anything. She doesn’t have a tragic past or anything so it’s not pity, she’s just incredibly talented at thinking on the fly and connecting with people. Sure, you can think of it as a “soft” skill, but that just means it’s about working with humans. Working with humans effectively is hugely important in most jobs, and you’re unusually talented at it — that’s enough to explain your successes!

  42. Yes And*

    My company frequently promotes on hard skills only, and I wish they wouldn’t. Our HR department bears the brunt of their lack of management skills. I wish they would sometimes let the highly skilled Teapot Painter or Llama Dresser keep going as an individual contributor, and promote the hustler with a winning personality.

    OP, it sounds like your skill set is ideally suited to be a great manager. Don’t devalue your soft skills.

  43. CatLady*

    I’d like to address your “manipulation” comment as I too worry about that. I during my first MBA class we were being taught these soft skills and I straight up asked the prof “isn’t this manipulation”? Her short answer was yes – it is. Her long answer was to talk about the fact that the word manipulation has a negative connotation and as such we shy away from anything that feeds into that. Reframe your thoughts – you are using the skills you have at hand to accomplish a a business goal and you are using all your skills to get there – including the soft one. As long as you use those skills for “good”, (i.e. to help the company reach its goals) and you are being honest and above board while doing it (i.e. being ethical) then its not manipulation in the negative sense – its simply doing what needs to get done.

    So when you feel icky about employing your soft skills dive, into why. If you are confident your goals are pure and you aren’t lying/cheating to reach them then try reframing the interaction. If your investigation reveals that you are skirting around or even violating professional, business, and/or personal ethics then maybe you are being badly manipulative and you need to re-align your tactics.

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      This reminds me a little of the time I had a class who behaved fine in class, but as soon as I said “class dismissed” (not literally worded like that, but you know…), they would create chaos, pushing the bin out into the corridor or knocking it over, shoving and pushing and shouting as they went down the corridor, etc, so I started teaching the last five minutes of class from the back of the room, beside the door, so they had to pass me on the way out and that put an end to that.

      For years, I felt like I’d sort of “cheated” my way out of dealing with the issue until I was doing an upskilling course and mentioned it and the lecturer said that that was what good teachers did, found ways to prevent trouble rather than just trying to react by punishing misbehaviour (which I had found difficult as it was hard to tell who was doing what when a crowd of students were all pushing out the door together).

      It’s not exactly the same thing, but I think it is similar, that setting up a situation where you will get the outcome you want may feel a lot easier than fighting through things but it isn’t cheating. It’s easier because you are skilled, not because you are cheating your way out of it by using your skills.

    2. Jaydee*

      The same skills that are called manipulation when used for “evil” can be called persuasion, marketing, relationship building, and negotiation when used for good.

    3. New Jack Karyn*

      At some level, any type of cooperation can be construed as ‘manipulation’. We should all be professional in the office, but the person who is kind and pleasant to be around is more likely to get a little extra help, while the office sourpuss doesn’t get anything extra. I don’t think that means the kind person is being manipulative!

  44. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

    LW, I worked my way up with no formal training into a Project Manager position. My job is probably 90% soft skills. Other people do all the tasks that need to be done and have the institutional knowledge to bring a project to completion successfully. I fall into the trap sometimes of thinking that I don’t do anything except take notes during meetings and pester co-workers for deliverables.

    But ultimately, whether the project is successful or not primarily falls on my shoulders. If someone assigned to my project is falling behind, I talk to them to find out why and brainstorm solutions. I have a wonderful knack for being able to reverse-engineer what we want the outcome to be and distill it into individual tasks and timelines. There is another PM on my team who is incredibly organized and detail oriented, but she’s harsh on people so they will rarely go the extra mile for her when things don’t go as planned. My boss has told me that he knows he can put me on *any* project because I get along with everyone, whereas with the other PM, there are certain ones he won’t assign her because the other people on the team don’t want to work with her. I make it easy for my boss to be my boss, and that is well worth every penny he pays me.

  45. Mialana*

    Soft skills and the ability to connect with people are so, so, so, so important. And it’s really good that you bring them because those are incredibly hard to learn. So please don’t say that you ‘only’ have soft skills. That’s a lot of skill right there!

  46. BubbleTea*

    I have an undergraduate degree from an internationally prestigious university, and a Masters degree. The only non-soft skill I use from either is the ability to look stuff up online (I mainly used Google Scholar for my MSc research because I was an online student without library access). And LW can already do that!

    University gave me the opportunity to learn how to mix with different types of people, how to adjust my behaviour and speech appropriately, how to network, how to interpret other people… all things LW mentions being good at. I needed to go to a city and broaden my horizons by being a small fish in a large pond to learn that stuff, but it’s hardly exclusive to university.

    Basically, LW, I don’t think there’s a lot you’d gain from doing a degree that you haven’t already learned from life, unless you need a specific qualification for a certain role.

    1. BubbleTea*

      And just to add… if you’re getting great results, doing a good job, providing value, and working well with people, does it actually MATTER if you’re “genuine” or just a “sympathy hire”? Functionally, in what ways would it be different if you were actually qualified for the position in the way you feel you’re not, rather than being good at it the way you are now? It doesn’t sound like the employer would see any difference, it would solely be about your self-perception… and that’s not something that having a degree would actually change, I promise – you’d just have a lot of debt and the feeling that you’d somehow cheated your way through the degree using the skills your brain dismisses as being not relevant.

  47. Justin*

    I refuse to diagnose here but I know I felt a lot of these things because of how I was treated, particularly in school (I happen to have ADHD but it could be anything to end up with these thoughts). Consequently, I never believed my achievements – which were considerable – were enough to make me valuable. I’ve only recently gotten out of that mindset.

    I just offer you compassion. The only other suggestion (aside from therapy and everything Alison already said) might be literally writing down everything you’ve done well and adding to it each time something happens. Writing it out has helped me be able to point to things and fought back the ideas. And this will also help you for future interviews and solicitation of business.

  48. Justin*

    I also want to say this is why the overemphasis on quantitative metrics is harmful, especially to disadvantaged groups who often excel when placed in qualitative terms. And numbers don’t mean nothin’ without a story behind them.

  49. I edit everything*

    OP, I wish you all the best, and I hope you will keep us updated on how things are going.

    And I gotta be honest, I wish I had your skills. I’m absolutely certain I would be a much more successful editor if I had your people skills, resourcefulness, and drive.

  50. HugeTractsofLand*

    You should be proud of how far you’ve come, not just personally but professionally! I second all the glowing things others have already said about you and your soft skills, but if you do end up launching your side business…I recommend you map out what failure would look like. Specifically, distinguish between actual “time to pull the plug” failure versus typical struggles for a small business. I have a feeling that you might misinterpret your business the same way you’ve misinterpreted your own career path, and I’d hate for you to back out too quickly because the business *seems* like a failure to you. So set some objective goals/expectations! That way you have something concrete to look at when you’re swamped by doubt.

  51. TheGirlInTheAfternoon*

    I work in career development. It is a major part of my job to help people recognize and develop the skills that make them high-value workers.

    Being able to relate to people in a way that they respond to positively is an incredibly valuable skill that is extremely difficult to teach. If it weren’t, everyone would do it! You have succeeded because you are the kind of employee who 1) figures out what needs to be done, 2) figures out how to make it happen, and 3) then does what it takes to actually get it done.

    Based on those two competencies alone, I can tell you with absolute confidence that if you were a candidate applying to the employers with whom I regularly work, regardless of whether they knew anything about your background or not, there would be an MMA-level fight to recruit you to their teams.

  52. Liz lemon*

    As someone with a couple expensive degrees… the thing that’s gotten me the farthest is not the degrees or what I learned there, but my ability to Google and use trial and error to learn new systems. It’s given me some imposter syndrome too “I’m not really a ‘wizard at excel’, I just googled it and figured it out from there”. But you have to remember that most people either don’t take the time or don’t do it right. it’s a truly valuable skill!

    1. Numbat*


      we’re all faking it til we make it.

      some of us are just doing so with supportive families and degrees!

  53. Sloanicota*

    Woof, I feel you, OP. I feel like I only have the “soft skills” of being easy to work with, likeable, personable, and fun to be around. I have a generalist’s degree and am sort of a multi-hat-wearing person. Sometimes I worry I’m the one with “heart powers” on the team of superheroes, which doesn’t really feel great if other people are breathing fire or blasting through walls. And yes, there is something manipulative-feeling about “using” emotional intelligence to get results, I agree. But the truth is, when you work with someone who lacks EQ, you realize that these are actually valuable, in-demand skills *for a reason* and they’re basically just as valuable in most offices as a hard science skillset. There are many valuable ways to make your strengths work for you and the world. I hope you can believe that.

    1. Clare*

      People skills are the most important skills. Hands down. When you boil existence down to the essentials, sentient beings are all just trying to 1) not feel bad and 2) feel good. That’s all. That’s why we eat, drink, form relationships, build cities, invent, create, care for each other and fly to the moon.

      People will do the bare minimum at work to get paid to avoid suffering. After that, they’re unconsciously looking for ways to feel good. If you make them feel good then they’ll go above and beyond to get that little dopmine hit of existential fulfilment. If you don’t, they’ll continue achieving the minimum that makes them feel secure in their jobs then seek good elsewhere. Making people feel good is the cornerstone to all achievement. It’s not A skill, it’s THE skill. You’re not manipulating people by helping them feel good faster. Since we have to be at work anyway to avoid feeling bad, you’re doing them a favour by helping them get some good in at the same time.

      Personally, I’ve always been happiest, most fulfilled and most successful in my life inside and outside work when working for someone with EQ. It charges the batteries to a quite astonishing extent.

  54. CommentKoi*

    Call them “soft skills” all you want, but a desire to help others, ability to connect with people, a strong work ethic, initiative to figure things out yourself, learning fast, and multitasking – all things you have described yourself as having – are very, VERY valuable things that a surprisingly high amount of people with the “right” background are lacking. Plus, having built a successful team, gotten promoted, and gotten a huge raise are not only measurable accomplishments, they mean a lot. And, like others have said, if you make mistakes at work or if your side business struggles, that’s not a sign that you’re a total failure – it’s more to learn and improve from.

    I have hardcore imposter syndrome too, and it’s so hard to train your brain out of it. The best advice I’ve ever gotten on that: try to “fake it till you make it” in your own brain about believing in yourself! Pretend like you deserve to be where you’ve gotten to, that you DO know what you’re doing and you know you’re good at it, that people respect and value you highly for the work you do. Eventually, you may actually believe it.

  55. Greg C.*

    – “She’s only been successful in the past due to her soft skills and ability to connect with the right people – she can’t provide any actual value.”

    She’s been successful in the past due to her soft skills and ability to connect with the right people – this provides tremendous value.

    – “She has no measurable metrics signaling high performance.”

    This shows that our metrics are woefully incomplete.

    – “She is just the token hire at this company, so why try? Everyone just loves a ‘comeback’ story, and every company needs a ‘personality hire.’”

    She started as a token hire (MAYBE!), and amazed us with her soft skills. We should stop thinking of ‘tokens’ and broaden our search criteria.

    – “There are other people in this field who are way better, with degrees.”
    There are other people in this field who are way worse, with degrees.

  56. moni179jo*

    Oh my goodness-soft skills are crucial and very hard to teach or train! (Even if you didn’t have other obvious concrete skills such as leading a team and being able to figure out how to do tasks you don’t have prior experience with they would be something your leaders should highly value.) Using your people skills to build relationships isn’t manipulative either; it is smart!

  57. Softly Skilled*

    I want to be careful to share my own experiences and not project them as universal.

    I had a really chaotic upbringing and early adulthood. Got my shit together starting around 29 and would say I got pretty stable in my early 30s. I’m now nearly 40 and doing well. Never really had the confidence to work for anyone else longer than I had to (afraid of getting Found Out – about what? Nobody knows!) and so I became self employed as soon as I could. I regret this because it cost me years of development as I flailed along trying to figure it out when working for someone who knew their shit would have really helped.

    One of the things I have noticed as I’ve gotten older is that I had a lot of delusions/fantasies/beliefs/what have you about others. And I am realizing I based my entire “what adults look like and do and what the world is like” on very little. Mostly TV if we’re being real. I didn’t even watch much TV growing up but I still gleaned enough from popular culture to believe these tropes. For example, that there is such a thing as a “personality hire” or a “sympathy hire”. That’s movie stuff and it’s not real. In fact, when I was working for others, I tried to lean into what I thought Normal Adults Working In Offices Did and I was BAD AT IT. I was playing a character rather than really learning. I was about 500 of the coworkers people write to Alison about. Truly, it was not great and did not serve me well.

    Realizing that life isn’t actually like that – it’s not a teen movie or a romcom – and that nobody will pop out of the woodwork to yell at me, berate me, tell me I suck, or laugh at me – has been great. The other day I was about to start saying some insecure stuff to my spouse about “how did the fat ugly smelly girl with no friends and men’s clothing get the sexy jock?” and I realized we are in our 30s and 50s and I am not the fat ugly smelly girl with no friends (still fat tho!) and he is not a sexy jock. We are boring ass regular office workers who live in a mobile home park. Which was incredibly empowering for me. Keep going, OP.

  58. Prismatic Garnet*

    “In any given moment, I can be exactly who you want me to be, and I can do whatever is required of me.” – I will say, OP, it might help to detangle those two ideas from each other. Doing whatever is required of you entails being resourceful, flexible, and adaptive, and that’s great. But thinking of it as “being whoever [they] want you to be” is an unhealthy framing that leans into a more manipulative vibe, and that de-centers you from the core of yourself and your values. You can still be amazing at the latter while stopping yourself from trying for the former.

    In a similar vein, you can for example be great at sussing out what others are hoping to get from connecting in a conversation, or be the right kind of persuasive and encouraging, without falling into telling people what they want to hear. The former is a way of being perceptive and responsive. The latter mindset is a way that people victim-blame people for lying to them.

    So if you’re worried about where the borders are between manipulation and fantastic people skills, those thoughts might help you lean into the good while avoiding the bad.

    Either way, congratulations on your amazing progress in life and best of luck with your next step!!

  59. WorkingRachel*

    Just adding to the chorus that “sympathy hires” and “personality hires” are not really a thing. In the unlikely case that sympathy contributed to you getting hired, there is absolutely no way sympathy got you promoted, repeatedly, with raises. It is far more likely that your background is actually holding you back when it comes to external recognition, and that without the “tough” stuff you would be doing EVEN BETTER.

    This voice in your head is a lie–don’t listen to it. You’re doing awesome, and it sounds like you are working in a good place that is able to correct for their own biases and recognize that.

  60. GreenDoor*

    My husband and I enjoy several TV shows where the main character/s are serious crooks or addicts (ex. The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, etc) We’ll often comment to each other, “Can you imagine if that hustler/dealer/crime boss went out and got a real job. They’d kill it with those skills!” OP…you’re doing that! You acquired skills doing things that weren’t so positive and successfully parlayed that into honest work earning a respectable living. That is nothing to sneeze at! Keep it up!!

  61. MCR*

    OP, I recommend reading the book The Many Lives of Mama Love. It’s a memoir about a now-successful publisher/writer who had addiction issues and served time in prison before turning her life around, and she talks a lot about struggling with the feeling that her past defined her and how she also “faked it till she made it.” I found it inspiring and I hope you do too.

  62. Generalist*

    OP, lots of other comments have highlighted how your soft skills — ability to really listen, understand what someone wants or needs, and help them work toward getting it — are super valuable in legitimate business contexts. And that is absolutely true! But I want to point out the other side of the coin: yes, addicts often try to develop these skills in order to feed their addiction, but NOT ALL ADDICTS ARE SUCCESSFUL AT THIS.

    Just looking at the stereotypical “junkie” in police tv shows, you can see behavior patterns of people who want to charm/manipulate others but are only sometimes able to do so. (TV scripts rely heavily on the trope that addicts can’t plan ahead and ultimately are incapable of earning trust.)

    The fact is, people who are addicted fall into a wide range of behaviors and a wide range of functioning level. (I imagine you are aware that some people hold highly responsible jobs while regularly abusing alcohol and other substances.) So if you are telling yourself that you have these skills only bc you were desperate and needed to use them…that’s pretty unlikely. More likely, it seems to me, is that your innate *and* cultivated skills at reading people and helping them get what they want were part of what helped you survive in the darkest days but also what helped you make the difficult series of choices that moved you to a better life.

    You have what are sometimes called “people skills,” and you have repeatedly exercised them to make choices that were (and are) healthier for you and those you love.

    We all have repertoires of various behaviors that we draw on. What makes your story meaningful is the choices you made and make as to how you will apply the set of behaviors you have at your disposal.

  63. Softly Skilled*

    One more thing, OP! Some of the skills I used when I was in the worst of the shit have been channeled into really healthy stuff now. Like, buying people gifts so they would like me/not discard me has turned into picking out really thoughtful and awesome gifts given freely to those I love. And it turns out the kindness and generosity and delight in sharing with others was always within me. I just didn’t know how to use it correctly/didn’t have a situation to use it correctly/used it as a survival skill. Now that I don’t operate in survival mode, I can use my skills to their fullest. See if you can look at your skills from that angle.

  64. Constable George Crabtree*

    My dad was a seasoned, well-respected, and much-beloved high-level manager of a successful team at a big international company for most of my life. He’s often mentioned a huge challenge in hiring was finding people with strong soft skills, because they are just as vital as hard skills (for the reasons Alison mentioned) but not trainable and often deprioritized in this pop-culture idea of success. The thing is, he could train anyone to do the actual work, that’s cake – but he couldn’t train them in integrity, work ethic, effective cooperation, or just being a pleasure to work with. If you find the unicorns that have those skills and invest the time in teaching them the job, they’ll be the best employees you’ve got. You sound like a unicorn! You can pick up those hard skills as you need em (and it sounds like you have been). Take it from another longtime hiring manager, you’re exactly what success actually looks like.

  65. Cat Executive Officer*

    You described yourself as having the exact skills you need to succeed in business – you’re proactive, resourceful, adaptable and nimble, and good with people. You sound like the dream employee! So many employers would kill for an employee like you.

  66. Clare*

    I’d just like to add that it’s not always family of origin or even childhood that make a person feel it’s safer to believe they don’t have much to offer.

    I was a high achieving, bright, bubbly kid with a supportive family, kind teachers and good friends. Then I entered a STEM field in the real world and was immediately beaten black and blue by men (no #notallmen but yes #onlymen in my case) who hated it when I was right or good at things. Not even correcting them or being better than them, just being competent. I wasted years thinking I was stupid and incompetent because I was slapped down every time I tried to stand up. Then I learned a little psychology. I now understand that my brain was making me hesitate not because I don’t know stuff, but for my own safety. That knowledge empowered me to do things differently with how I communicate and present information (and myself). My brain is confident that I can protect myself from vitriol and so it doesn’t hold me back for my own safety any more.

    For all those dealing with impostor syndrome, it’s worthwhile double checking to see if your environment has played a role.

  67. Numbat*

    OP, you sound awesome. And helpful, competent, resilient, resourceful, insightful…all things that make someone a great human to be around. Please believe the people with encouraging things to say in the comments, believe in the truth of your own awesomeness, and keep going after your goals.

  68. fluffy*

    There is a really good essay floating around called “Being Glue,” which I think LW should read.

    It is incredibly rare for soft skills to be valued and promoted, and it sounds like LW has ended up at one of the rare good companies that understands the need for that stuff.

  69. amoeba*

    OP, you sound great and I can only join all the others in saying you appear to be doing an excellent job and can be proud of yourself! And I’m sure your side business would also be a success if you approach it in the same way you appear to be approaching everything else.

    Just one thing I’d like to add: you write that you have a high-responsibility management position (probably fulltime?) and are a fulltime student *on top of that*. That’s already two fulltime jobs. That’s already a lot of work and probably more than a lot of people can do long-term without burning out. You definitely sound like you’re able to handle it, but please do also give yourself time and permission to rest and have a work-life balance. You don’t need to hustle all the time to prove your worth. Take care of yourself as well.

    That said, if you’re sure you’re up for it and have that planned out (can you start small without a lot of time you have to invest? Can you use the semester break to try out your new idea with less stress? Can you move anything else to part time if he business takes off?), please go for it! But watch out for your own wellbeing on the way. And it’s not being lazy or whatever if you wait until you have only one fulltime job in addition to your side business.

    Hope I’m not overstepping, if I am, please disregard everything I’ve said!

  70. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    You have the ability to connect with people: I’d like to hire you to market my business! That’s an incredibly valuable skill and I personally feel that you either have it or you don’t. There have been times when I’ve gained a new client at a party, or even the dog park, but it’s not my networking skills, it’s just that I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and I’ve then produced the goods. I remember a young lad setting up his own business, complaining that one of his associates wasn’t pulling her weight. But, they were basically a bunch of introvert nerds (like me) and she, as a fearless, gregarious extrovert with the same technical info at her fingertips, had pulled off the feat of casually going to see her former boss for a chat, getting herself invited to have a beer, and ending up getting the former boss to invest in their business and let them have the use of a couple of offices plus all office facilities, in order to get their project off the ground. I pointed out to him that without her, they wouldn’t even have got started.

  71. Elizabeth West*

    Soft skills aren’t necessarily of less value than so-called hard skills; they’re just different. OP, you’re a MANAGER. That takes a lot of skill! Not everyone can do it. In fact, lots of people with quantifiable “hard skills” are not managers for a reason. That’s not their lane.

    You sound like someone I would hire the crap out of if I had the need to do so. Like if I wanted someone I could trust to run things, it would be someone proactive and good at dealing with people. :)

  72. Raida*

    “I only have soft skills”

    “If I don’t know how to do something (which I often don’t), I will Google it and figure it out if it’s the last thing I do.”

    Well that doesn’t sound like ‘only’ having soft skills mate.

  73. max*

    LW, I echo everyone else’s comments and I would also point out that you’re attributing all of your wonderful qualities to having had to overcome a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but not everyone who overcomes those obstacles ends up with those qualities. Of course, overcoming those obstacles and getting to where you are is a huge achievement on its own, and anyone who can do that has extraordinary personal qualities that I deeply admire.

    But not all people who go through what you’ve been through come out on the other side with your skills and ability to read people. I work in direct services with clients who have been through some of the traumas you describe; some of them have soft skills and some of them don’t. You’re doing yourself a disservice by chalking up your (truly rare and valuable) skills solely to what you’ve been through. It’s like you’re saying “my house burned down and I had to build it up from scratch and that’s why I was able to build the Sistine Chapel.”

  74. Scottish Beanie*

    LW #1, I see so much of myself in you that it hurts, and I have so many opinions now that I’ve been in the working world for a while.

    1. I find that the soft skills versus hard skills debate tends to fall on multiple axes:

    A. Calling something “soft” often serves as a diminutive, so the multitude of comments that have come before mine are absolutely right that soft skills don’t get the credit they deserve. It could be simply because of how they are defined.

    B. These terms are often split along gender lines, so things that are coded as feminine tend to be diminished while things coded as masculine tend to be exalted, making it difficult to recognize how exceedingly valuable soft skills truly are. The person who has the ability to network and to persuade others might, for example, be given a Board membership or an executive position if they are coded as masculine, while being expected to arrange company parties and/or lead IDEA initiatives if they are coded as feminine.

    C. Soft skills are largely invisible until they produce specific results. Hard skills tend to be immediately visible, and therefore easier to understand, quantify and rank by just about anyone; soft skills might be so invisible, at times, that even those who have them don’t recognize them as skills (your comment about not knowing much, but being able to Google, was like a siren to me).

    D. Soft skills are the most valuable things an employee can have and are the most difficult, if not impossible, to teach because they are so hard to identify and to measure. Therefore, people who possess these skills might not receive too much specific feedback on how valuable they are and on how those skills have directly contributed to successful outcomes (and you might feel like you’ve plateaued because of it) until the proverbial “sht hits the fan”, which might not happen very often. LW, if you are the type of person who relies on consistent concrete results/feedback to feel validated, it makes perfect sense to me why you feel like you have few skills.

    You sound like you have had to craft an identity out of overcoming obstacles. Sometimes, in my experience, I’ve expended so much effort looking for the next hurdle that I didn’t realize I’ve already completed the course. With your successfully working full-time, attending school full-time, and actualizing a small business (in your late-20s!!), you have well and truly made it and you are worthy of celebration!

    If any part of this comment has helped you at all, then I’ve done my job.

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