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Develop Wise Skills to Achieve Career Goals

By Daniel J. Eustace
University of Connecticut

A recent Ph.D. has had three interviews in the last month. She shared that she heard back from her second most promising interview at a start-up company: "the people from HR just contacted me. They let me know that they have chosen another person."


The Ph.D. candidate displays the essential soft skills, starting with the mission critical ones, as Peggy Klaus describes them: taking initiative, assuming responsibilities, managing and handling details, managing time productively, solving problems and using common sense behaviors.

Her technical profile is quite prodigious, as well. She grades out in the top of her classes throughout her education. She has developed strongly applicable engineering, modeling and experimental laboratory, pilot plant and plant technical or hard skills. These are what attracted the prospective employer in the first place.

Although she says she was just "not lucky enough," perhaps it was that she had not adequately developed her wise skills. Wise skills, described below, create a meaningful distinction between seemingly equally qualified people for positions or promotions.

Early in our Careers

Importance of Face-to Face Communication

In a world so taken by text messages, e-mails, social media and white papers, the human side of communication that happens face-to-face remains most important. People hire people, after all.

A blogger recently reported on a Harvard Business Review study that revealed 87 percent of professionals feel face-to-face meetings are essential for 'sealing a business deal,' while 95 percent said they are 'key to successful, longer-lasting business relationships.'

Our brains process many nonverbal cues as a basis for building trust and believability. Thus, face-to-face communication is information-rich. We obtain a major part of the message, and all of the emotional nuance, from body language, facial signals, pace and vocal tone. When a people say something to someone, they become aware of their listeners' expressions and read them by subconsciously placing themselves into their frame of mind.

Audience Analysis

People often try so hard to present ideas in ways that reveal command of subject areas that they lose sight of a key first step of communication: know your audience.

An authoritative discussion of audience analysis points to five layers. The first layer, situational analysis, can provide strikingly different results when considering verbal or written presentations. Situational analysis asks the question: Are audience members/readers present voluntarily of their own desire; do they want to be there?

The second layer is audience demographic homogeneity. For verbal presentations, we can assess and adapt. Audience analysis for written work, however, can lose its credibility and power if it does not presume heterogeneity to a degree.

The third layer is audience values, beliefs and attitudes. How does the audience think and feel? Does it develop a bias or opinion? The fourth layer is audience multicultural breadth, where language and style may be biased by culture. The fifth is topic knowledge and background or prior knowledge. Each layer must be considered and managed for optimum communication value.

Committed Networking

Networking is commonly trivialized and often seems to be limited simply to information sharing. In this Internet-dominated age, it can seem passive. To be effective, networking needs to be more reliable, helpful and persistent; it needs to provide value and significance. Make formal commitments, and seek collaborations.

Overcoming Procrastination

In The Now Habit, Neil Fiore writes about the deeper aspects of procrastination, describing it as a "a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision." Procrastination is an escape that permits people to just keep on doing busy work, treat everything that comes up as urgent, or never complete things to a personal level of satisfaction because something else comes up.

Fiore describes how people can improve so they don't drive with their brakes on. He proposes forming new Now Habits by understanding procrastination triggers, their emotional origins and taking practical paths to achievement, including:

  • Scheduling play
  • Defining and tuning into their flow states
  • Experiencing controlled setbacks where they can be alert to finding opportunities and bouncing back with renewed purpose.

At Mid-Career

At mid-career and beyond, professionals certainly are expected to display early career wise skills. To survive and progress, however, it is often important to display another set of wise skills.

Self Discipline of Attention

The classical model of decision-making is based on solid analysis and logic. People analyze problems thoroughly, list all options, evaluate those options based on a set of criteria, figure out the importance of each criterion, rate options on each criterion, do the math and compare options against one another to see the highest score.

This happens about 10 percent of the time.

Emotions play a much larger role and self-management of attention is at the core, because people need to control their emotions to set goals and rationally criticize their own behaviors.

Daniel Goleman and Peter Doolittle address people on the two ends of the 21st century lifestyle spectrum who can benefit the most from learning to manage their attention. On the one end, the changing frequently pole, are individuals who are strongly disrupted and interrupted by modern social media. On the other end, the change resistant pole, are individuals who will not adapt to new media.

Goleman makes a strong case for attention management control in the face of the 24-7 hyper-media. Further, he diagnoses where overuse leads to loss of cognitive control and forms an empathy gap where people become out of touch with the world. He poses that too much attention to social media leads individuals to laser focus exclusively on the present.

Doolittle and Goleman each offer ways to flex attention focus muscles to gain this important wise skill of intentional attention by proactively manage social media using:

  • Mindful moments – meditate to sharpen focus
  • Wise waiting – restrict and plan digital and fun times
  • Unit tasking – have small wins each day with, and away from, social media
  • Digital awareness – personal mindfulness of best practices where media enriches, solves problems and enhances creativity
  • Mindful transitions – permit open awareness, when not using media, to unconsciously solve problems
  • Schedule digital detox – go into a creative cocoon
  • Define focusing signals to concentrate on the task at hand

Short-term memory has a limited capacity. Assess information systematically by asking questions and seeing where new information fits. Determine if it is elaborative or illustrative. Combine this with a capture mechanism that will allow later reconsider. Fit it into a structure that can be shared with others with meaning and examples.


How did Martin Chalfie come up with a million-dollar idea (and a Nobel Prize) for a natural flashlight that enables researchers to look inside living organisms to watch biological processes in action?

Gary Klein authored an incisive book, Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do, which delves into how amazing insights like Chalfie's are obtained by people with little information when combined with imagination. He indicates that it is based on a wise skill, intuition, which can modeled, learned and improved. Intuition helps people:

  • Size up situations more quickly and with minimal effort
  • Recognize problems and anomalies quickly
  • Feel confident that the first option is a good one
  • Have a good sense of what is going to happen next
  • Avoid getting overloaded with data
  • Be calm in the face of pressure and uncertainty
  • Find alternative solutions when a plan runs into difficulty

His model is called the recognition primed decision model. It examines a situation looking for certain cues. These cues develop patterns, which can be mentally simulated and tested. These models are compared to existing mental models and can activate action scripts.

Apply and Succeed

Perhaps, a better understanding and application of wise skills would have benefited the recent Ph.D. who did not receive the job offer. Wise skills can be the difference-makers early in careers and as people continue to move up the responsibility ladder. Be sure to pay attention to their development.

About the Author

Dan Eustace serves members of several societies, local sections and universities by sharing behaviors, emerging ideas and best practices for managing careers. He retired from Polaroid and ExxonMobil and serves the UCONN Chemistry Department as an adjunct professor. Eustace has held staff and management positions in battery development, complex oilfield chemical development, terrestrial solar cells, high tech film manufacture and environmental protection, industrial hygiene and chemical safety. He serves SLAS as a career consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with Eustace on LinkedIn.

May 19, 2014