Yea it's a Mandalorian reference...sorry not sorry.
I once knew a young software developer who was just getting his start in the industry (in fact, he had barely worked at all), only recently started living in a big city, and was a bit of a social outcast. Showing up to his interview in torn jeans and a faded short-sleeve button-up, he brought no copies of his resume to share and did his best to say as few words as possible. It was obvious he was out of his element. Despite this, he was given the benefit of the doubt and hired on as an intern while kindly educated about first impressions.
Thinking he learned his lesson, he showed up for his first day of work wearing a full suit with his paperwork ready to go. Safe to say, not only was he the only intern wearing a suit, but he was the only employee wearing a suit in the 120 °F Phoenix Summer. At this point, he knew he stood out - not something he wanted - but he also couldn't take his suit jacket off. (It may be a dry heat, but there was nothing dry about his undershirt.)
Over the next few weeks of work, he found comfortable yet professional attire and spent his days coding away. One task after another. Check! Check! Done! He received feedback that his technical skills were awesome and that he (jokingly) needed to "slow down before the senior devs are out of a job". On the other hand, he also heard he needed to "smile" and talk to people more. The technical feedback was appreciated, but the latter? Who cared about this foo foo stuff? He wanted to be a programmer so he could work alone and focus on puzzles. He was hired to code, not to be friendly!
If it wasn't plainly obvious, this intern was me. Nearly a decade later, I vividly remember this feedback as a fundamental turning point in my career and my first introduction to the concept of soft skills and hard skills. Without soft skills, I never would have achieved all I have in my career. My hard skills ultimately come second.
Indeed does a great job, so I'll hand it over to them.
Hard skills are technical knowledge or training that you gained through any life experience, including in your career or education. (Indeed)
Soft skills are personal habits and traits that shape how you work, on your own and with others. (Indeed)
For example, some of my hard skills as an intern were in programming (C#, Java) and design patterns, while my soft skills were in problem-solving and a desire to learn. The hard skills I lacked were an understanding of databases and networks, while soft skills I lacked were friendliness, communication, and teamwork.
At first, I disagreed with the need for these skills. I should be judged on my hard skills and output! Sure, this is true, but what I came to understand is that soft skills augmented my hard skills. Through teamwork and communication, I could more quickly and fully improve my hard skills. Communication, empathy, and vulnerability also led to strong professional and personal relationships, which opened up new career opportunities and life experiences, which in turn tested/grew my hard skills.
Hard skills and soft skills complement and feed back into each other.
Soft skills are hard!
Okay, so soft skills aren't easy, especially if they don't come naturally to you. I'm (sorry for) looking at you, my fellow introverts and social-anxiety-riddled folks. Whereas hard skills can be practiced alone and in dense sessions (i.e. I can write a lot of code in my room alone for hours), it's not so for soft skills. They are more abstract and often require practicing in real-life situations (testing in prod, anyone?). Most soft skills require interaction with other people, which means failure has direct, immediate, and sometimes long-term consequences. If you think "cup half-full", though, it also means success has direct, immediate, and sometimes long-term benefits too! Either way, it's important to learn from every experience as they are less plentiful than hard skill learning opportunities.
How to learn soft skills
Cool, so you want to learn soft skills now, but don't know where to start. Thankfully, you don't have to start over. The same learning techniques that apply to hard skills, apply to soft skills. It's important to think of soft skills just like anything else you want to learn.
What works for me is to simply write the thing I don't want to do on the left side and draw an arrow to the thing I want to do instead on the right side. I place it on my desktop/sticky/whiteboard so it's in my face all day long (can't forget it). Critically, I only pick a couple of things to work on at once, otherwise, I'll get overwhelmed. After completing one, I'll remove it and add another.
Here is an example of one I did as an intern. I still remember the sticky notes I wrote for these, clear as day. (I even held onto them for several years as a sort of completion trophy.)
By describing behavior I want to change and offering an easy/immediate solution for it, I can quickly identify the problem at the moment and brainlessly apply the fix! Furthermore, I mostly follow SMART goals by choosing specific, attainable, and relevant goals. However, I don't set a timeline because the entire point is to practice every day (sometimes for months) until it becomes a habit (this is how I measure it).
The key is that you know what you want to do and practice it until it becomes a habit.
Always be growing
Here's what I'm working on today, as someone who is moving from an individual contributor to a leadership role. I have to be ready (at any point) to explain high-level concepts to those above me, my peers, and individual contributors while not having the time to do the individual work myself. While this is new to me, my learning method is still the same.
Bonus: You might notice I also wrote the words: Frame, Advocate, Illustrate, and Inquire in the margin. These are known as the Four Parts of Speech and are incredibly useful for practicing effective communication. This is something I haven't succeeded in turning into a habit over all the years, but instead, need to be actively reminded to employ. (It's okay if a skill doesn't become a habit. Sometimes you just have to keep practicing.)