Amy Chua, known as the “Tiger Mom”, scared many well-intentioned parents by claiming that they’re soft for letting their kids have slumber parties. David Brooks, a journalist for The New York Times, claims the contrary — Amy Chua is soft for letting her kids hide behind the comfort of their math homework.

“Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group – these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or class at Yale,” Brooks writes in a Jan. 17 column called “Amy Chau Is a Wimp.”

While Brooks may argue that a college party is more cognitively demanding than a night studying in the library, this isn’t to say a night at Rick’s is a bastion for intellectual growth but that social intelligence is the essence of personal and professional success.

We recognize people who are socially astute – who’s “with it”. Although it may take many forms, these people succeed in the following areas:

First, they understand themselves. We can sense when a person’s identity is defined through approval from others and when a person hasn’t done enough self-exploration to understand their biological and cultural dispositions — what subjects and activities they naturally thrive in and what people they are naturally compatible with. Socially intelligent people typically understand their deep motivations and how their upbringing has helped in constructing their personal narrative.

As Brooks writes, “It’s much easier to change your environment than to change your insides.” So secondly, the socially intelligent person coordinates his environment with his inclinations. He matches what he does and who he spends his time with what he’s good at and who he has fulfilling connections with, regardless of geography. And so he puts himself in an environment, physically and emotionally, that pushes him to be the best version of himself — because to be yourself is just stupid (what if you’re a jerk?).

And third, our ideal individual also understands relationships are everything. He understands the subtleties of building and sustaining relationships and on what foundations those connections rest. He puts himself in situations where these connections are most likely to occur, and avoids situations where they won’t.

Each person’s emotional nourishment is different. Some are naturally more gregarious, able to befriend many people while maintaining their individuality. Others are more reserved, preferring more time with fewer people. All that matters is that our socially skilled person is genuine. People trust him. They respect him. And ideally, he inspires them.

But that’s just my view. Brooks used his own vocabulary to determine a social skill set, but his overarching implication is that human capital should not be measured solely on IQ or standardized tests. For purposes of building any team or organization, perhaps companies and schools will think of other ways to evaluate its applicants. Perhaps in the future moms will drop their kids off at metis practice. (According to Brooks, metis is “the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.”) Or a job interview will focus on testing one’s equipoise — or, according to Brooks, “the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.”

These skills typically receive little attention, unless in some vague, trite way. Imagine a prospective college student asking a tour guide how he can become a better listener. It’s often assumed we learn these things on our own, and there’s a reason for that. Can you imagine a minor in self-exploration or a program in leadership?

Well, as it turns out, the latter exists. The Barger Leadership Institute within Organization Studies is leading some exciting experiments and plans to teach a course on leadership next fall. They’re not the first to believe that these skills can be taught. Numerous people have been trying to break these skills down into separate parts and teach them, but have failed to focus on technique and succeeded in building habits to internalize such skills.

Perhaps I’ll explore the how in another article. Like Brooks, I’m interested in this subject not because it naturally comes easy to me, but because it doesn’t.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at erikto@umich.edu

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