THE BLOG
10/14/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

It's Not Lack of Skills, Stupid

Shutterstock / Lighthunter

The debate rages on whether a lack of skilled workers is the reason millions of jobs are going unfilled. I'd like to suggest that it's not the skills as much as lack of effort. In fact, I give many workers an "F" for effort.

But that doesn't mean it's all their fault. That doesn't mean they don't try hard. It doesn't mean that parents, educators, bureaucrats, and employers haven't contributed to the problem. In fact, they might even have set many workers up for failure.

Graduating valedictorian, getting accepted into a prestigious college, landing a job at a reputable firm are all indications that success will come easy, right?

Not so fast. That is far from a foregone conclusion. New research reveals that the less effort it took to achieve these accomplishments, the more likely the individual will not live up to expectations. In other words, while a quick mind, a charming personality, and a silver spoon might open up a lot of doors, potential does not always convert to performance. And when it does, a lot of the potential goes unused.

You might ask, why should I care if an employee leaves potential on the table if I'm getting what I want? If 50 percent effort gets the job done, who cares?

Yes, that's true. If the job is routine, predictable, and changes little, then there's no problem. But what happens with the job requires the employee to adapt quickly, manage and solve unanticipated problems, recognize how one innocent decision might have widespread ramifications? What happens when the environment is in a constant state of flux and uncertainty, ambiguity, and change are the norms?

While admission to a prestigious school like Harvard or Stanford is a significant achievement, it doesn't guarantee unfettered success. Graduating at the top of your class and being the star quarterback of a championship team means nothing when everything came easy. Natural talent opens doors but only carries you so far. It doesn't prepare you to deal with those unfriendly and unpredictable life challenges that pop up regardless if you grew up on the streets or in the Hamptons.

It's EFFORT that makes the difference. It is effort that differentiates those presiding over others because they have the title verses leaders who inspire people and champion change. It differentiates "high-potential" employees who exceed expectations and those whose careers plateau and disappoint. Effort is what allows people to thrive when confronted with the most challenging times in their lives.

Effort is defined as the "conscious exertion of power." Conscious exertion implies that people have a choice - they can do it or not. We all have met, managed, or even married people who exert themselves a lot. We undoubtedly also can name quite a few people who choose not to make any effort when the road is paved with a few bumps and adversity strikes.

It is becoming painfully clear that we have educated and trained a lot of people for sunny-day success. We've done a horrible job at training people to deal with and manage adversity. We've educated an entire generation or two to think that failure, setbacks, and unforeseen events can be ignored or outsourced at will.

We've removed the option of losing in sports, getting an "F" for a grade, and getting a trophy for just showing up. When a student struggles in school (or an employee struggles at work), it's rarely the individual's fault. It's never due to lack of personal effort, low motivation, or poor attitude. It's always because the job is too hard or the manager is unrealistic. We don't hold people accountable to stretch themselves; we lower our expectations so the individual can win.

We have essentially stopped teaching our children and our workers how to deal with adversity, how to solve difficult problems, and how to achieve. Most importantly we have tied self-esteem to success. A setback or mistake implies failure and damages the psyche. We have become so obsessed with building and protecting self-esteem that we forgot to teach people how to deal with even the normal stress and pain that is part of life. We have dumbed down requirements to get an "A," graduate from college, and even write a resume. We have prepared people to get an interview and a job, but not to work.

Ironically it is the euphoria of mastering a new skill, overcoming a challenge, or recovering from a setback that builds confidence and self-esteem. It is learning from mistakes and failures that encourage people to grow and develop. We don't need more people who can survive only when the sun is shining. We need to teach people the skills to thrive when things don't go their way.

Getting a job is not the destination but the beginning of a journey. Success in life requires a conscious act. Too many "talented" people expect to sleep walk through life. Personal power is what drives effort. Personal power is a skill that too many people lack. It's time that we begin to teach, train, and develop more people who have the personal power to achieve their own success, to enjoy and appreciate that success, and to most importantly, navigate and manage adversity.