Broadly speaking, people’s skills fall into two areas: “hard” skills and “soft” skills.

Hard skills can be used by the individual who possesses them to actually produce something, such as a mathematical model predicting snowfall in a certain region or a piece of software to analyze restaurant orders. Because hard skills are quantifiable (I can weld X horseshoes in Y amount of time), development of one’s hard skills is also quantifiable (this year I can weld Z% more horseshoes than I did last year).

One’s hard skills can only truly be appreciated and evaluated by others who also possess those same hard skills, since only other people who have also spent years training and developing those same hard skills can really understand the legitimacy of that person’s contributions. Crucially, this means that most people cannot properly evaluate “hard” skill contributions. While anyone is able to evaluate the final product created, only a select few — those other people with the same hard skills — will deeply understand the technical effort, breakthroughs, and progress made.

This means that there is a gap between individuals who possess hard skills and everyone else. Soft skills are what can be used by individuals who possess hard skills to bridge that gap.

Unlike hard skills, soft skills can’t actually be used to create anything. You cannot write a piece of code by being persuasive or build a table by being charismatic. Soft skills are qualitative and vary from person to person. Whereas not everyone possesses hard skills, everyone possesses soft skills. This means that the barrier to entry for feeling like an expert with regards to soft skills is quite low or even non-existent: everyone feels that they know how to judge and evaluate other people, and everyone feels like their judgements and evaluations are correct (at least to some degree). Many people, such as VCs/other investors, even make a living from evaluating other people’s soft skills.

The true value of soft skills lies in the fact that they can be used to motivate others who have hard skills to create and build things they would not have otherwise. I call this the “ability to sell”. The ability to sell is the ability that contributes most to a person’s success and yet is one of the most under-valued skills in Silicon Valley.

Most people in Silicon Valley are highly technical and are not interested in developing the skill of selling. Because the barrier to entry is seen as too low (anyone can sell things, but not anyone can write a highly complex piece of software), most technical people simply aren’t interested. Technically difficult problems with high barriers to entry are much more alluring to people with hard skills, especially since they had to work for years to get to a point where they could even solve those problems in the first place.

All this to say: the most valuable skill one can possess, especially in a highly technical environment like Silicon Valley, is the ability to sell another person something*. The greatest leaders sell others on their vision of what the world should be and convince other really smart people, often people with the most highly specialized and sought after hard skills, that they should help make that vision into a reality.

* While great sales ability can get you really far, it is crucial that the sales is actually based in some sort of reality. Infamous scam artists such as Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) or Billy McFarland (Fyre Festival) reached the heights of success because of their incredible sales ability. Eventually everything came tumbling down, but there is something to be said about their ability to create billions of dollars in value based on thin air!