12 Advanced Life Skills For Professionals & Students: Social & Mental Skills

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Do you feel like a replaceable cog in the system?

Do you feel that someone can do what you are doing cheaper and in much lesser time?

Do you feel that the future is about to twist and turn and leave you dumbstruck?

These are the reasons why you need to work on specific life skills that prepare you for the future. Trust me, they are not so obvious.

We don’t know what we don’t know. No amount of history can accurately predict the future unless we can develop a compelling model of the human condition (if at all it is possible to do so). Unfortunately, we are far from doing it.

Unexpected significant changes in one’s life are just as expected as the sun rising the next day. Maybe not for everyone, but for many. So regardless of what you have been doing until today, you don’t know everything about tomorrow.

If that’s the case, what important life skills do you really need for a high-stakes professional future?

So how do we approach Tomorrow? We build life skills that are adaptive, flexible, sustainable, and actionable. The following 12 are geared toward networking, future-proofing, creativity, productivity, and social intelligence. We need these over and above other basic communication, interpersonal, and literacy skills because there is a massive amount of unknown in the future.

Advanced Life Skills For Professionals and Students

Skill 1: Identify useful qualities in others

One of the critical requirements today (and tomorrow) is to understand what value humans have & can offer. People build psychometric tests to understand their abilities but that is a costly affair. Most people want someone to recommend a person based on insightful judgment. That is hard to do. But that is a skill that people can use today. Nay, it is a skill which is extremely useful for our tomorrow. Work and human interaction will be streamlined if people have good judgment about others. Know their practical value and how they can benefit someone. Know what others might know even if you don’t know it. I cannot overstate this life skill. This collective knowledge we share as a group is called transactive memory and… we may have this relationship with Google!

Skill 2: Manage mental information

We are bombarded with information and our attention adapts to that bombardment. The accelerated amount of information we consume is just crazy. There is Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, real-life outings to absorb social information. There are blog posts, publications, books, listicles, forum threads, podcasts, etc. This creates a massive problem for us. What do we do with it?

The strategy we need is to do something there and then OR make a mental note and do it later (but people often slack. I plead guilty). Found a resource to email? Email it right away. Open a dialog. There and then becomes a routine habit once you notice how it saves time. It also reduces your chances of procrastination because “there and then” usually applies to small tasks and small tasks carry very little emotional weight. When we put it off, the small tasks become a burden and their emotional weight increases. That triggers procrastination because procrastination is all about emotions.

The other side of information is making a mental note of what you have learned and revisit it occasionally. Having access to information means nothing if you don’t know what to access and how to access it. Luckily, there is an effect called The Google Effect which states that we remember the location of information better than the information itself. Sometimes, that location is just a person or a google search+website.

Think of these mental notes as the titles and subtitles of a book chapter. When you can manage these, you can revisit them and quickly use technology to dive in deeper. Your mental notes become the seed for a higher level of engagement with information.

It is important to manage information in the following domains: Self-growth, social, work, personal, and relationship-building actions (friendly visits, gifts, etc.) The world has moved to an unprecedented level of connectedness. Half the world is already at home. This home is the internet. Wouldn’t you think you need a life skill that can be used to make life better at home? Managing mental information is essentially a self-management skill.

Skill 3: Know what others are doing

Everyone can come up with fabulous ideas. But almost no one is the first one to do it or the first one to do it better. If you are an idea seeker or want to be an innovator, or just grow a body of knowledge, you need to work on figuring out what others are doing. The world stands on the shoulders of giants. Stand. Do something, then become one of those giants.

Networking is important. I don’t mean LinkedIn connections. Talk with people who do something valuable and then take an interest in their work. Offer your value. Networking is based on an exchange of potentials and value-additions. Be of use. Seriously. Once you are of use, others will show you what they are really doing. That way, you get a front-row seat to what is happening in the world. You know what is trending. Sometimes, there is no #hashtag.

Remember, it is likely that all the low hanging fruits have been picked up. Know what fruits have been picked up. It gets more challenging to pick high hanging fruit over time, but you also get more resources to leverage: giants. Just knowing what low hanging fruits have been picked up is also a significant life skill. 

Skill 4: Notice the source of information

We are consumers of information. We don’t always pay attention to where we consumed information. Be it a conversation with a specific person, a movie, a blog, a newspaper, a lecture, etc. Notice who gave the information, who created it. Notice how transparent and verifiable it is. This category of attention makes you resourceful.

Once this becomes a habit, you’ll quickly know people’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll know other resource people, you’ll know who is an authority, you’ll know people for what they offer to the world. This makes you resourceful. 

I’d say that this life skill is a starting point if you see misinformation as a problem. Which, I think, you should. Once you establish a way to pin-point your source, see if it can be validated from someone else, see if it fits a larger context. Look for information that goes against expert advice. Experts often fail to develop a unique insight because they are stuck in a habitual routine thought process. This is called The Einstellung Effect.

Be ready to critically judge if a statement can be backed up by evidence. People tend to remember information that agrees with their opinion and discard that which doesn’t. You’ll need to put in some extra effort to overcome these thinking biases which cloud our judgment and bias our decisions.

The helpful people explain what they know and highlight what they don’t know, the irresponsible information-givers confuse and exhibit unrealistic certainty. There is a thin wall between opinion and verifiable data. There is a thin wall between organized garbage and organized food. Organized information is not always correct, and not all disorganized information is wrong.

Skill 5: Become multifaceted in life

The era of ‘Jack of all master of many’ has come. We just can’t have one skill. Because everyone kind of has some skill. Unique and powerful skill combinations are needed. People need to be talented at multiple things and have basic proficiency in many supporting-skills.

Everyone wants more than what they are paying for. A lot of people meet the minimum criteria for doing a certain job, but few demonstrate a promise of meeting higher standards. A multifaced approach might also help you overcome the issue of The Peter Principle – people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.

Think about it, if you are just a coder, you are like many others. But, if you are a coder, a digital marketing enthusiast with good party skills, and have excellent planning skills, you are more likely to be the most valuable coder from a bunch of equally competent coders.

For those who live under a rock and think ‘let me just sharpen one skill’- think twice. You don’t want to be replaced by a machine or someone cheaper. You want fallback options. You want a way to broaden your skillset. You don’t want to get redundant over time. A combination of skills is a professional and personal skill that you won’t regret having ever. 

People are invariably attached to technology now. So understanding it is a starting point. Social dynamics have changed over time; there are new dynamics to learn. No excuses. Gotta do what you gotta do.

This goes without saying – maintaining your physical, social, and mental health is essential. But that is just a baseline. Being multifaceted is about adding more to what you already are. Be it skills, goals, experiences, etc. Being multi-dimensional is a personal skill to develop your personality in your chosen image.

Skill 6: Improve your speed

If it can be done faster, do it faster. It’s not the extra time you get to relax that is beneficial. It is the fact that it CAN be done more quickly. It often translates to more money. It also gives you time to focus on other future professional life skills such as being multifaceted. How do you become faster? You need 3 things to start with.

  1. An ability to manage your tasks and prioritize them.
  2. A tendency to optimize your tasks with technology, new learning, or maintain a ‘do it there and then’ attitude.
  3. A method to think creatively. Read the next point.

Skill 7: Learn to think creatively

I’m not talking about painting or learning the piano. This may sound odd – a lot of artists are just not creative. They don’t create something new or unique. Derivative creations are very common. I tend to draw the line where creations are not too derivative or take long leaps of derivation.

I’m talking about using all of your mental resources from across domains to concoct something new. It isn’t easy. You need to really think about applying knowledge in novel ways. You’ll probably need a variety of skills such as music, coding, cooking, etc. You’ll need a deep enough understanding in a few areas so you know what can be done to further yourself. You’ll need the mental flexibility to borrow ideas from elsewhere and apply them.

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You can be creative everywhere. Follow my favorite creativity hack which always works.

Skill 8: Learn to prove your creativity

Self-claimed creativity has no value. Even if others don’t see it, you have to prove it to yourself. You need to get creative. People tend to overestimate their capacity. Once in a while, you’ll also see people who are creative but don’t notice it. 

One approach is improvisation. Want to cook something and are out of ingredients? Find a way to make food. Experiment with making cocktails. Experiment with writing styles. Merge ideas. Go to a college class unprepared and still talk about the content that is being discussed. Practice catching ideas on the fly. Make bad puns.

Skill 9: Make your statements actionable

People like How To’s. This is because people like to know how things are done. When proposing an idea such as ‘why don’t we create an unusual metaphor overarching this story,’ follow it up with an actionable idea like, let’s equate people to eagles and see where it goes. Once the seed has been planted, it gets easier.

Actionable statements are not just useful for creative work. Say you want to secure a client for a design job. After proposing your bathroom-award-winning idea, tell the client how you will approach this idea. Tell the client what steps you’ll take. Job providers like people who go out of their way to show them exactly how something will be done.

One of the more important skills to learn in life is – DO what you can think. Without doing, there is little to no impact. At the very least, learn to communicate how you approach implementing what you are thinking. Perhaps someone else can take it ahead from there. Mental productivity must translate into behavioral productivity for you to stand out and make a difference.

Skill 10: Empathy

This little thing is becoming a modern ‘advice trend.’ But that is indeed warranted. Underestimating the value of empathy is hard. But it also can be contextually useless.

Empathy is understanding another person’s point of view and resonating with it. It is not reacting emotionally, it is processing at the level of emotion, thought, and behavior. You can prove your empathy by paraphrasing an experience and acting appropriately.

Extending empathy often helps in building a trusting relationship. It also welcomes a person to a deeper level of communication. In the professional world, a short empathic statement w/ details can go a long way. Here are 16 evidence-based ways to train your empathy. If you don’t want to read those, focus on the 3 below.

There are 3 casual points of advice I can give you about learning how to be empathetic.

  1. Forget about your anecdotes when listening to someone else’s anecdote. Listen and reflect.
  2. Gain a variety of experiences, so you actually develop a tendency to relate to many situations. Don’t rely on your anecdote, extract the underlying thoughts and behaviors through introspection. Use them to understand how others would behave and think. The more experiences you have, the closer you might be to empathizing with a random person.
  3. Think about a situation in terms of variables. Think in ‘what ifs’ is handy when it comes to empathy. If you work hard enough at the thinking level, it isn’t difficult to think in counterfactuals and hypotheticals. Humans are reasonably good at this. Leverage it to precisely understand what would happen in a specific situation.

However, empathy is a double-edged sword. Deliberate empathy can back-fire in some situations by reinforcing in-group/out-group differences. Be sure to not focus on your own experiences while empathizing because that can blind you to other’s emotions.

Skill 11: Think iteratively

When you work on something big, 2 things are essential: Iterations & visible action. ‘Visible action’ is when one can estimate and foresee how the next step is done. This is why iterations are essential. Thinking in small steps allows us to build, correct errors, and develop.

Be it a writing project, a big marketing strategy, a science project, or a musical composition – work on your idea iteratively. Small steps build on small steps. Iterations let you focus on the most critical aspects a few-at-a-time.

Skill 12: Curate and identify noise

With great information comes great noise. There are millions of people uploading content on youtube and on blogs regularly. Millions are ready to consume it. What content is good? Once you get good at a particular skill or have a deep enough understanding of something, identify the good content from the bad content. Highlight that which is good. Demote or request to rectify that which is bad.

Curating is difficult. You need experience, trial & error, and a lot of risk-taking (more life skills??). It is when you learn from your own understanding, you can identify something that stands on solid ground. Curating scientific content is hard, you need expertise. Curating art is hard, you need expertise. But that isn’t enough. You need expertise as well as a sensitive eye to detect garbage. This means you have to expose yourself to garbage.

If you cannot curate for yourself, Identify those who put in the effort to select the best content and learn from it. Remember – knowing a quality in others is also an advanced life skill. Here, the quality is curation. 

I hope this list of professional life skills helps you in improving your future – Especially for those who are set out to peak in the mid 21st century – 2020 to 2070.

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