Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
By Tommy Lehe /

We live in a world that moves faster than we do. Trying to keep up can be an overwhelming task that at times feels hopeless, like we are falling further and further behind—but it doesn’t have to. We are fully capable of adapting to the changing times, and it begins with developing some skills that may not have been a part of your formal education or professional training.

Here I have identified 7 skills — not intended as an exhaustive list by any means — that are worth paying attention to as you move forward with your career in the 21st century:

1) Self-Directed Learning

Calling yourself a “life-long learner” doesn’t have the same impact as it used to. The reason: no matter who you are these days, you have to keep learning. It’s a given. Your ability to continually self-harvest information and apply it in the real world is directly correlated to your success in just about any field. A common mistake is that we assume we already know how to do do this and we don’t invest much time or energy into further developing the learning process itself. The truth is, there are always new tools and techniques emerging that can dramatically transform the way we approach information and create new knowledge. Setting aside time to grow as a modern learner is one of the best investments you can make.

2) Media Literacy

If we were to take everything we see and hear at face value, we’d end up about as confused as we could possibly be. We are constantly receiving messages from all angles and don’t have to look for long to find blatant contradictions. Media literacy is about the awareness that these messages — whether they are in the form of text, video, audio, etc. — almost always have some kind of hidden agenda. Related skills might be fact checking, sourcing (researching where it comes from), deducing motives, considering context, and picking apart relevant themes. There is battle going on to control our thoughts through media messages (and the actions these thoughts produce), and our best defense is to become media literate.

3) Meta-perspective

When we get stuck in a singular point of view, we often begin to gravitate toward those things that validate our position and away from those that challenge it. This usually results in an “Us vs. Them” type of mentality that can be quite counterproductive. The truth is that we have a lot to learn from people with whom we disagree. Nobody has it all figured out — and nobody is completely mistaken. Our ability to step out of our own perspective and into another’s, or to “take a walk in their shoes,” is critical moving forward. The result is empathy for those outside your circle. In a world that gets smaller and more culturally diverse every day, expect to rub shoulders with contrasting perspectives. Those that can let go of the tendency to be defensive of their own views and instead are looking to integrate and learn from others with an open mind will advance the fastest.

4) Digital Communication

In 2015 there were 112.5 billion business emails sent worldwide — an average of 34 emails per user per day. Having strong writing skills was something that could be avoided back when business was face-to-face (or over the telephone). Not so today. Our ability to communicate through the written word is another skill we take for granted and often don’t invest any time or energy into developing further. Being able to clearly express ourselves in a professional manner can make or break a career. Digital communication skills also relate to speaking over videoconferencing software (body language, eye contact), email management, giving or participating in online webinars/presentations and using social media to form beneficial relationships.

5) Rapid Prototyping

It’s becoming increasingly impossible to predict the future. The days of developing a big solution to all our problems and unleashing it with a ribbon cutting ceremony are over. The reason: by the time our big solution is ready to go it’s already obsolete. More than ever our ideas have to be exposed to the elements early on — and evolve through feedback — in order to become sustainable. This can be applied to a new enterprise, a new product, or even ourselves as individuals carving out our own niches. By running lightweight experiments and applying what we have learned from one to the next, we can keep up with the ever-shifting demands of the modern global marketplace.

6) Systems Thinking

Wherever you are and whatever you do, you don’t do it alone. Each of us are part of various systems nested within other systems: organizational, social, political, ecological, etc. The quality of our relationships with the other elements in these systems ultimately defines how well we do. Becoming aware of the state and nature of these relationships is the first step towards creating the mutual benefit that results in the surviving and thriving of any individual or any species as a whole. It also allows  us to be strategic about the ways we intervene in these systems and our ability to consciously transform them.

7) Creative Visioning

21st century organizations need to be agile on every level. They need everyone to be imagining — and continuously re-imagining — the coming future. Highly effective adaptations are not reactionary, they are a result of taking feedback, learning, and anticipating what’s to come. In essence this is the process of becoming more strategic in our actions. Organizations that continue to rely on all of the creative visioning from top executives are finding it harder and harder to keep up. They need proactive people on the ground level who are able to creatively solve problems, not just wait around for orders.

We will explore all of these skills and others more in-depth in future posts. As independent learners, learning & development professionals, educators or business leaders, these skills need to be on our radars. We need to find ways to cultivate them in ourselves as well as in our students, employees, and organizations. Next step: sign up for our weekly newsletter for more to come on how to prepare ourselves and others for the emerging future.

What other skills do you think are important for the future? 

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Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century