Dear young person:
The world has changed since your parents were children; in fact, I’d anecdotally argue that the generational gap between your generation and theirs is larger than the prior two or three gaps combined. Can you believe we didn’t have iPhones just ten years ago? There was barely a “Worldwide web” just twenty years ago. A car that drives itself and runs only on electricity? Yeah, that’s pretty new, too.
You have an opportunity to prepare yourself for a very different future by investing in and learning five things that’ll prepare you for the next 50 years.
1. Master a discipline
It’s been said for a while: “the world is getting smaller.” But, over the last decade or two, the impact of this statement is being felt: employers that need a programmer, a product manager, a data scientist, a customer service representative, or any other knowledge worker, can search well beyond their geographic locale. It’s true that some professions remain very geographically-bound (e.g., homebuilding tradespeople, repairpersons, healthcare workers, etc.); however, more than ever in history, young people will be competing with others not just in other states, but other countries, and even other continents.
For that reason, it’s imperative you master a discipline in which you become a subject matter expert. Being a generalist is absolutely valuable (see #4 in my earlier article on the ingredients of success), but it’s important that you’re a specialist in something that allows you to stand out from everyone else. In order to compete in a knowledge economy, you have to have expertise in a valuable domain: programming, marketing, selling; whatever it is, become darn good at it. And, yes, even though artificial intelligence and automation will continue to improve and replace human work, there will emerge “higher-level disciplines” that’ll require human subject-matter experts as the designers and overseers of that automation.
2. Learn a foreign language
The particular language you choose to learn is less important than training your brain to think multi-lingually; further, learning a foreign language provides a gateway to understanding and appreciating multiculturalism. While English has certainly become the dominant language for international business, standing out from the herd requires professionals who are able to converse in Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, or other commonly-spoken languages. Pick one and enjoy the adventure of learning another culture.
3. Learn to code
Coding isn’t for everyone, so I’m not asking you to become a programmer; but, alas, technology and software are becoming the pen and paper of the 21st century. Without an ability to leverage these tools, it’ll be difficult for you to capitalize on your particular discipline of choice. Learning how to program will expose you to an entire stack of technologies that make modern work possible, and will also teach you a different way to think about problem-solving in ways that allow you to leverage computers as a tool. Trust me on this one: it’ll be worth your while.
4. Learn financial analysis
No matter your specialty, it’s important to understand finance: the study of money and the sophisticated instruments and systems we’ve built around money. Our financial system has nuances that must be understood in order to make sensible life and business decisions: inflation, time-value of money, return on investment, cash flow, taxation, among others. Understanding the basics can be incredibly valuable in analyzing options and decision-making.
5. Identify trusted advisors
You’re not as smart as you think you are: you will make mistakes; you will learn life lessons; you will wish you’d known things earlier in life. Despite this, very few young people seek the guidance of trusted advisors who’ve already been through the journey and can help you navigate through it more effectively. My guidance to you is to identify one or two trusted advisors from your generation, the prior generation (i.e., twenty or so years older), and the generation before that (i.e., forty or more years older). You may think they’re out of style or that their knowledge is no longer relevant, but, trust me, there are timeless lessons that only older generations can provide us.
Above all, continually ask yourself what actually matters to you: what makes you happy? It’s likely none of the above that directly makes you happy; however, conquering those five skills will certainly provide you the tools you need to achieve it. In short, don’t confuse the means and the end: mastering a skill and learning a language are means to an end; make sure you identify what that ultimate end is for yourself so you don’t spend your life seeking and not living. I must admit, it wasn’t until my late-thirties and early-forties that I finally began to realize what was important to me…which reiterates my fifth element: identify your trusted advisors who can help you answer this.
Finally, you don’t have to be young to develop any of these skills. It’s not too late to start.