What should you learn to stay relevant in 2021 and beyond?
It’s a tricky question to answer. Technologies change all the time, companies come and go, and predictions turn out to be wrong. Still, it’s worth thinking about — both for the professional benefits and the sheer joy of learning something new.
This guide, then, is our attempt to answer the question, “What should I learn?” Some of the skills will be more useful to certain jobs than others, but all of them will benefit you.
In addition to work-related skills, we’ve also included some skills that will make your life better no matter what you do for a living. Some of these you can learn in an afternoon, while others can take years to grasp (most fall somewhere in between).
Here’s a look at some skills we’re fairly sure will be relevant for years to come (and don’t worry, it’s more than programming and computer skills).
A lot of guides to what you should learn will say, “learn to program.” But, quite honestly, not everyone should code.
While coding is an extremely useful skill, the world also needs people who can manage companies, come up with business ideas, and sell/market the products that programmers help produce.
However, I do think that everyone can benefit from a certain degree of digital literacy. This means knowing how to use your computer to its fullest potential.
Here are a few computer skills that I consider essential for the modern knowledge worker:
- How to touch type (it will save you so much time compared to hunting and pecking)
- How to speed up routine tasks with keyboard shortcuts (here’s a version for Mac users)
- How to use simple task management software like Todoist
- How to collaborate on projects using Google Suite or Microsoft 365
- How to manage your email inbox
- How to use video conferencing software like Zoom
- How to use chat software like Slack
If these seem like elementary skills to you, great! But if you’re not sure about some (or are a bit rusty), then use some of the links above to learn more.
Basic digital literacy will make you a more effective employee and free up time to focus on work tasks (instead of constantly struggling to use your tools).
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, you still have to write.
Whether it’s an email to your boss, a cover letter for a new job, or even a text to a friend, learning to communicate your ideas in writing will make life a lot easier. And you don’t have to get a degree in English or take some kind of “business communication” class to learn these skills.
Instead, start with our guide to professional communication. And for more specific advice, check out our guides to writing a cover letter and creating a resume. Also, install the Grammarly app, which will catch and fix most spelling and grammar mistakes.
I know it may be strange to write about public speaking in a time when many in-person events are canceled or postponed, but it’s still a valuable skill even if you’re communicating via video calls or phone.
Great public speaking means communicating your ideas to a group in a clear, compelling way. That’s true whether you’re speaking to an audience of thousands or a handful of people in a conference room.
To start learning public speaking, check out these resources:
How to manage others is a valuable skill (especially as you advance in your career), but we often overlook the skill of self-management. Managing yourself is at the core of this website, and it’s what much of “productivity” advice is really about.
Here are some core principles of self-management that everyone should learn:
- How to create (and maintain) a calendar
- How to create (and use) a to-do list
- How to change your habits
- How to resist digital distractions
- How to stop procrastinating
- How to do a weekly review
- How to focus deeply
While I don’t think everyone should code (or wants to), web development is a very valuable skill to learn if you’re so inclined.
Obviously, you can use it to make money through a job or freelancing. But it also makes it much easier to create and market your projects online. And, it can be extremely fun and exciting (especially with new advancements happening each day). Finally, it’s a great way to get into other more technical (but useful) forms of programming.
To start learning web development, I recommend these resources:
- How to Become a Software Developer (According to the Pros) – An interview with two professional software developers with tips on interviews, networking, and building a career once you’ve learned to code.
Also, if learning to program intimidates you, I encourage you to at least learn the basics of HTML. This can make it much easier to maintain your own website (see the next section for more on that).
A website is a powerful tool for showcasing your work and impressing prospective employers. It takes more effort to make than a resume, but we think it’s worth it for improving your job prospects.
Plus, it will teach you lots of valuable skills in the process, such as how to buy a domain, maintain a website with WordPress, and even publish your own blog posts.
To get started creating a website, check out our free, comprehensive guide.
Being able to cook food (that you actually enjoy eating) is an underrated skill. There are the obvious benefits of saving money and eating healthier. But cooking can also be tremendously rewarding and fun. It’s a great way to relax, entertain friends, and even impress a date.
If cooking has always eluded you, I recommend these resources to get started:
- The 4-Hour Chef – This book by Tim Ferriss is what got me into cooking. Great for absolute beginners.
- Basics with Babish – This video series from Andrew Rae (creator of the Binging with Babish YouTube channel) teaches the basics of cooking just about everything, with new videos added regularly.
Unless you played lots of sports or came from a particularly fit family, you may never have learned to exercise as a kid. It sounds silly, but I found myself in that situation when I started college. Thankfully, I ended up learning how to create (and stick to) a regular exercise routine.
If you haven’t done the same, I highly recommend it. Being fit makes life a lot more enjoyable, and it’s also a chance to learn some new skills.
Not sure where to start? Nerd Fitness was the website that taught me how to exercise, but you can also just pick an activity you enjoy and do it regularly. Try different things and see what you enjoy.
And remember that there’s no such thing as the “best” exercise program. The best program is the one you’ll actually stick with.
Even if you aren’t a professional designer, learning some basic principles of design can be very useful. You’ll be able to design better-looking presentations…or just more interesting Instagram posts. And if you work with designers in your job, it will make communication much easier.
I’m still a novice in this area myself, but I’ve found these resources helpful:
- Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design – A great introductory course from a curator at the Smithsonian Design Museum
- Can’t Unsee – A game that teaches design.
Mental models are a concept I discovered back when I was in college (thanks to the Farnam Street blog).
Mental models are different ways of understanding a complex, unpredictable world. They draw from a variety of disciplines (chemistry, physics, statistics, economics, etc.) in an effort to arrive at a more complete, accurate understanding of reality. Being aware of them can help you make better decisions and work more productively.
Logical thinking can be extremely powerful for making better decisions and solving problems. However, most of us receive little training in this area in school. So it’s worth spending some time on your own to learn how to think logically and avoid certain cognitive biases.
To be clear, I’m not recommending you become a robot or a “pure logic” Vulcan. That’s a great way to alienate yourself and lose your friends. But having logical thinking in your mental “toolbox” can be tremendously useful.
To get started, I recommend these resources:
- Less Wrong – A website devoted to teaching and promoting rationality.
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – A fanfic by AI researcher and decision theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky that teaches rationality using the Harry Potter stories.
Even if you took a statistics class in high school or college, you may not have learned how to think statistically.
Far more important than being able to calculate the standard deviation is learning how to interpret statistics you encounter in everyday life, such as in online articles or even ads.
Because while statistics can be a powerful tool for making sense of the world, they’re also a great tool for manipulating unsuspecting people. If you don’t want to be one of those people, understanding statistics is key.
The best introduction we’ve found to this topic is How to Lie With Statistics. It explains how people misuse statistics (intentionally or not), and how you can spot shoddy statistical thinking.
We’ve reached a fascinating place technologically. Almost everyone has a device in their pockets that can take HD videos, shoot HDR photos, and record surprisingly decent audio. This has made digital media production more accessible than ever before.
Even if you don’t have aspirations to make videos or shoot photos professionally, learning the basics can be an asset to both your job and personal creative projects. To get started, I recommend these courses:
- iPhone Filmmaking: Create Cinematic Video With Your Phone
- How to Get Started with Photography
- Adobe Photoshop CC – Essentials Training Course
Also, if you’re a student or educator, you can get a great discount on Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes the apps that pros use for editing video, retouching photos, creating visual effects, and more.
Job interviews are something all of us have to do in one form or another. While they may not be fun, it is possible to make them less stressful and more positive experiences.
Foremost, remember that a job interview is not an interrogation. It’s just a conversation to help people decide if they can work together in a mutually beneficial way.
Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. To learn how to rock your next job interview, check out these guides:
- How to Ace Your Next Job Interview: 35 Proven Tips
- 4 Tips to Ace Phone Interviews (Plus 8 Practice Interview Questions)
- 21 (Creative) Answers to Common Interview Questions
Networking gets a bad rap. People will call it sleazy, fake, or even manipulative. But if you do it in an authentic way, it can open all kinds of doors that pure skill cannot. Plus, the relationships you make networking can enrich your life and lead to friendships that go beyond the workplace.
In fact, we prefer to think of it not as networking, but as making friends (thanks to Stephen Warley for this idea). Many of those will be friends who share your professional interests and can even help you advance your career. But the focus is on connections first, professional benefits later.
To learn how to network, check out these resources:
I spent the first 13 years of my education attending private schools with a strict dress code. This reduced decision fatigue (I never had to think about what I was going to wear), but it also meant that I didn’t learn how to buy quality clothes and put together outfits until I was in college.
The unfortunate reality is that people do pay attention to what you wear and make judgments based on it. So you might as well do your best to dress in a way that gives the impression you want.
For advice on what to wear in a variety of business and professional settings, check out this guide.
Some people would argue that this isn’t an “essential” skill, but I would disagree. While you may never play professionally, playing music still has benefits. It’s relaxing, challenging, and fun. And it will teach you a lot about how to learn (and practice) new skills.
For those of us who work with computers all day, playing an instrument is also refreshingly analog, physical, and disconnected. Much like exercise, it reminds you that you’re a physical being existing in space, not an abstract mind.
I can’t give you specific resources for learning, as that depends on the instrument and your overall musical knowledge. But YouTube is definitely the place to start. If you can afford it, I’d also encourage you to take a few lessons with a teacher so that you can learn proper technique and avoid bad habits.
If your only experiences with language learning have been in high school or college, then you may mistakenly believe that you’re “too old” or “not smart enough” to learn a new language as an adult.
However, I challenge you to question those assumptions. You absolutely can learn to fluently speak new languages, and you can do so in less time (and for less money) than you might think.
To start, you need to pick a language. While you could pick a language based on its “usefulness” (such as one of the official languages of the United Nations), it’s better to pick a language you feel a connection to and are interested in.
This could mean learning a language that your ancestors spoke, a language your friends or family members speak, or the language of a country you’ve always wanted to visit. You’re more likely to stick with a language you care about than one you feel obligated to learn.
To start your language learning journey, read this guide from Martin (our web developer and resident polyglot).
Spreadsheets used to intimidate me. I assumed I needed some kind of advanced math or programming knowledge to use them, and I never thought about creating my own.
Once I learned how to use spreadsheets, however, I found myself unable to live without them. They’re a great tool for organizing information, automating calculations, and even making data-driven decisions. I use them to plan complex trips, manage my personal finances, and track certain projects at work.
To get started learning, I encourage you to find a project that a spreadsheet could help you organize. Making something to model your expenses and budget is a good start (see Thomas’ budgeting spreadsheet for some inspiration).
Unless you have a reason to learn Excel specifically, Google Sheets is our recommendation for beginners (it’s free). When you get stuck, just google your question — there’s almost certainly an answer out there.
We drink our fair share of caffeine here at College Info Geek, and that habit would get pretty expensive if we were buying all our coffee from Starbucks. Luckily, we’ve learned how to make great caffeinated beverages at home, and you can too.
For coffee, the best thing you can do is buy freshly roasted beans and grind them yourself. They don’t have to be fancy; we drink a lot of bulk beans from Costco and they taste just fine.
I buy most of my tea from Adagio. But if you have a local tea shop, be sure to check that out as well.
It’s easy to feel intimidated when discussing money with your boss. But if you don’t ask, you’re unlikely to get a raise (or, at least, as much of a raise as you deserve).
Remember that your company has an incentive to keep you, and giving you a raise is much less expensive than finding, hiring, and training a new employee.
Most of us work for businesses, but how many of us understand how they really work? Of course, you understand the parts of the business that relate to your job duties, but do you really know what they do in HR or accounting?
Even though you’re unlikely to work in every aspect of your company’s business, it’s still useful to understand how the business as a whole works. It will help you collaborate more effectively with other members of your organization, as well as help you sound more intelligent and informed during company meetings. Plus, it’s useful to know if you ever decide to start your own business.
The Personal MBA remains our favorite introduction to the fundamentals of business. It’s concise, full of useful examples, and easy to reference.
Unless you went to a particularly practical school, you probably didn’t learn how to do your taxes. But everyone has to do them, so you might as well learn how they work.
I’m not saying that you should manually fill out and file every form of your return — that’s a waste of time.
But it is worth understanding some of what’s going on in the background of your tax preparation software. And if you ever decide to hire an accountant, knowing how to do your own taxes will help you choose a good one.
Taxes can get quite complex (especially if you’re self-employed or own property), but the basics for most employees are simple enough. For a general overview, check out our guide to taxes for college students.
(I recognize this section is U.S.-centric. If you’re from a different country, I’m sure there are similar resources for understanding your country’s tax system, which is probably less complex than that of the United States).
In addition to not teaching how to do your taxes, most schools do a poor job of teaching you how to manage your money. But unless you’re living off the grid and producing everything you need to live, you have to deal with money. So you might as well learn how to manage it responsibly.
To learn how to budget and save money, check out our detailed guide (even if you aren’t in college, the advice still applies). I also recommend signing up for an account with Mint, which makes it much easier to see and manage all your different financial accounts.
If you can learn to budget and save money, you’ll already be ahead of most people. The next step, however, is putting your money to work and saving for retirement.
Investing seems like an extremely complex topic that only Wall Street pros understand, but that’s largely an illusion. Investing is not complicated, everyone should be doing it, and you don’t need a lot of money to get started.
If you’re looking for an easy place to open an investment account, then we recommend Betterment (they also offer a great online checking account). For guidance on how investing works, read our guide to investing for beginners.
Knowing how to fix things around your house or apartment is empowering. Instead of having to wait hours (or days) for your landlord or property manager to fix it, you can do so immediately. And once you own your home, doing your own repairs can save you lots of money.
To get started, buy a basic tool kit. And when you encounter some kind of problem with your place, see if you can figure out how to fix it using YouTube and some google searches. This guide from DIYNetwork is also a useful reference for quick fixes.
Caveat: Please don’t electrocute yourself or flood your house. I’m encouraging you to learn how to make basic, minor repairs. If you have any doubt, call a professional (especially when it comes to electrical or plumbing work). And be sure any work you do is okay with your landlord.
While I wish it weren’t so, owning a car is still a necessity for many people. Therefore, it’s worth understanding how to intelligently buy one.
Mainly, I recommend that you do a lot of research and don’t rush into anything. Shop around (for cars and loans, if you need one). If you can, get a mechanic to look at any used car before you buy it. And be sure to stay within your budget.
For more advice on buying a car, listen to these podcast episodes:
Also, if you’re not familiar with Car Talk, do yourself a favor and give it a listen. Even if you don’t care about cars, the show is immensely entertaining (not to mention educational).
Besides your car, a home is the largest purchase you’re likely to make. Plus, you’re not just purchasing new shoes; you’re buying something that will affect many aspects of your life, every day. So you should give it lots of thought and learn how to do it correctly.
To start, figure out if you can even afford to buy a house. And, if it makes financial sense to do so (if you’re planning to stay somewhere less than five years, for instance, it’s often cheaper to rent). This calculator from The New York Times is very helpful for deciding if you should buy a house in your area and financial situation.
For more home buying guidance, check out this podcast series:
- How to Buy Your First House, Pt. 1: The Research Process
- How Much Owning a Home Will ACTUALLY Cost You
- Buying vs. Renting a Home: What’s the Smartest Choice?
I hope this guide has inspired you to go out and learn something new. Whatever you do, don’t try to learn all the skills on this list at once. It’s much more effective to focus on one or two at a time.
Looking for more free learning resources? Check out our list of the best free online courses.
Image Credits: drafting tools