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The Six 21st Century Skills You REALLY Need


Given the work that I do, I'm a sucker for skill lists. As our work worlds grow ever more complex and challenging, it seems that the skills themselves become more complex too. 

Increasingly, though, I've begun to believe that these lists are distracting us from the real skills of success. While working with big data, operating in virtual teams and"cognitive load management"all sound great, I think there are far more fundamental skills we should be developing first. 

My 21st Century Skills List

I think there are 6 fundamental skills we need to develop for success in this or any other century. I would also argue that we are not nearly as good at these skills as we think we are. 

In no particular order, my 6 21st Century skills are:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Asking Questions
  3. Empathic Listening
  4. Authentic Conversation
  5. Reflection
  6. Seeking and working with multiple perspectives

Let's take a closer look.

1. Self-Awareness

We humans can be amazingly robotic. And by that I mean responding to commands and conditions without really questioning what we are doing or why we are doing it. This habit of going through life without really being aware of our own internal motivations, mental and emotional habits, assumptions and belief systems is remarkably common and remarkably damaging. 

The first and most fundamental skill we need to develop is the ability to look inside to see how we respond to the external world. What are our values systems, assumptions and mental models? What strengths and gifts do we need to bring into the world? What are our habitual blind spots? What are our insecurities, vulnerabilities and sore points? 

All of these aspects of ourselves, when they are unexamined and unacknowledged, contribute in major ways to our ability to function in the world. The more aware we are of our own mental and emotional processes, the more skilled we will be in all other areas. 

2. Asking Questions

I agree with Seth Godin that as adults, it is often stunning how few questions we ask. I'm not sure why. Maybe we think we know the answers already. Or maybe we just lose our sense of curiosity and wonder about the world. 

What I do know is that our ability to ask good questions is critical to success, not only professionally but in our personal lives as well. And it's a skill we have to cultivate and refine, because the questions we ask will frame the solutions we find. 

We first need to re-learn the practice of questioning, period. Too often we accept what we are told, without going any further.

We also need to learn how to ask different kinds of questions--important questions, positive questions, reflective questions. We need to carefully cultivate and nurture our curiosity and use it to keep asking "why?," how?" and "what if?"

We need to look at how we ask questions, when we ask them and what kinds of questions we ask. Developing our ability to question, rather than to simply accept what is, is the foundation of growth and development. It is also at the heart of creativity and innovation. 

3. Empathic Listening

Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that we should "first seek to understand." He calls this empathic listening and it is the most difficult form of listening for us to cultivate.  It is not waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can relate your story.  It is not listening to find places where you agree or disagree. It is something much deeper than that: 

The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it's that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.

Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60% by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.

Raise your hand if you regularly engage in this form of listening. I know I don't, but that when I do, amazing things happen as a result. (See this excerpt for more on empathic listening) 

4. Authentic Conversation

Creating the space for authentic, meaningful conversations is one of the most valuable skills we can develop. Last week I wrote about moving from being a hero to being a host and when I talk about authentic conversation, I mean our ability to act as a host and participant in deep, authentic discussions.

Conversations are how we learn and how we do our work. They are how we identify and solve problems and how we build collaboration and community. The capacity to create and hold the space for authentic discussion is under-valued and much needed in work and in our personal lives. 

Self-awareness, questioning and empathic listening all contribute to our ability to engage in authentic, meaningful conversation. But there are other related skills and strategies we must employ. 

Our ability to host and engage in authentic discussions is critical for success in and out of work. 

5. Reflection

On one level, the ability to reflect on your actions and work could be considered part of self-awareness. However I see reflective practice as something related, but separate. Self-awareness is one thing we can develop through and as part of our reflective practices, but reflection also is a skill that can help us develop more technical expertise, too. 

Reflection is both an internal, introspective process, as well as a social one. Reflection can happen alone or in groups. It can happen while we are in the midst of action, as well as after the fact.

Reflective practice helps us learn from experience and use our failures and mistakes as fodder for development, rather than for self-flagellation and blame. Reflective practitioners know what they don't know and can devise experiments and activities to help them continue developing.

The ability to adapt to ever-changing and more complex environments is directly related to our capacity to effectively reflect on what we do and how we do it. 

6. Seeking and Working with Multiple Perspectives

Homophily--our human tendency to connect to people like ourselves--is both a blessing and a curse. It's important for us to find and connect to our tribes, yes. But we also benefit from our ability to seek out and work effectively with a diversity of perspectives and frames of reference. This is even more true in a global economy.

I've written before about combating homophily and even as I've become increasingly aware of the negative impact of connecting to only those people who share my perspectives, I still find it difficult to intentionally create space for working with multiple viewpoints. Like most people, I tend to see people who have a different worldview as being "others." I either want to convert them to my own viewpoint or ignore them, neither of which is beneficial. 

As a 21st century skill, I think we have to look at not only how we listen to and engage with people who see the world differently, we also need to look at the strategies we use to find and connect with them in the first place. How intentional are we about diversifying our networks? How effective are we? And more importantly, how willing are we to be shaped and influenced by these differences? 


From a career perspective, I think it is these 6 skills that offer the most "bang for your buck." They are the skills needed for success in all aspects of our lives (not just at work) and they are core to most other skillsets. 

As I think about 2012 and how I want to develop myself, it is these core areas that I will focus on. What do you think? How do these skills resonate with you? And what are you doing to develop them? 



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Great thought! I would include integrity or character in that list. We need more people who can treat others with respect, disagree agreeably (perhaps that is in your last one) and can do the right thing even when no one is looking.

Thank you for a lovely post.

Wonderful writing!! Insightful and encouraging in terms of how humans are operating and connecting in an ever increasing technological world. It appears the 'human' element is still vital to our well-being. Versatility and adaptability to our evolving world is also a quality we must develop. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you.

Thanks for your comments, Vicki and Melissa and I really appreciate your additions.

Vicki, I agree wholeheartedly that integrity should also be on that list--thinking of it more in the sense, though, of being true to yourself and to doing the right thing. I definitely see respect as part of the larger ability to engage in authentic conversation.

Melissa, I think you hit the nail on the head with getting the "human" element in there. From a skill perspective, it is our most human qualities that will actually keep us employable in an age when technology and robots are going to be able to do many of the more rote tasks.

Thanks again for your great comments!

Michele; A great list!
I'll have to reflect on it a bit to parse out some implications, but it looks like a great place to start say, maybe, a development plan or curriculum.

PS What the heck is "cognitive load management"??? Why don;t we just say; simple is better, or invoke Occam's razor.

Howard, agreed that these skills would make a great foundation for a development plan. I know that in 2012, they are the areas I plan to more intentionally develop. Would be interested in any further thoughts you have on implications. . .

And "cognitive load management" is essentially learning how to manage the steady stream of information that comes in to you. You're pointing out, though, how ridiculous this stuff begins to sound when we try to make it more "technical." I'm in full support of the Occam's Razor approach!

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