10 Essential Life Skills Everyone Should Master (But Not Taught in School)

That you're not taught in school

In school, we learn how to read and how to write. Then, we learn how to speak, how to calculate, and how to play. We spend a long time equipping ourselves with basic skills to become adequate human beings for society.

The journey of learning never ends after school. Most of us went ahead to learn specialized skills like creative writing, coding, and engineering to get prepared for the real world and build a fruitful career for yourself.

However, there is something far more important that we don't learn in our school, university, or even our office. And these are the life skills that are essential for us to thrive in our careers and lives, regardless of what we do.

1. Figuring out your limitation and constraints

Total freedom is a paradox. Nothing—no achievement, no creativity, no success, no happiness, no art, and no passion—can take form in an environment with ZERO constraints.

We are like fish in an aquarium. The size of the aquarium dictates the freedom we have, and some of us see it as our constraint. To grow, we need a bigger aquarium. Unfortunately, what most people are trying to do is to break the aquarium. Without it, you’re a dead fish.

Before putting every single ounce of energy into anything, figure out the constraints and limitations, your strengths and weaknesses. Be okay to be bad at something and stop fighting the battle you know you can’t win.

Then and only then, go after what you want in full throttle.

2. Separating thinking and doing

The modern world is very much different compared to a few decades ago. Today, creative works are getting more appreciation than hard labor. People start to emphasize more and more thinking today and less and less on doing.

However, even though there is a huge shift from a hard labor workforce to creative outputs, from doing to thinking, execution is still vital. Only by combining both thinking and doing, we move forward progressively.

What we really don’t want is the mixture of thinking and doing at the same time.

You don’t want to write for 10 minutes, browse Pinterest for ideas for the next 5 minutes, and check your inbox for another 15 minutes. It makes you feel like you’ve done a lot, but the price of mental energy you’re paying to switch between tasks is much larger than you think.

One strategy to maximize your productivity is to schedule your time specifically for these two different modes. Simply because they are two very different types of work.

  • Thinking mode: Brainstorming, learning, planning, problem-solving, and maybe daydreaming.
  • Doing mode: Writing, painting, physical training, cold-calling, sending outreach emails, etc.

Having a clear line between these two modes will help you save tons of time switching back and forth between them.

3. Trashing away ideas quickly

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin pointed out that the only way for creatives to succeed in their career and life is to trash away ideas quickly. Instead of working on dozens of ideas at once, master the art of focus and place your energy on one thing, and learn how to keep shipping.

There is too much information but limited attention. There are too much thinking, but very little actions. They are too much planning but finite energy. They are too many ideas but very little focus.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” —Steve Jobs

Practice low information diet, and regularly trash away ideas before it sucks up too much energy from you.

4. Focusing on the process instead of the product

We’re wired to crave immediate results. This embedded behavior has helped us survive for hundreds of thousands of years since human evolution. We want to get shelter before we’re freezing, we want to seek food before we’re starving, and we want to make sure our species survive before we go extinct.

However, this behavior of instant gratification isn’t helpful anymore in today’s environment, because most of our desired results can only happen after we put in the effort for a long period of time.

At the end of the day, what we really want becomes contradicts with what we’re actually doing:  

  • We want to be fit, but we don’t want to workout and manage our diet
  • We want to get rich, but we don’t want to budget and take risks
  • We want to be the best in what we do, but we don’t want to put it into practice every day.

It’s very difficult -- almost impossible -- to fight with this embedded behavior that evolved to keep us surviving 200,000 years ago.

Best solution? Acknowledge your goals, then put them aside, create a system and focus on the process. At the same time, keep measuring the progress because this creates an illusion that we’re achieving our goals now instead of later.

5. Getting yourself back to the solution—again and again—from distractions

In an article written by Mark Mason, life is a video game and you are a player in the game. There are levels in the game of life to break, from Level 1: Find food, find a bed to sleep at night to Level 5: Create a legacy.

Everyone is playing the same game with the same levels and the same rules but with a different starting point and a different story.

What fascinated me the most is how Mark describes the design of life:

  1. Life is designed to continually throw difficult and unexpected problems at you.
  2. Players may respond to problems with either Solutions or Distractions.
  3. The more each Solution or Distraction is used, the easier and more automatic it will be in the future.
  4. Solutions move us towards the next Level, Distractions keep us on the same Level.

The formula for winning the game of life is simple and clear: continuously produce Solutions and eliminate Distractions.

6. Building a winning environment and structure

A wolf growing up with a dog-pack will live its life believing it’s a dog. Our environment shapes us—our thoughts, our behavior, our beliefs.

A large majority of the challenges we’re facing every day is directly caused by the environment we’re in.

  • Easily distracted? Design a working environment to reduce distraction and improve focus.
  • Lack of energy and productivity? Organize your routine to maximize your energy and work on your to-dos based on your energy level.
  • Lack of motivation? Change the information you consume and the people you hang out with every day.

One of the best strategies to guarantee consistent improvement is by consciously building a winning environment to design winning habits. Successful people win because they create a winning environment.

7. Seeing things as what they really are

Our mind constantly creates stories and fills in the gap to make sense of the world around us.

  • We think our spouse are cheating on us when he/she doesn’t reply our messages.
  • We think our boss is going to fire us when he is not in a good mood.
  • We think our business is going to fail when one prospect rejects us.

This negatively affects us because we tend to make decisions and come up with conclusions based on our assumptions.

Seeing things as they require mental effort. It means boiling things down to their most basic truths, and reasoning up from those truths. It requires you to actively engage your brain and work ideas through.

The other term to describe this concept is reasoning from the first principle. In Aristotle’s words, the first principle is described as “[the] first basis from which a thing is known.”

The alternative to this is reasoning by analogy and creating stories to fill in the gaps. Assuming something is true or correct because it's similar to something else that has been done before.

8. Asking absurd questions

In the book Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins stated that the quality of our life is shaped by the quality of our questions.

  • Happy people ask questions like “why am I so blessed?” that make them happier instead of “why me?” or “how dare he/she do that to me?”
  • Smart people keep asking “why” and “how” questions that make them smarter.

After interviewing 200+ iconic top performers around the world, Tim Ferriss found that successful usually have different sets of questions compared to people with average accomplishments.

One example Tim provided in his book Tools of Titans is Peter Thiel, who asked a question like “how can I accomplish this in 6 months?” And “this” stands for his 10-year goals and plans.

Top performers ask tough questions that may sound absurd and ridiculous. However, they don’t expect to ponder on their questions lightly and come up with a solution in 10 minutes. They ask better questions and spend the time to productively bending their mind.

That’s how they discover solutions that outperform everyone else.

9. Providing values with no expectations

The best way to build healthy relationships is to focus on what you can contribute.There are two types of people in this world:

  1. People who always focus on filling up others’ buckets.
  2. People who always focus on getting their own bucket filled.

The first type of people is always looking for ways to contribute and deliver values without expecting anything in return. They are genuinely hoping for the best for others and want to do anything they can to help the other person.

On the other hand, people who always focus on filling their own bucket connect with other people intentionally. They focus on themselves all the time. When they’re helping the other person, they think about what they can get in return.

Stop thinking about “what is in it for me?” and start thinking about “what is in it for them?” It’s easier to say than done, give—especially with no expectations of return—is a skill that requires practice.

Both types of people can get ahead in work and life when working hard. However, our true intentions will always be revealed over time. At the end of the day, the one who contributes without expecting a return is the one everyone wants to work with (and for).

10. Mastering the art of hustling

Intelligence, talent and all of the other advantages before the starting line are never enough. If you want something, work for it. Period.


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