I recently had the pleasure of reading Scott Adams’ book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. At one point in the book, Adams refers to a set of skills that will serve a person well in succeeding in virtually any career path that they might choose:
Proper voice technique
I found this list quite compelling, but I would actually trim it down to just nine key skills by eliminating and merging a few:
A second language
It is my belief that any person out there who seeks to have a better job – or seeks to improve their side business – can benefit from improving all of these skills. They make you more valuable in your current career path. They open up more doors for finding new and better jobs. They make it possible to effectively move into management and leadership positions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working as a nighttime cashier at a gas station or as a computer programmer or as a lab equipment salesperson, these tools will open doors for you.
What does that add up to? It adds up to a higher income, and with a higher income, you can eliminate your debts much more quickly and save for the future with much greater ease, particularly if you keep lifestyle inflation in check.
The best part? You can build them all in your spare time at minimal cost, and can even build them during your downtime at your current job. It just requires the willingness to improve.
Let’s take a look at how you can improve each of these skills.
Skill #1: Public Speaking
Let me be clear on exactly what I mean by “public speaking.” It is my belief that you’re doing public speaking every time you’re speaking to a group of people on a topic. A manager gathering together several members of their staff for an announcement or a meeting is doing public speaking, for example. A person trying to explain the ins and outs of a project to three coworkers is doing public speaking. It’s not just a person standing on a stage delivering a speech to an audience, though that is definitely one part of it.
The truth is that most people in the workplace do some flavor of public speaking pretty regularly, especially if they find themselves in any position where they’re trusted by others. People will gather around and listen, and if you can deliver a great message to them, they’ll trust you and listen to you even more.
That’s a great place to be in. The person who stands up and speaks, even when its scary, is the person who builds a natural reputation as a leader, as a go-to person. That person is the one who is going to receive a lot of opportunities and a lot of rewards along the way. You’re going to have strong relationships with your coworkers, with the people who work under you, and with your supervisor and their supervisors, too. That’s a position from which you can build a great career.
Key Book to Read: Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun
This is an incredibly readable book about the art of public speaking, written in a conversational tone that makes it easy to keep going and breeze through the pages, but buried in there is some of the best advice on public speaking that you’ll find anywhere. Perhaps what I appreciate most about it is the focus on preparation and the value of it. Preparation for public speaking is an enormous part of success and Scott really nails the reason why: it comes down to respect for the audience, and they can sense that respect.
Daily Practice: Speak to a group of people
Always be on the lookout for opportunities to speak to a group of people on a topic. Volunteer to speak at meetings at work. Volunteer to present ideas informally to groups. Volunteer to give speeches to represent your company. Look for opportunities to do that outside of your workplace, too, by doing presentations for civic groups. You’ll burn away any stage fright you might have, relegating it to mere butterflies (which are actually useful), and you’ll have many opportunities to practice the principles you’ve learned in the book.
Simply being comfortable in a crowded room and knowing how to strike up conversations with people you don’t know where they walk away happy to have met you is a powerful skill for anyone to have. That’s socializing and while it comes natural for some people, it’s something that’s very uncomfortable for many others (myself included).
Rather than seeing a group of people as something to be intimidated by, successful people typically see such a group as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to learn things. It’s an opportunity to build friendships and personal relationships. It’s an opportunity to build some bridges to your future.
Thus, people who are comfortable around people they don’t know and are able to strike up meaningful conversations with them tend to earn a lot of benefits along the way. They build relationships. They get opportunities. They learn things. Those doors are closed to the people who avoid crowds and those that stay quiet on the periphery.
I’ll fully admit that I’m an introvert and that my instinct is to avoid such crowds or to stay quiet at the edge of groups, but I’ve witnessed time and time again that when I force myself out of that shell and actually converse with people in a meaningful way that causes them to walk away with positive feelings, I reap some enormous rewards. My primary tool? I just ask questions and listen carefully and follow up on what they’re saying. I learn things. People like me. If I ask meaningful follow-ups, they’ll usually remember me, too. It takes practice, but it’s incredibly worth it.
Key Book to Read: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
This book might be dated, but it’s a handbook on how to carry on an effective face-to-face conversation, written almost purely with the introvert in mind. For someone who finds these things to be natural, this book can seem a bit mechanical, but for the rest of us, this book is practically a revelation. (I’d also recommend Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz as a follow-up.)
Daily Practice: Carry on a conversation with someone new and with someone old
Have a conversation with someone you don’t know and also have a conversation with someone you’ve known for a while and perhaps fallen out of touch with. In both cases, make it your goal to learn something new and interesting about the person and send the person away feeling better about themselves. Let them do a lot of the talking and make it your goal to learn about them and their ideas rather than just sharing your own thoughts.
Skill #3: Business Writing
The key to successful business writing is clarity and confidence. You need to be able to express your ideas clearly and succinctly so that the other person understands what you are trying to say. You also need to be able to put forth those ideas with a sense of confidence so that others actually read and value what you’re writing.
These aren’t natural skills. They take practice. Almost everyone can write out an idea, but it takes a lot of work to be able to write out an idea clearly and briefly. It takes skill to be able to share a proposal with confidence in your words (without sounding arrogant).
It is clarity and brevity and confidence that makes a person into an effective communicator in the workplace, and a person that can effectively communicate is a person that is able to keep ideas flowing around the modern workplace, often gets credit for things, and often gets their ideas and thoughts noticed and used. It’s an incredibly valuable skill to have.
Key Book to Read: Writing that Works by Kenneth Roman
This book offers a ton of useful advice on keeping your writing clear and brief, as well as many suggestions for making your writing confident and persuasive (we’ll get back to persuasion in a bit). It’s littered with specific, actionable tips that you can directly use in your writing to improve its effectiveness in your workplace.
Daily Practice: Write down or revise a description of a task you do regularly
One great way to practice communicating information in a business setting is to start documenting your regular tasks. Try writing a standard operating procedure for a task that you do regularly, then read it to yourself. Does it sound clear? Does it sound succinct? Spend time polishing it until it seems as clear as possible in the fewest words possible, then share it with a coworker for suggestions and improvement. Doing this regularly will naturally improve your business writing skills, as this practice highlights clarity and brevity in your writing. Plus, it enables you to create useful documentation for your work along the way, which is actually a useful result.
Skill #4: Applied Psychology
This is a very broad subject that you can easily learn about for the rest of your life, but by simply thinking about it and learning about it at all, you can take a major step forward in your attitudes and habits in the workplace.
The key focus of applied psychology at work is understanding what other people genuinely desire and altering your actions and words accordingly to maximize the value you get from that. Rather than looking strictly at a list of tasks to do, look instead at the desires and ambitions and goals of your coworkers and customers and how you can help fulfill them.
When you start evaluating situations in terms of what other people want out of them and hope to get out of them, and then evaluating how you can get the most value out of helping them succeed, you’re going to find yourself succeeding wildly.
This can take infinite forms, from writing a thank you note to putting a bit of polish on a project in a certain area, from helping someone fit in a little better to understanding what results are truly important to your boss. Knowing those things – and then shaping your workplace actions around them – can make a tremendous difference when it comes to your career success. It’s not just about completing a list of tasks – it’s about how you complete them, which ones you prioritize, and how you help others achieve their ambitions along the way.
Key Book to Read: Drive by Daniel Pink
There are many, many books I could recommend here, as applied psychology is an enormously popular book topic, but for the purposes that a person might use applied psychology in the workplace, few books click better than Daniel Pink’s Drive.
The focus of this book is what drives people to work hard and how to tap into that. Most people aren’t really driven by threats or negativity or a call to altruism for altruism’s sake. They’re driven by a desire to control their own destiny, to do creative work, and to make the world a better place on their own terms. Those are the core motivations that separate ordinary work from great work. Drive‘s focus is on how you can tap into that, both within yourself and within others.
Daily Practice: Try to evaluate what motivates someone else to do something you didn’t expect
Most of the time, the people around you do things for rational reasons, once you understand their motivations. They might not act in ways you fully expect, but their reasoning is clear.
However, that doesn’t stop us from misunderstanding what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and how they’re trying to do it. We often interpret people as being incompetent or misguided or greedy when we’re often not fully understanding their motivations. In short, we end up with a broader misunderstanding of that person because we didn’t happen to fully understand why they’re doing something.
Don’t let that happen. Spend a bit of time each day reflecting on the unexpected behavior of a person. Why did they behave that way? What motivated them to do so? Did it make sense?
This simple exercise can be done nearly anywhere and will go a long way toward improving your understanding of the psychology of other people, particularly when complemented with readings on applied psychology.
Skill #5: A Second Language
The ability to speak a second language means that you can converse natively with people who do not speak your primary language, opening the door to communication to a much wider range of people than before. It also enables you to be of assistance to people who speak English as a second language.
This turns out to be an incredibly powerful addition to your resume in almost any career path. If your career points you in a direction that requires you to speak at any time with people who are not native English speakers, conversational ability in their native language is a huge boon for you. This might mean serving customers who speak native Tagalog or engaging with coworkers who speak Punjabi. This might mean talking to a tradesman who speaks only Spanish or to a contractor who speaks only French. There are many, many situations like this in the world; the value in being able to speak across that barrier with little effort is enormous.
Key Book to Read: Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner
While Fluent Forever won’t directly teach you a specific language, what it will do is teach you how to learn that language (and any other language) efficiently and thoroughly, moving you toward spoken and written fluency very quickly. It can serve as your handbook in foreign language study.
Obviously, beyond this, you’ll need additional tools to learn the language that you want to learn. I’ve already prepared a long list of additional materials for language learning at a low cost.
Speaking of which…
Daily Practice: Complete a Duolingo lesson in your chosen language
As I mentioned above, I recently discussed methods for learning a new language inexpensively and those methods start with Duolingo, which is perhaps the most accessible tool that has yet existed for free language learning for a broad audience.
Simply download Duolingo to your phone, choose the language you want to learn, and dive into the lessons. Commit to completing at least one lesson per day until you’ve completed the learning track for that language. You’ll find yourself at a simple conversational level in that language, one that you can build upon with these additional tools.
Skill #6: Persuasion
The simple ability to persuade someone to come to a particular conclusion or course of action is an incredibly powerful skill to have. It can help you directly in persuading people to give you opportunities and raises. It can also help indirectly in perhaps even more powerful ways, as you can use persuasion to steer elements of your workplace in particular directions.
It all comes down to the ability to persuade, which is a mix of the social skills mentioned above and the applied psychology mentioned above with a healthy dollop of knowing what words to use and when.
Key Book to Read: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
If there’s one book to read on how to become more persuasive, it’s this one. This is simply a master class on how to become more persuasive in your words, your actions, and your presentation.
While the core ideas of this book can fit on a few pages, this book shines in the examples: in sales, in office situations, in marketing, in customer relations. Over and over again, this book succeeds at translating dry principles into action, which is why it stands out so well.
Daily Practice: Engage in a persuasive discussion
Remember, your goal here isn’t to prove that you’re right and that the other person is wrong. Your goal is to persuade the other person to simply have a higher view of an idea that they might have rejected or to lower their view of an idea that they have.
Try using the techniques from Influence when doing this. The purpose isn’t to be antagonistic, which will typically drive the other person to keeping their views, but in finding ways to relate and connect. That’s the heart of persuasion, and the more you practice it, the easier it will become.
Skill #7: Technology Basics
By this, I don’t simply mean knowing how to use your iPhone or how to Google things. I’m referring to understanding how changes in technology are shaping your field and how to communicate technology challenges to people who are experts in that niche.
For example, when something goes wrong with a point of sale machine at work, how do you communicate the problem to others? “It’s broken” is an incredibly simple answer, and just repeating an error message isn’t helpful, either. What’s the real problem? What’s the model of the machine? Did you verify that all connections are in place? What simple solutions might exist? How can you find all of this information? Can you apply all of that information?
In other words, technology basics means understanding the technology you’re using on a deep enough level to be able to effectively communicate with a technical consultant while also having ideas about the technology solutions to come that will help solve workplace problems (and figuring out how to stay out of the way of that progress and actually harness it for your own career).
Key Book to Read: How to Speak Tech by Vinay Trivedi
This is a great place to start with this type of understanding of technology. This book doesn’t really focus on specific technologies, but instead focuses on how to learn about technologies, how to identify what you need to know about them, and how to communicate that information effectively.
This isn’t just helpful for talking to an IT fix-it guy. It’s helpful in terms of being able to interpret technology articles. It’s helpful in being able to offer input on potential technology changes at work. It’s helpful in terms of being able to present technology ideas. In short, it makes you an “expert” without truly being an expert simply because you can speak the language.
Daily Practice: Read technology news and look up terms you don’t understand
One simple way to build up your technology basics is to regularly read technology articles that pertain to your field in any reasonable way and look up any terms in that article that you don’t fully understand.
For example, if you work in retail, look up articles on point of sale machines and what innovations are coming in that area. Try to identify what would actually be useful in your workplace out of those changes. If you don’t understand some of the pieces, look them up. At that point, you’re prepared to have conversations about this topic with your supervisor, which can do nothing but help your career.
Skill #8: Accounting Basics
The simple knowledge of understanding how money flows in and out of a business can be a huge boon to any professional because, in the end, businesses are designed to make money and accounting is how all of that is tracked.
Again, you don’t need to be a master of accounting to be useful here. You just need to understand accounting concepts and how they might apply to your business. What are accounts receivable? Accounts payable? How might different things be written off?
This type of thinking almost always leads directly to business decisions, because many business decisions are based on accounting data. Understanding how to interpret accounting summaries and how those translate into decisions is not only going to prepare you to start moving into management, but it will immediately help you in terms of discussing matters with your supervisor and understanding some of the decisions being made in your workplace (and, again, how you can avoid the downsides and be prepared for the upsides).
Key Book to Read: Accounting Made Simple by Mike Piper
This is a wonderful readable introduction to accounting practices. The intent isn’t to make you into an accountant or an accounting expert, but to make the basics of accounting comprehensible to a layperson.
Remember, the key knowledge that you’re looking for isn’t full accounting ability, but how to translate an understanding of accounting and how to read accounting summaries and translate those into making and understanding useful decisions based on them.
Daily Practice: Evaluate a normal business activity from an accounting perspective
This is how a successful business evaluates everything, from employees to the products that they sell, from the time and effort spent on cleaning and maintenance to the quality of workplace attire. Are those things returning enough value to be worth the cost?
Spend some time thinking through those things and see if you can figure them out on your own. If not, you’ve got the basis for a great discussion with your supervisor, one that will almost always raise your stock in the workplace, because you’re asking the right kinds of questions for business success.
Skill #9: Design Basics
Design basics refers to things like how to assemble a product display that’s attractive to customers or how to alter your website so that it’s more appealing. Often, people understand what they like and don’t like on an intuitive basis, but it’s difficult to explain those differences in words. Understanding design basics makes it much easier to communicate those ideas.
Again, this isn’t about becoming a designer. It’s about being able to communicate with designers and being able to translate those words into real-world things and knowing why, at least in a basic way, a design choice is being made. Why is a store laid out the way that it is? Why are products displayed that way? Those are design choices.
Key Book to Read: The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams
This is the best one-volume book out there for understanding the basics of design when you’re not attempting to become a designer. It gives you what you need to know to think about things from a designer’s perspective and understand some of the terminology and reasoning, but it’s done in layman’s terms without the intent of being a full education in design.
In other words, it’s pretty much perfect for this type of situation. It’s going to give you the tools you need to look at problems from a design perspective and at least understand some of the answers without expanding into a full study of design, which is perfect for most workplace purposes.
Daily Practice: Evaluate the pros and cons of the design of something you’re using
Why are products laid out the way they are on a store shelf? Is there a better way of doing it? What’s wrong with it? What about the layout of the store? What about the design of a website, or the design of a package?
Stop for a moment and ask yourself those questions about something you’re using. Perhaps you’re wandering around in a grocery store looking for something – why is the store designed this way? Is it bad? What is it missing?
The goal isn’t to solve the world’s problems, but to raise your own thinking on such design problems. This will help you again and again in your own career.
The Final Underlying Skill: Honest Self-Evaluation
At the end of the day, the most powerful skill we all have is the ability to honestly self-evaluate ourselves. We can step back, look at what we did right and what we did wrong, and use that information to look for ways to improve in whatever areas are most important to us.
That kind of self-reflection is surprisingly rare. Many people move through life without doing it, or under the assumption that they’re already excellent. Almost none of us are – true excellence is rarely achieved in life, though it is a noble goal. The people that truly excel are the ones to whom success flows like a river, and those people got there either by having an absurd natural talent or by doing a lot of self-evaluation and self-improvement.
Key Book to Read: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
This book is basically the private journal of Marcus Aurelius, the last of Rome’s Five Great Emperors. In it, he spends a lot of time puzzling through how to best live in the world and how to overcome some of the flaws he perceives in himself in terms of how to be an effective leader.
To me, this is the prototype of how to effectively self-reflect. You identify problems without criticizing yourself with unnecessary harshness, then evaluate those problems and seek a better way to live with regard to that problem. It’s all right here, along with some pretty good solutions to the problems of modern life.
Daily Practice: Write in your journal about what you’re grateful for and what your mistakes are
In other words, become Marcus Aurelius. Set aside some time each day to write about what you’re grateful for in the world over the past day or so (I usually try to list five things each day) and then evaluate a problem or mistake in your life and what you could do to improve that flaw. The focus here should be on improving yourself, not forcing your will on others.
The truth is that most of success comes from constantly refining yourself. Most of the tools in this article boil down to that kind of self-refinement, and actually translating that to a daily journal makes refinement into a daily practice.
Some Final Thoughts
It’s not realistic to expect that you’ll attempt to add all of these skills to your life at once. Instead, simply choose one or two of them to add to your life. Adopt a daily practice to improve that skill over time and look for ways to use that burgeoning skill. Over time, that skill will slowly become natural and you can move on to new skills.
If you’re unsure what to start with, I suggest starting with self-reflection. That process will often point you in the direction of the skills you most need to build in the world. Start with a simple daily journal, reflecting on what you’re grateful for and what mistakes you’ve made. After a while, you’ll see some patterns, and solving the source of those patterns is right where you should be.