So, you’ve finished school, gotten a job, moved out on your own – or started paying rent for your old bedroom – and moved into the adult phase of life. Now what?
Learning doesn’t stop just because you’ve earned a degree. Different careers, industries, and employers offer a variety of skill-based continuing education. And those are helpful, to a point. But what about skills that are helpful for life in general? School doesn’t often teach us skills that help with relationships (personal and professional), happiness, and having a life that means something . . and wouldn’t that be nice?
With that in mind, here’s a list of skills and personal awareness tools that I, my friends, and my clients have found useful. While not comprehensive, mastering these techniques should give you a leg up on life, personal awareness, and relationships that many of your peers and colleagues haven’t achieved yet. While all of these are helpful, I don’t recommend working on more than one or two at a time. Pick one, work on it for a while, and when you feel you’ve made enough progress or have something else to work on, come back to this article and choose another one!
Learn to Express Yourself
Whether it’s public speaking, describing your feelings to a partner, asking for a promotion, writing a blog post, or simply stating your needs in a relationship, we all have something we need to say. In general, there are three types of communication skills that we use, and all of us can continuously develop each one of them.
Written Communication: How much of your day is spent sending text messages, writing e-mail, or posting something on social media? Mastering vocabulary, grammar, and style will help you get across not just what you want to say, but how you say it. Take it a step further, and think about who your audience is; writing for academics is different from a corporate memo, which is different from a Facebook post. Most of us do this subconsciously, but being aware of these subtle nuances will help you write even more appropriately for the audience at hand.
Oral Communication: Talking on the phone with a loved one, a conference call, giving a presentation, chatting with your neighbor . . . all of these rely on your ability to clearly articulate what you want to say, often on the fly. How good are you at translating thoughts into words? Do you have to think out loud, or take a moment to think about what you want to say? This skill can improves with practice, but it’s also a reflection of the way we were raised and the way our particular brain processes language. So be aware of what you need, and if you need some time to think things out, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Body Language: Often subconscious, body language communicates more about our feelings and attitude towards the situation we’re in than nearly anything else we can do or say. Even if people can’t see your body, subtle shifts such as sitting up straight or uncrossing your arms affects vocal tone and rhythm, and is noticeable to those you’re speaking with or writing for. (This is why telemarketers are often asked to dress up, and reminded to smile when they’re on the phone.) Start paying attention to where your body is in space, and how you’re feeling or communicating differently when sitting, standing, slouching, or otherwise holding yourself differently. You might be surprised at how much you can influence just by making adjustments to your stance!
Learn to Listen
Expressing yourself is important, but so is listening to others. In the words of Stephen R. Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Does that describe you? If so, work on your listening skills! No, don’t talk about listening better, go out and do it. This can start with listening to yourself, listening to your body, or just listening to the sounds of the world you live in.
Listening attentively to the people around you deepens relationships in ways you can’t entirely anticipate. Get out of your own head, forget about what you have to say, and listen to the other person – be it a friend, parent, colleague, or romantic partner. Who knows? You might learn something!
Know Your Boundaries
What makes you uncomfortable? This might be an emotional challenge, something in your physical environment, a workplace skill, or something else. Understanding what’s in your comfort zone and what isn’t is critical for setting appropriate boundaries.
Going beyond simple self-discovery, you can use this information to develop your own plan for dealing with tricky situations. Or take it a step further and think about expanding your boundaries through personal growth. Talk to friends, family, colleagues, or mentors and see if they can help you explore new territory in gentle, fun, safe, and exciting ways.
Recognize Your Emotional Triggers
What are your pet peeves? What makes you happy, what makes you sad? How do you react when stressed?
Knowing how you’re likely to react to a given situation lets you plan for it, set expectations with others, and deal with any possible fall-out. It also helps you forgive yourself if your reactions don’t live up to any personal standards you’ve set – you might need a little more work to get there!
Some of our emotional triggers are based on past experience, but other tendencies can be hard-wired; it can be hard to tell which is which. There are a variety of techniques you can use to “reprogram” your subconscious. Energy work, life coaching, therapy, or DIY self-help books and programs – there are lots of ways to work on or understand your emotional reactions better.
Understand What Motivates You
Some of us like praise, others like status, rewards, greater income or earning power, and others like that feel-good moment of knowing they’ve helped a fellow human being. These are positive motivators. There are also negative motivators, like avoiding a fine or traffic ticket, not wanting to upset someone, or avoiding conflict.
Regardless of what motivates you – we all have a mix of positive and negative motivators – knowing what keeps you going (or not going) can help you develop strategies that support meeting your goals. One common example is to set up a reward system for working out regularly, or a penalty for not going to the gym.
Develop a Creative Interest
Have you always wanted to learn a musical instrument? Paint something? Do some woodworking? Almost every adult I know has at least one creative or artistic interest they’d like to pursue, and most of them have some reason – usually time or money – that they’re not pursuing it.
Life is short and unpredictable. Are you sure you want to wait until some future day, which might not happen, to get started? If so, you have other priorities, and that’s good to know. But if you don’t, find a way to get started, even if all you have is 5 minutes a day to do a little exploration of what’s involved in learning the ukulele, or writing a novel.
Know Your Strengths . . and Your Weaknesses
This comes up often, and is something that, if you work in corporate America, probably gets revisited at least annually. One school of thought suggests that we need to know our weaknesses so we can leverage our strengths and develop relationships with people who complement us. Others suggest that we try to eliminate our weaknesses as much as possible, presumably so we can be more independent and self-sufficient.
Regardless of your personal philosophy, knowing what tasks require extra time and effort allows you to plan accordingly, or ask for support from friends, colleagues, or industry professionals. Suck at math and hate taxes? Plan to hire an accountant instead.
In contrast, knowing your strengths lets you know what you have to offer the world, which can boost your self-confidence. Applying for a new job or writing a dating profile? Instead of listing all the countries you’ve been to, write about those amazing communication skills you just developed.
Learn About Your Body
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that one major turning point in my life was when I, as a pedestrian, was struck by an SUV. During my year of physical therapy that followed, I commented (no pun intended) that I was getting a crash course in body mechanics.
It’s useful to know how your body is supposed to work. Not only does it help you have proper form when exercising (yay!), you’ll be better equipped to notice when something’s out of whack before it starts to hurt, and can address it before it becomes a major issue.
Some ways to study up on body mechanics include reading books, watching YouTube videos, or working with professional one-on-one. If you want to take this a step further, learn about your body. There are a surprising number of variations within this human body, and what’s right for someone else may not be right for you. Are your legs shorter or longer than that yoga instructor in the video? Are you double-jointed somewhere? Yes, it matters!
Learn a Foreign Language
Although I’m only fluent in English, I’ve studied other languages. One of the things I love about language is that it gives me a deeper understanding of the culture the language represents, which then helps me to understand my own culture, and cultural upbringing, better.
In particular, words and phrases that have no direct translation in English are fascinating. One of my favorite words, suadade, is Portuguese and has no English equivalent. Our closest translation is nostalgia, but suadade also refers to things you miss that may come back to you, or haven’t even happened yet!
As another example, the Chinese use the same character to represent both space and time. Apparently, they didn’t need Einstein to clue them in on that one!
Recognize Your Shadow Self
While every emotion serves a purpose, most of us have some emotion that turns dark at least once in a while. Whether it’s anger, jealousy, greed, or any of the vices discussed so often in religious circles, know what’s likely to trick you up.
Knowing when your shadow self is rearing its ugly head may not tame it, but at least you can temper your actions and reactions to lessen the consequences later. If you want to go a step forward, learn to accept and forgive that part of yourself; it’s human, it’s natural, it’s normal, and we all have one.
The Ability to Center Yourself
Last, but certainly not least, can you stop, take a breath, and refocus yourself in a stressful situation? There’s a certain tranquility that comes with finding your center, and it can keep you from letting your emotional triggers, shadow self, and a variety of other challenges make a bad situation worse. Mindfulness and meditation have increased in popularity recently, largely because they help us manage stress and center ourselves. Have you found your center recently? Set a timer and focus on your breathing for a minute, and see how that feels. You might be surprised at how quickly your emotional state can shift just by being present in the moment!
Life isn’t easy, and schools don’t typically teach skills that help us navigate all of the challenges that come our way. Developing a few critical skills related to personal growth and self-development can go a long way to making your journey on this planet a little more enjoyable and meaningful, both for yourself and the people around you.