February 26, 2020

Ten skills I want to improve in 2020 and the books that I will read to help me improve those skills

There are lots of discussions on what is going to happen in the future with AI, robotics, machine learning and other disruptive technologies. I can’t predict the future and I can’t tell you what skills you should be learning to help make yourself future-proof (that is, unlikely to be replaced in the future by technology or other skilled workers). What I can tell you is that whether or not you like it or want to, you will have to improve your skills every year. Investing in yourself is the best investment you can make and it will pay dividends no matter what happens, whether you continue in your same line of work, move to a different part of the business, get laid off or get promoted.

Jim Rohn said it best “Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune”.

Here are the skills I want to improve next year and the books (I love books) that will help me improve those skills.

Selling

Why do I want to learn how to sell? I think it’s a skill that, I say is underrated, but that is probably because I have little to no exposure to ‘selling’. It is a hugely invaluable skill that is really applicable to whatever line of business you are in. Sales and the selling process really drives the rest of the company. I watch a lot of Shark Tank and sometimes they see products that are really weird to them or that they think people will not buy, but the sales really tells the story of what the market wants. Selling is especially important if you are starting a business. If nobody buys your product or service, there is very little chance you will succeed.

There are lots of great books on this subject so I find it hard to choose just one, but the one that I have been enamoured with recently is Jeffrey Gitomer’s Sales Bible. He has a number of books on selling and I find that his no BS, tell it straight from experience-style is refreshing. I haven’t read, but certainly will read Zig Ziglar’s Ziglar on selling as I think Jeffrey learned a lot from Zig’s style.

Copywriting

A long time ago, when I first heard this term, I thought to myself “copywriting? Does that mean trying to protect an asset?”. I was thinking of copyright and had mistakenly thought this had been turned into a verb somehow. What I learned was that copywriting is an incredibly invaluable skill for business people, but especially entrepreneurs. How do you write something that is so compelling that it persuades and compels readers to take action (in a lot of cases, purchase your product or service).

I thought I had done a lot of copywriting through answering proposals in my line of work but there is so much more to know (and so little I understood about copywriting from just answering proposals). There’s understanding the customer, using their thoughts, feelings and words to describe the different problems they had. There’s describing the benefits to the customer that is so detailed that the customer begins to see themselves using the product or service. There’s structuring your copy to grab your reader’s attention and to address all of their concerns. I’m still a novice at copywriting which is why I’m trying to improve it this coming year.

There are quite a few books on copywriting that I will use, but my first foray into copywriting will be David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising. The book is written as if the entire book was an advertising copy and David was a legendary copywriter known as the father of advertising.

Marketing

As I think about the first three items on my skills list, I see that they are quite related to each other. Where I am in my company and my career seems to be from moving from ‘execution’ to more ‘management’ and ‘selling’, which is why I am cognizant of what I am deficient in and what I need to improve. Marketing is related to selling and copywriting, but I think deserves its own category because marketing does not have to mean selling a product or service. I think of marketing as telling a story. Story telling is one of the oldest forms of communications and because that was how we communicated with each other for generations, it is still applicable today.

If I asked you to remember the latest advertisement on TV, you probably would not remember (you get bombarded with ads all the time). But if I asked you to remember and recall a children’s story, you could probably tell it, maybe not exactly as how you heard it, but with the same plot, same moral and same beginning and ending time and time again.

Marketing is about telling a story and changing the story that you tell yourself. If you can market a product (say a BMW) and change the story of the person looking at the marketing from someone that tells themselves that they cannot afford sports cars to someone that tells themselves that if they have a six figure salary, they should be driving BMWs, that’s successful marketing.

For this skill, my starting point will be, and always will be, Seth Godin, the legendary marketer who recently published a book called This is marketing. It’s on my re-read list and I think it should be on yours too.

Agile project management

When I first started my recently wrapped up project, I thought I was going to do project management. Well, I was partially right. I started out doing project management and then the project shifted from a waterfall methodology to an agile one and I had to in turn transition my skills from a project manager into a scrum master. I had no idea that a scrum master was something that really suited my personality and leadership style – that is, a servant-leadership, someone that coaches the team on agile processes, but with a touch of driving and facilitating meetings and documentation.

Like many things that I need to learn, I looked up what books could help me so that I could devour them during my travel time. I didn’t quite finish this book but I found the first few chapters to be helpful so will continue to read and apply this knowledge as I learn it. That book is Jeff Sutherland’s Scrum. The art of doing twice the work in half the time. I can also see agile and scrum being applied to many more things outside of software development too.

Swimming

My partner has been begging me to go swimming in the mornings, but I think a part of me was hesitant because of my experience (or rather, lack of experience) swimming in the past. I had learned when I was younger. My mom had signed my brother and I up for classes and I remember failing miserably trying to learn how to free style. As I got older, I finally put it together (after also hearing about Tim Ferriss’ experience swimming) on why swimming is such a difficult sport.

First, you learn the movements of swimming. You learn how to kick your legs. You learn how to move your hands in the water. Next, you have to learn the mechanics of breathing. You can’t raise your head too high otherwise your body stands ‘upright’ in the water. There’s also a lot of small things that I probably don’t even know to mention here. You learn all of these things separately. You can learn it out of the water. You can practice each movement in the water.

Then there’s a HUGE leap to putting it all together. You have to use your legs, hands, breathe properly and do all this together. My difficulty with swimming is this leap. I can do each individual movement (though maybe not with the best technique). But putting it all together is a challenge. And I am afraid to learn bad technique that I then have to unlearn later.

So what changed for me? What changed for me is learning about a new program that Tim used as well called Total Immersion. The founder recently passed away but he breaks down a new way of freestyle swimming that is effortless and easy to learn. He has simple drills that slowly progress into the freestyle swimming that he teaches. It’s not about learning each movement and then making a huge leap to putting it together. So far, I’ve been practicing the drills and I am increasing my confidence in the water. To that end, there’s a great book that Terry Laughlin (the founder of Total Immersion) put together called Total Immersion: The revolutionary way to swim better, faster and easier that I’m quite excited to continue digging into and practicing.

Relationships

While I have read a few books from Dr. John Gray (author of the popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus series), I recently have been reading a book in a similar vein from Barbara De Angelis called What women want men to know. I find that it talks about similar topics but with a different perspective, as the author provides the female perspective and also a different style of writing. I’ve learned a ton from both authors so far and will continue to do so to improve my relationships (with friends, family and my partner).

Meta-learning

Learning how to learn is a valuable skill to have as you can imagine. If you can learn faster then that helps with any other skill that you want to learn. I’ve read through Joshua Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning a while ago so that deserves another read but I also recently purchased a book from Scott Young called Ultralearning which I think covers this topic as well. I’m excited to dig into both books to help me with my meta-learning (that is, learning how to learn better).

In fact, this skill is probably the most important so it should be at the top of the list if I’m doing things in the same order as the list and it should really be at the top of your list too!

Language learning (particularly Mandarin and Japanese)

For the better part of two years, I have been regularly using different apps on my phone to learn Mandarin. Whether it’s duolingo, drops or memrise, I have tried to pick up bits of new vocabulary every single day. I can’t tell whether my Mandarin has improved or not (though friends around me tell me that it has). I’m not to the point where I’m reading newspapers or fluently understanding TV shows in the background (as I can do with English) but I am starting to think in Mandarin a lot more.

One great book that I regret not finishing is Gabriel Wyner’s book Fluent Forever. I think there are lots of great tips in the first few chapters, the most important one being that to accelerate your learning, you should be immediately speaking the language right away. Don’t worry about stumbling over vocab and things. All of these things will be learned in time, but the important thing is to start speaking, thinking and exposing yourself to the language as much as possible. Complete immersion. You’re then forced to use the language every single day which will help you learn.

Mastery

I think this is one of those skills or topics that would have been very useful learning at the start of my career. The reason is that by understanding what it means to ‘master’ something, you can plan ahead on the different ‘phases’ of your career. I think there are several phases and while I haven’t thought it through, I think there’s a begin, middle and end phase. The beginning phase is where you are starting out, learning everything you can and taking every opportunity that comes your way. The middle phase is where you are starting to establish a brand, executing well and finding your element. The end phase is where you know what your brand is, get paid the highest and you may start to think about how to extend your legacy by training or teaching others.

Two books that I have on my to read list are: Mastery by Robert Greene and Mastery by George Leonard. Interesting that both books are named the same right?

Teaching

I think one of my goals in life is to become a teacher in some way. I have created Udemy courses, audiobooks and self-published a number of books. I even got the opportunity to teach a class in high school which I thought was a ton of fun (though granted, it was only a day and I didn’t get to experience all the other ‘fun’ things that come with teaching like marking papers or assignments, checking homework, creating the syllabus, etc.). There’s something about passing along your knowledge to others that makes it gratifying and satisfying in some way – like passing the baton in a race where you are all working towards a common goal.

In a strange way, I don’t have any books that are specifically about learning how to teach, though I suspect that many of the books that I have already mentioned will help in understanding the process. Mastery will help me learn what phases people may be going through in their career. The Art of Learning will help to structure the teaching process for me. Fluent Forever will help me understand what key principles to follow when learning something completely new (and something that may be daunting to others). This is marketing will teach me how to tell stories to students that I will have in my courses.


What books are you interested in? Or more importantly, what skills are you interested in learning or improving? What are you planning for the next year?

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