Invest money thoughtfully in your 20s and the miracle of compound interest means a modest amount saved early will yield a much larger payout later. The same can be said of skills. Learn to be a better conversationalist early, for instance, and you might meet and charm just the right person to land the entry-level job of your dreams, which could lead to a another great career break, and so on ...

So what are the skills most likely to pay the greatest dividends over time if you master them before you hit 30? Several threads on question-and-answer site Quora have asked just this, soliciting advice from the more experienced for young professionals hoping to set themselves up for success later on. An examination of a host of answers reveals a few common themes. According to the wisdom of Quora, these are the skills you'd really benefit from acquiring in your 20s:

1. Coping with uncertainty

You might think that as you get older, the chaos of your life will go away and you'll get to live with more certainty about the future. Maybe a little, but many respondents caution that uncertainty never goes away, so you should get comfortable with it now.

"Accept that you will never have anything figured out," writes copywriter Joe Choi, as "it's near impossible to plan where you'll be a few years." Respondent Ayushi Aswal agrees. She puts "how to manage uncontrollable situations" at the top of her list of most necessary skills.

2. Communicating with grace

You've been using words since you were a toddler, but that doesn't mean you will master the art of communication by the time you turn 20. Most of us don't. But don't let yourself enter your fourth decade without getting a handle on clear, compelling, and polite communication, insist a number of answers.

"Think about ways to challenge yourself, and tweak how you write an email or behave in a meeting," suggests one anonymous but extremely popular answer. It offers a few more specific ideas: "Don't hit 'send' immediately after composing a note. Instead, give yourself a beat or two, then reread the email, make edits, and then hit 'send.' Or, during your next team meeting, resist talking about your idea or opinion right off the bat. Instead, count to five, and if you still feel like you have something relevant to contribute, speak up."

Entrepreneur Brian Bain agrees. "How to communicate and interact professionally," tops his list of skills you should master in your 20s. "Look around and notice how the ability to freely and easily talk to people helps those who have already crossed their 20s, and how the lack thereof makes things unnecessarily difficult for some," cautions technologist Sugandha Banga. "No matter how knowledgeable you are, people are not going to take your work seriously unless you know at least the basics of holding up a decent conversation."

3. Respecting those who are different from you

"I think it's easy to judge people based on your own definitions of success and a meaningful life, without recognizing that everybody has their own definition," warns designer Francis Chen. "Everybody is different, and has different pathways to life. Respect that, and respect yourself."

Consultant Michael Hoffman concurs: "Put yourself in the other person's shoes," he instructs. "Think about how they will perceive what you are communicating or doing. Without understanding context and perspective, we run the risk of ... creating problems rather than solving them; and appearing blunt and unsympathetic." Several responses make a special point of noting the need to learn to respect the opposite sex.

4. Asking for what you want

You need to respect others, but you need to respect yourself and your own potential as well. To do that fully, you need to get comfortable asking for the things you want in life. "The ability to ask is the easiest, most underutilized skill to catapult your career," says the same much up-voted anonymous answer. "The old adage is true: 'If you don't ask, you don't receive.' Many careerists don't ask to pitch their idea, for a raise or promotion, a bigger sales deal, or to take on more responsibility. When this happens--or doesn't happen, rather--you're far less likely to find challenge, meaning, and reward in your work."

Copywriter Joe Cassandra writes something similar: "Learn to negotiate now. Earnings compound over time." How do you learn to ask? Start small, the anonymous answer suggests: "Try practicing in non-work related contexts. At the farmer's market, you could ask a vendor for a lower price on the asparagus; at home, you could ask your partner to attend dance lessons; on the street, you could ask a stranger, 'How are you?'"

5. Being resilient

No matter how smart, talented, and ambitious you are, things won't always go your way (especially once you've left the cocoon of school and your parents' protection). Learn how to cope with setbacks early and they'll discourage you less.

"Your 20s is a time when most are relatively free of the responsibilities that will increase into your 30s and 40s," writes recruiter Carolyn Cho. "This is a great time to experiment, fail, and bounce back. Learn how to ride out failure and persevere. Life is full of challenges. The 20s are a great time to toughen up and start teaching yourself how to be emotionally and mentally resilient enough to weather both the joys and hardships to come."

6. Spending your time and money wisely

You may be relatively footloose and fancy-free in your 20s, but that doesn't mean you should squander the decade. It's a truth that applies to both time and money. "Time is a precious commodity, and you start to realize that increasingly into your mid- to late 20s," Cho also writes. So learn to choose the people and activities you spend your time on carefully. "Focus your time and energy on things that will help you grow and give," agrees Chen.

Many respondents also noted that while spending on mind-expanding travel or education is great if you can swing it, you also need to at least start to get a handle on your finances. Bain includes "how to create and stick to a budget," on his list of most important skills for young people, for instance.

7. Cooking

Looking for something a little more focused and practical? You'd be surprised how many people suggested learning to cook. These respondents claim it's a great skill to master that will greatly improve your life for decades. (If you like to eat good food and don't have an unlimited budget, I personally can't agree with this one enough.)

"Most people live solo or away from families, so knowing how to cook becomes critical to maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle," writes engineer Gurvinder Arora. "I have developed a lot of patience thanks to cooking. It also helps to impress the ladies."

What skills would you add to this list?

Published on: Dec 15, 2015
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