The twenty-first century is characterised by an innovation-driven economy and rapidly emerging technology. We find ourselves in an age when digital screens have taken over our lifestyles while our industries are fast becoming automated. There are specific skills and traits that are needed to thrive personally and professionally in today’s environment.

The traditional approach is to classify these as either hard skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, or soft skills such as leadership, critical thinking, and communication. While a certain level of proficiency in the hard skills – particularly the ability to create technology-based content – is a must, it is the soft skills that are increasingly becoming more relevant today.

New Vision and the 4Cs

According to the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Education, the hard skills or foundational literacies are only one of the three broad categories of skills most needed in the twenty-first century. The second category includes competencies such as problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity that describe how we approach complex challenges. Finally, there are the character qualities like curiosity, adaptability, and persistence that demonstrate our response to the changing environment.

Research by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) identifies the “4 Cs” as among the most important twenty-first century skills for students: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The research also lists adaptability, self-direction, productivity, leadership, and cross-cultural skills as other essential life and career skills for today.

Essential 21st Century Skills

Let’s now study in detail some of the most important skills needed to succeed in the twenty-first century.

Creativity

In a 2010 global survey conducted by IBM, involving over 1500 CEOs from 33 industries, creativity was identified as the single most important success factor for the twenty-first century. But what exactly is creativity? According to the definition by World Economic Forum, it is the “ability to imagine and devise new, innovative ways” of addressing problems or answering questions. Another highly valued and related skill is critical thinking, which is the ability to analyse different situations to formulate responses and solutions.

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These two skills are the key to innovation and complex problem-solving in today’s world. Some of the ways to develop these skills are brainstorming a real-life dilemma, solving puzzles, and playing strategy games and sports. In fact, according to a recent study by Stanford University, something as simple as walking improves a person’s creative thinking. On the other hand, stress and pessimism reduce creativity, as does sitting at one’s desk for too long.    

Initiative

Without initiative, you are unable to put your ideas into action. Those who are willing to take the first step – which is often the most difficult one – naturally make good leaders. In today’s world, not everything we need to know is taught in schools or universities. Hence, we must be willing to take the initiative to acquire new skills and gain new experiences. In particular, we should be willing and able to use the internet to our advantage by engaging in self learning.

Focus

Focus is necessary not only to perform the routine tasks efficiently but also to innovate and address challenging problems. However, maintaining one’s focus for long has become quite challenging today due to the internet, particularly with the increasing addiction to the internet among young people. Focus is more easily retained by avoiding multitasking and staying offline when feasible. Exercise also helps improve our focus. According to a Harvard study, regular exercise releases brain chemicals that improve memory, concentration, and mental sharpness.

Focus is a highly valuable skill in the 21st century
Remaining focused and attentive for long periods is a valuable skill

Collaboration

The ability to work effectively as part of a team is imperative to the modern workplace. More organisations today are adopting a horizontal structure – having fewer management levels and a larger number of employees in each team, thereby necessitating good teamwork skills. Group assignments and projects, where all team members are required to make a meaningful contribution to the task at hand, are vital to developing this skill.

Curiosity

As Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Curiosity, translated into inquisitiveness, is seen as a valuable twenty-first century skill. Top organisations today train their business leaders to reach at the root of a problem by constantly asking “why” – something that comes quite naturally to children. According to Dr Laura A. Jana, a world leading paediatrician and educator, we train the skill of curiosity out of children whereas they should be encouraged to ask questions, whether logical or not, to nurture their inquisitiveness.

Communication

Effective communication, both verbal and written, is the key to expressing one’s ideas and marketing one’s abilities. While the twenty-first century is described as the information age, it is also the age of information overload. As a result, the ability to communicate concisely and clearly is often valued more than being able to speak or write at length. Hence, it is worth sparing some time to practise speaking confidently and expressing more ideas in fewer words.

Good speaking skills are highly valued today
Good speaking skills can easily make you stand out from the crowd

Communication also includes the ability to listen and understand well – something we take for granted. Good listening skills are especially relevant in the modern age as content is increasingly transmitted in the form of audio and video files.

Self-confidence

A lack of self-belief is one of the greatest stumbling blocks in today’s highly competitive environment. Those who are not confident about their abilities tend to under-achieve and lose out on potential life-changing opportunities. Someone with self-confidence reacts positively to new challenges and is better prepared to take calculated risks in life. While over-confidence is undesirable, expressing faith in one’s abilities is certainly a positive trait.

Persistence

It is important to stay determined and motivated in life. Extrinsic motivation, which is based on rewards and punishment, is not always sufficient, however. We must be intrinsically or self-motivated, deriving a sense of achievement from our efforts and accomplishments. Failure is an essential part of learning. There are many inspiring stories of famous leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs, and others who faced outright rejection or failure before succeeding. In fact, not giving up is the key to achieving anything great. “Fail early, fail often, and fail forward” is said to be the unofficial motto of the Silicon Valley.