I see educators focusing on 21st century skills so their students can make it in the real world. Just as prevalent are twenty- and thirty-somethings still living with their parents, unable to make ends meet. 

The systemic challenges we millennials face in adulthood are real and widely covered. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose and change our communities for good. Take Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Afghanistan war veteran and two-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., who continues gaining traction in the 2020 presidential race. “I think when you run at this age, your face is your message in a lot of ways,” Buttigieg told CNN. “And part of what we are looking at is the idea that it’s time for a new generation in American leadership.”

While he may on the right track, clearer guideposts after school ends would help others take a road to success.  

Being steeped in the education field, I see the way paved by five skills: learning, communication, care, relationship building, and self-advocacy. Some call these soft skills, but in my experience, they are the hardest to master.

Learning. Many people can’t conceive of all the opportunities available to make a fulfilling life. Each of us can change this by being open to learning — at all stages. In school, this means absorbing new ideas and exploring how we learn best — whether it’s visual, aural, kinesthetic, experiential, or some other way. Educators and parents can help with the discovery, as they observe patterns of interest and behavior. 

Early on, I discovered that writing things down helped me process new info as well as analyze and synthesize it. Now I use this skill to inform others.

After formal schooling, we should seize every opportunity to learn and not limit ourselves to what’s right in front of us. This could come through reading widely, watching and applying how-to and inspirational videos, dissecting data, talking to others, experimenting in a discipline, traveling if possible.

As a novice news editor, I watched my colleagues work at desks next to mine, asked a lot of questions to journalists and subject matter experts in the field, and read the web traffic reports to find out what stories resonated with readers and the topics we needed to cover. I also paid attention to what wasn’t discussed or seen and incorporated this into my work.

Because many jobs of the future don’t exist today, I regularly ask myself: Where is there an opening, an unfulfilled need, that I can uniquely fill? What do I need to learn — and how?

Communication. We must impart ideas clearly and truthfully to stand out from the crowd. There are many ways to communicate (speech, short- and long-form text, photos, audio, video, infographics, illustrations) and many channels through which to convey info (print, web, email, social media, phone call, text message, virtual reality, and new ones all the time). Deciding which modes are best involves understanding the circumstances and the receivers. How does the intended audience best take in information? In images, in sounds, in writing. We must master all means. Communication is the kind of upskilling that will never go out of style.

As a rule, I carry a friendly, yet assertive tone in print and speech. A simple “follow up” mention reminds people of a previous outreach attempt and prompts a swifter reply. No need to nag; consideration goes hand in hand with communication.

Care. Here I refer to self-care and caregiving. To begin, we must manage our physical and financial health. Eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep help prevent problems and strengthen overall wellness. Determining a monthly budget, saving, investing for the future, and paying off debts in the right order empower us to meet immediate and long-term needs and desires. For me, I felt liberated after I paid off my graduate school-loan debt this past year — three years early. 

We can’t forget to maintain our living environment and workspace: Weed out our wardrobes, clean our homes, and declutter regularly. I’ve slogged through seasons of messy rooms, but always end up more productive when my spaces are clean and tidy. I adhere to Marie Kondo’s guideline: Whatever doesn’t spark joy has to go.

Over three years ago, Anne Marie Slaughter brought societal caring to the fore with her excellent book: Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. We have to value care the way we value work, she says, because many of us are or will be caregivers. Helping loved ones with dressing, feeding, bathing, and other routines is not necessarily sexy, but is necessary for individual well-being and society’s advancement. I truly hope this Congress will push forward care policies. 

Relationship building. A culture of care makes building relationships easier, but each of us can work to cultivate such an environment.

Consider all the professionals you meet daily and how to help each other with projects big and small, then think about facilitating one another’s growth. Look to connect people who can aid each other’s goals. These social webs can launch the next groundbreaking idea.

In my experience, I concentrated on building relationships with educators in the field as I helped crystallize stories and edited copy. Later on, I reached out to these leaders and tapped into their community ties for new work. I was grateful to connect with people around the country for a long-term journalism project on health and well-being in American communities. Our first report was well-received as a result.

Outside of work, nurture old friendships and continue making new ones. Try not to neglect friends when in a romantic relationship. Diversify your social circle, drawing in a mix of ethnicities, disciplines, geographies, generations, etc. Send emails with helpful and insightful articles, send paper cards and gifts that recognize milestones and provide encouragement, have check-in calls, host dinner parties, arrange get-togethers, and show up with food when friends are swamped. 

Not only do such relationships make life richer, they also help in times of struggle and transition.

Self-advocacy. On the one hand, self-promotion has gotten a bad rap; on the other, relatives are often advocating for us. At work, we have to push past these inhibitors — so we’re not taken advantage of, we’re a force taken seriously, and we’re able to advance professionally.

For example, if you find your new job is not what was advertised, address it head-on so you don’t stew or get diverted from higher-level work.

In my case, I once found out my editorial role included a good chunk of data entry, which was not mentioned at any point in the hiring process. When I spilled my concerns to my new colleague, she wondered aloud if I would be able to do the editing I was hired to do. That day, I strode into my boss’s office and we agreed that editing was my priority.

We must discern when it’s time for a raise, speak up, and keep asking until we’re satisfied. Don’t take promises to the bank or settle for uncertainty. Insist on a meeting, a written agreement with a date certain, and keep looking for opportunities that use your unique talents. I’ve had to do this more than once.

I can attest that when we clearly articulate our needs and desires, people do rise to meet us. It may not be in the current situation but somewhere else. Embedded in self-advocacy is the confidence to make the right next step.  

Whatever road we’re on after school, we need a more effective way to navigate around. Learning, communication, care, relationship building, and self-advocacy lead to personal success and positive ripple effects. What more could we ask from 21st century skills?