Want a successful career?

Commit to learning every day.

If you read reports on the skills employers consider most desirable, you won’t fail to notice that critical thinking and (complex) problem solving are almost always mentioned. These two specific sets of skills have appeared in reports for decades, and I do not believe they will go anywhere anytime soon.

In fact, over the past decade a much bigger emphasis has been placed on “soft” skills – among them emotional intelligence (EQ), communication, team work, and influencing. The truth is, there is absolutely nothing soft about these skills; they are hard to master and in demand. In a LinkedIn survey of 5,000 human resource professionals and hiring managers, 80 per cent said soft skills are growing in importance to business success, while 89 per cent highlighted a lack of soft skills among the bad hires at their organization.

Another must-have skill for the 21st century is digital literacy, which the American Library Association defines as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” Digital literacy is a prime example of essential knowledge that requires continuous learning and upskilling. It’s hardly surprising, then, that lifelong learning is receiving more attention in reports on the future of work, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

For long-term career success in the 21st century, then, I recommend focusing your learning efforts on the following core areas, which are highly interconnected.

Practice your critical thinking and problem solving skills

Although definitions of critical thinking vary, many of them operate on the same basic concept: careful thinking directed towards a goal.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, critical thinking is ”the process of thinking carefully about a subject or idea, without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you.” That’s easier said than done, given that we are all human beings who experience feelings and form opinions on a daily basis. (You can probably already sense that critical thinking is closely connected to emotional intelligence.)

Few thing in life are black and white, but practicing your critical thinking skills will help you make sound decisions in an ever more complicated world.

Just to get you started, here are a few key basic questions to ask when approaching any problem: What do you already know? How do you know it? What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrate, critique (or otherwise)? And what are you overlooking? Few things in life are black and white, but practicing your critical thinking skills will help you make sound decisions in an ever more complicated world.

Recommended reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Develop your soft skills, especially your emotional intelligence

Many of us have probably experienced a colleague “losing it” or a manager yelling at someone in anger. Whatever someone’s rank, this behaviour is not a recipe for career success in the 21st century. Self-awareness, self-regulation, flexibility, and adaptability are all traits associated with a high EQ, and they have positive bearing on the way we communicate with others and work in teams.

I should note that academics are beginning to throw light on more negative applications of EQ including the manipulation of others on an individual or larger scale. Emerging research led by University of Cambridge professor Jochen Menges, for example, revealed that when a leader gave an inspiring and emotionally moving speech, the audience was less likely to scrutinize the message and remembered less of the content.

However, in practical terms emotional intelligence means being aware that emotions can drive our behaviour and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage them – both our own and those of others – especially when we are under pressure. I think this is a particularly important aspect of career success.

Recommended reading: Give and Take by Adam Grant

Be a lifelong learner (upskill and reskill)

Let’s start with a fun fact. According to an article I read on the website Seed Scientific, the amount of data in the world at the dawn of 2020 was estimated to be 44 zettabytes. I did not know what a zettabyte was, but I learned. One zettabyte is equal to a trillion gigabytes. In other words, one zettabyte has 21 zeros. That is a lot of information.

Information is “attacking” us every single day, and we need to be good at critical thinking to figure out what is relevant and what is not. Learning also requires a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that your intelligence and talents can be developed over time. (The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed one, when you believe that if you're not good at something, you'll probably never be good at it.)

We need to take responsibility for developing ourselves instead of waiting for our employer to do it for us. There are many free courses out there and lots of affordable options to improve our skills, such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, or Udemy. And as director for the Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre at UBC Sauder, I’d be remiss not to point out the availability of Sauder’s Executive or Continuing Business Studies.

Committing time to reading will also serve you well. The week has 168 hours for all of us, and some of the busiest and most successful people in the world ensure that some of those hours are devoted to reading. Former US President Barack Obama reputedly read for one hour each day while in office. Warren Buffett estimates he spends 80 per cent of his time reading and thinking. And Bill Gates says he reads a book a week and sets aside two weeks each year for reading vacations.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”

I hope you enjoy the journey.

Recommended reading: Mindset by Carol S. Dweck

Martina Valkovicova (MBA’11) is assistant dean and director for the Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre at UBC Sauder.