Do You Have These 21st Century Survival Skills?

Do You Have These 21st Century Survival Skills?

My wife and I recently read the book Little House on the Prairie with our children. If you’ve never read it, this book tells the story of the Ingalls, a family of five, settling on the Kansas prairie. I was particularly in awe of Charles Ingalls. Pa was a beast. He could hunt to provide meals for his wife and kids. When he needed something (like a house), he just built it. He was resourceful, making tools and appliances with random sticks. Part of his success was his ability to cooperate with his neighbors. Had I been in his shoes, I’m pretty sure I would’ve died in the first week. But Pa seemed a master at nineteenth century survivor skills.

Life was hard back then, but today’s challenges provide a different type of difficulty. The world has changed dramatically, and we’re far enough into the twenty-first century to have a good idea of what our biggest obstacles might be.

If Pa were alive today, what abilities would he need to survive and thrive now? These are what I believe will be the most important skills of the twenty-first century:


1. Financial self-sufficiency

In order to thrive today, especially later in life, we all need to learn how to manage our money to take care of ourselves long-term. In Pa Ingalls’ time, people expected to live with younger family members and, if they were lucky, die in their mid-60s (which Pa did). In the last century, many could expect private and government pensions to provide for them, most often into their mid-70s.

Today is different. Generous pensions of yesteryear are almost extinct. The new reality is that today’s workers need to provide for their own future income. And with life expectancies well into the mid-80s, we need to provide for ourselves longer than ever.

As investment theorist William Bernstein stated, “Whether you like it or not, you are a money manager.” Financial self-sufficiency includes several sub-skills to master:

  • Saving, the ability to spend less than one earns to build up your own net worth.
  • Long-term thinking, taking a farsighted approach with short-term decisions.
  • A basic level of investment competency, including wisely selecting investment advisors.
  • Diversification, giving you the greatest chance of long-term success.

Pa Ingalls needed to do all of the above to some degree, although his currency was more often furs and seeds needed for the next season. The currency you and I use will be more and more digital in nature. We need to prepare for seasons farther out than he even expected to live.

Resource for cultivating financial self-sufficiency: Ron Blue’s classic Master Your Money: A Step-by-Step Plan for Experiencing Financial Contentment, recently updated.


2. Initiative

To survive and thrive, twenty-first century workers need to know how to be proactive in their own careers and finances. Entrepreneurship in America is on the decline. More of us are employed by large corporations than ever before. But as the last recession demonstrated, those work prospects rise and fall with corporate earnings.

Not everyone should start their own business. Many of my clients are business owners, so I know only particular personalities are right for the ups/downs of entrepreneurship. But the most successful workers, whether employees or self-employed, are proactive in their careers. No longer can a default corporate path be trusted.

Whether negotiating a promotion or starting a side hustle, initiative means developing persistence, being resourceful and being open to occasional failure.

Resource for taking initiative: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, from Stanford’s Design Program.


3. Persuasion

In his book To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink argues that each one of us are persuaders, whether we’re pitching a project at work or trying to convince a spouse of a spending plan. “Like it or not, we’re all in sales now,” he writes.

This skill is not about extroversion. That’s a common misconception. It’s about cooperation. And just as social media has started to change how we communicate with each other, those who thrive will figure out how to more effectively cooperate.

Resource for developing communication skills: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High


4. Contentment

Speaking of social media, the landscape of the future will be one of comparison. In the Internet Age, we are each exposed to an average of 11,000 online ads every month. This doesn’t count commercials on TV or billboards. We are bombarded by messages that tell us we do not have enough, we are not enough, we need more to be truly satisfied.

Of course, wisdom tells us that more is never really the answer. So it will take dedication to cultivate contentment to flourish in the twenty-first century landscape. It will mean developing impulse control and using our persuasion skills on ourselves.

A common misunderstanding is that contentment merely expresses a quality that one either has or does not have (like a Southern accent, or baldness). The reality is that contentment is itself a skill (like cooking, or darts). If you do not have it, it is because you have not developed it.

Resource for developing contentment: Satisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption


5. Generosity

The final skill is also believed to be more of a trait than a skill. But as every generous person I’ve met would attest, giving takes practice and gets more fun the more it’s developed.

Why will you need generosity to survive? Only by giving will you break the influence of materialism and consumerism in your life. Only by practicing liberality with others will you fight the selfish, narcissistic tendencies of our age.

The benefits of generosity are almost too many to name. Research shows strong connections to giving and health, mental wellness, strong relationships, and even financial stability itself. Those who figure out how to be generous with their lives will be the ones who not only survive but thrive in the years to come.

Resource for growing your giving: Giving It All Away…and Getting It All Back Again: The Way of Living Generously


As technology has made the physical aspects of our lives easier (I’m sure Pa Ingalls could best me in any contest of strength), these components of well-being are becoming even more important. If you want to get intentional about navigating the twenty-first century, I suggest you start with the above.

What skill would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your ideas for surviving modern life. Email me at [email protected] with your thoughts.

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