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Which Skills and When?

Compiled and edited by Julie Tereshchuk

Dear Mentors,

What are the most important skills to master in my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s?


Planning Ahead


Dear Planning Ahead,

The ability to say “no” to some requests for your time, attention and energy is a hard-learned skill but a valuable one at any age. If you have a clear idea of your priorities you’ll have a better idea of which requests you should turn down to stay on track, but it doesn’t always make it easy to say “no,” especially as a young person. If you’re intentional with how you spend your time, you’ll soon realize that saying “no” to one thing may allow you to say “yes” to something else that’s a better fit with your intentions.

Liz Carmack


Dear Planning Ahead,

20s: networking, including cultivating mentors

30s: advocating for yourself in a diplomatic way

40s: speaking less and listening more

I can’t speak for the 50s skill set yet!

Best of luck.

Maura Thomas


Dear Planning Ahead,

Here are some skills you need, regardless of the job, throughout your career. As you enter each new decade you will take with you the skills you’ve learned and build on them.

In your 20s: Most important skills: Listening, humility, open-mindedness and understanding the need to continue learning. You are learning not only how to develop skills in your particular job but to navigate relationships and expectations. Many people in their 20s think they know it all. This is the time to learn, ask questions and seek out mentors who will help you grow. You also need to really listen with empathy, humility and an eye toward your own personal growth. You need to accept challenging projects (even if they scare you a little) because they will accelerate your skills. You need to learn how to say “yes” to jobs that sound difficult, rather than point out reasons why you can’t do them. You have to develop a strong work ethic that includes being reliable and on time. You have to learn how to manage your time so you’re not working 10-12 hours every day, even if it means taking a time-management class. (Some weeks you will work 50 hours or more to meet a deadline; let those weeks be fewer than your normal work weeks.) You need to learn to focus and deal with stress. Meditation can make a big difference. It’ll make you calmer and has the added benefit of stimulating creativity. You need to learn to collaborate with others and understand that those who play well with others are more likely to be rewarded than the loners. Learn to pick your battles. Passion in your work is good, but learning when to be quiet also is important. Develop stellar communication skills and use everyday language. Check your emails before sending them. Your bosses will think less of you if you’re consistently sloppy. Study and practice ethical decision-making so you can make the best possible choices and be the person others want to emulate. A strong ethical compass will guide you throughout your career.

In your 30s: This is a good time to learn how to make an honest assessment of your progress in your career. Know how to assess your strengths, weaknesses and biases. If the work is not something you enjoy, it’s time to move on. Go to grad school, change careers. If you do enjoy the work, focus on augmenting the skills you bring to the job. What are you really good at? Chances are, the areas where you excel also make you happy. That’s the path to fulfillment and satisfaction. In areas of weakness, take steps to strengthen those skills. If public speaking is your fear, start small, like volunteering to lead a brown bag lunch for colleagues on a skill in which you excel. Speak at high school career days; move on to community talks. Lose the pride of authorship. You don’t need to seek credit or pat yourself on the back. Your good work will speak for itself. You need to continue volunteering for projects that stretch your capabilities and develop your leadership potential. You need the confidence to express differing points of view, instead of following in lock-step with others. This is the time to step out of your comfort zone, be a non-conformist and delight in your own creativity. Revel in being an independent thinker and others will follow you. But don’t forget that learning is lifelong, and if you’re not learning something new every day, it may be time to move on.

In your 40s: Continue focusing on skills that make you a leader; be a mentor to others, especially younger, talented staff who look up to you. If you haven’t done so already, learn how to strike the right balance between your working life and your home life. It’s a skill and requires practice. You won’t be happy otherwise. Keep up with technology, even if you have to take webinars or courses to bring you up to speed. You don’t want people pigeon-holing you because you are older. If you realize you are weak in an important skill area, spend personal time reading and learning more about it so it no longer intimidates you.

In your 50s: Look to younger colleagues to mentor you. They can help you hone your tech skills, social media use and other fast-moving changes in the workplace. Continue to mentor others and be generous in your willingness to praise and help others. You’re the sage now. If you want to try something new, realize it’s not too late. Always have a Plan B for work. Volunteering in the community can help you discover it.

Finally, think of something big you could do to leave a lasting mark, such as solving a persistent problem or developing a program that enriches your colleagues. Your field will be better for it.


Mary Ann Roser