How to decide what to learn next

I still remember that meeting. I was in my high school and one of my Uncle’s friends had come to our home. My Uncle thought his friend was “special” because his friend had a bachelors degree in Arts, Commerce and Science. It seemed like a naive question but because I was young, I asked the question anyway – “But why would you want to have degrees all three disciplines.” and the answer was “Because I can.” He then handed over the card that read something like this

FirstName LastName
B.A., B.Sc., B.Com

A degree in three disciplines gave ZERO advantage to the person referred above. It was more of a liability than an asset.


While it appeared “cool” at first, it added no strategic value to anyone he was serving.

I was definitely puzzled a bit about this person but forgot about it after a while.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I get to witness a similar phenomena. It may not to an extreme like the above example but somewhere close. I have met people who have taken courses that makes no sense, spent a few hundred thousand dollars on an MBA program that they have leveraged very little or simply painted their entire home by hand because they wanted to show that they can do it.

That brings to the core question:

How do you know what to learn next?


The rest of the article provides an approach to find an answer for the above plus a few actionable tips.

Let’s get right to the core of it. Learning is not limited to what you do explicitly to become proficient on a certain topic. Every single day you are learning as you work through your projects. So “learning” encompasses both what you do explicitly and what projects you are engaged with.

It is always about the balance between increasing current leverage with “relevant” future capacity

Wayne Gretzky said it right – “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” It is not just relevant to the game but to all of our careers.

Ideally, your skill sets should be such that you need to stretch a “little bit” to get the better and faster results (compared to the majority of the available options). The reason for the need to “stretch a little bit” is mainly because that is where the growth is. This simply means that you need to pick projects that are one or two notches harder than before every single time.  The second reason for this is that alternatively you will be bored to death by doing repetitive work.  Most people get this part quite well.

The other aspect to “learning and working” is that both of them should lead to increasing your capacity to deliver stellar performance in the future. This is not easy because it requires deep thinking and reflection on what kind of skills will be required to deliver stellar performance in the future. This requires taking risks as you are probably not a “futurist” to predict how the world around you will evolve. Without the skills of a futurist, the alternate option would be to over-prepare with additional skills as backup. If you are not doing this right, sooner than later, you will face the Hemingway’s classic “Gradually.. Then Suddenly” surprise.

You can never go wrong with the fundamentals

Change is happening at a breathtaking speed but there are skills that are fundamental and an investment in them will never go wrong. A partial list of these skills is listed below:

(A detailed explanation of each is outside of the scope of this article)

There are a lot more skills to add to the list. Unfortunately, not all of these highly-valuable skills are not taught in school. You learn them as you go because your work requires you to OR you can consciously choose to identify a set of them and pursue their mastery.

Watch the right progress metric

There are so many metrics (money being the most common one) to track and you can get carried away. But if you are learning right, you will notice one thing very clearly if you are learning the right things is:

It will cost you less to get the same or better results (and to contribute more) as compared to what it costed you last year.

This metric will account for the change in the marketplace. This metric becomes a better indicator as you age. And, the best part is – the opposite is true as well. If you are not learning the right things, you will notice that

It will cost you more to get the same or better results (and to contribute more) as compared to what it costed you last year.

Since it’s very personal, only YOU can track this metric in the right way.

Get the right mentors NOW

In a recent radio show,  Srini Saripalli asked me a closing question – “If you were to live your life all over again, what would you change?”. My answer was simple – “Nothing much as I am happy with my life so far. If I HAD to pick one, it would be that I met all my mentors a few years before I met them.”

I miss many of these wonderful people who shaped my life. In fact, I miss them in my past.

[ Related reading: Creating the ultimate lasting impression]

The right mentors at the right time can create magic for you. In your ongoing conversations with these mentors you WILL know how to decide what to learn next.

If you need reasons to work with mentors, here are ten of them.

Getting it done while you are not “working”

This is some combination of a mindset and a skill. If you are investing in the right skills and shaping your mindset right, sooner than later, you will start getting things done while you are not “working.” For the world, you ARE working but for you, it’s play. It stopped “being work” the moment you started losing track of time when you are engaged in that work.

Both parts are important:

Part 1: Getting things done (meaning you need to be producing meaningful results)

Part 2: While you are not working (you should enjoy the work so much that you lose track of time)

If Part 1 is missing, there is a slight chance that you are confusing work and entertainment.

What gets challenging is for you to identify what you need to learn so that you can be in “flow” in the future. Your gut will tell you what those skills are – you just need the confidence to trust that gut.

The Ideal Combination

There are set of skills that will provide the ultimate combination: helping you produce better results in the short-term AND providing you “future capacity” to gain unfair competitive advantage.

For example – one lifelong skill that will fall into the above-mentioned category is “presentation skills.” Learn this and your current projects can be packaged and presented well. Since it takes years to master the skill, it will provide you “future capacity” to gain unfair competitive advantage. For someone else to gain competitive advantage in this area, they have to PAY the price over the years. There is NOBODY who can learn such skills overnight. The earlier you start, the greater your advantage.

A Better YOU…

Ultimately, it boils down to one final question – does learning this skill make you a better YOU – not just for your sake but for the sake of the world around you.  If your heart signs off on this litmus test, go for it!