Essential life skills - let's make a list

What will it take to be ready for life in the 21st century?

I’m keeping it short this week, hoping you’ll share what you think are essential skills for life in the 21st century.

One of the fallacies of our time is that kids don’t want to know stuff and that most of us are not very capable. Kids have to have knowledge forced on them and then we need all kinds of gadgets in order to accomplish tasks that our forebearers did without a thought.

We’re told that the ultimate goal is not to do lift a finger: soft-voiced AI should turn on the lights and open the curtains and start dinner.

I’m no technophobe. I think everyone should learn to code, at least a little, simply to understand something about the systems running our communications and energy grid. But I don’t want a computer system to open my curtains.

I like opening the curtains in the morning. It’s a ritual. I walk around the house as soon as it’s light outside, opening the curtains and taking a look at the world. Here’s what I saw this morning.

Looking out the window reminds me that I’m in a particular place on this planet, and that the world is much bigger than my computer screen.

Of course we need technology and highly skilled and trained people, too, in order to have reliable infrastructure, adequate food supplies, and accessible health care. But it is so much easier to sell products, and especially technology, when people lose confidence in their own ability to deal with practical tasks.

I think of two-year-olds. They can be annoying with their endless questioning, but aren’t they who we want to be, endlessly curious? There is nothing like a small child’s questions to make you realize how little you know about the natural world and how machines work and why people do bad things.


For a small child, knowledge is a joyful thing.

My ambition is to keep that curiosity - that refrain of “Why?” and “How?” - alive. Confidence and resilience come from knowledge. Conspiracy theories thrive when people don’t know enough, and when they’re scared that they can never, ever know enough to cope with reality. That’s when a cultish narrative has power: it provides security and certainty in what is, admittedly, a frigging complicated world.

But what do we need to know? What skills do we need today? When I ran away from home at 14, I was full of ideas about getting back to nature, back to the land. I believed in developing life skills, I said, not just book learning. (Which is quite comical in retrospect, since my siblings say I never did anything but read and that I’d barely ever stepped outdoors.)

I learned to milk goats, feed chickens and gather eggs, and peel tree bark that we sold for cash. Not skills that have come in useful in the years since then. I’ve actually learned more practical skills during the COVID-19 lockdown than I did on the commune.

I’m a list-maker so I thought I’d share a couple with you and see what you think.

Everyone over 10 should know how to:

  • Sharpen a knife

  • Start a fire

  • Sew on a button

  • Ride a bike

  • Check the oil in a car

  • Inflate a tire

  • Use a broom (amazingly detailed instructions here)

  • Plant seeds

  • Know a basic home yoga routine

  • . . .

  • Leave a comment

How about these?

  • Do CPR (and other first aid)

  • Rewire a lamp

  • Make bread

  • Shoot a gun

  • Speak Spanish (or some other second language)

  • Write some code

  • . . .

FYI: I haven’t made a list of the things we should know. Chemistry, physics, math, computer science? Chinese history? Psychology? There were volumes produced some decades back on “cultural literacy,” which would look horribly narrow and Eurocentric now. If you can recommend anything along these lines, appropriate to our time, please let me know.

Then there are skills for climate-resilient living

  • Be a good walker

  • Ride a bike

  • Grow sprouts (as an example of gardening that can literally be done anywhere)

  • Take a sponge bath

  • Learn to layer clothes for hot and cold weather

  • . . .

Obviously there are many things one could add to these lists and I hope you’ll tell me about them. What I’m trying to do is come up with a sort of 10 commandments - rules so basic that they can be applied anywhere, by anyone.

I’ll be editing these lists on the website. This newsletter gets posted at my Substack page, where you can also add comments.

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More on Tools

Kevin Kelly was one of the guys behind the Whole Earth Catalog, which had the tagline "Tools and ideas." He co-founded Wired magazine and far more obsessed with tools than I am. One example is his Essential Workshop Tool Kit.

Another Reason for Making Things

This British book, Craft-fulness: Mend Yourself by Making Things, is not a how-to but a why-to. The authors argue that crafting improves our well-being and overall happiness, and that certainly seems a worthwhile message right now. They include writing and drawing, which are skills, after all, and satisfying crafts, too.


This letter is in part inspired by work on a 2021 version of my first book, Home Ecology. We’ve put the original UK edition, which was a surprise bestseller, online as a free ebook, and there’ll soon be more about the new book at my personal website.

Here in Massachusetts, snow is falling and spring seems a long time off. But it isn’t really and I know that the frogs, too, are just waiting and watching for the warmer days ahead.

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