Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What You Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life - Part II

Which are the really important things that one needs to learn in order to survive and live a successful life on this planet?

Photo credit: Little boy lying on a floor by Shutterstock

Whether in Manhattan, lost in the jungle, on a remote island or on an extraterrestrial planet, what are the truly critical and life-supporting things that are needed to survive and thrive beyond the animal level?

I have first tried to answer this question when I was invited to speak at LeWeb '08 in Paris, as my chosen presentation topic for the event had been "Love for learning". In that occasion, my goal was to communicate both the paradox of 2.0 ideas when confronted with the reality of our present-day school and education system, as well as to explore the key skills that would really be needed to conduct a successful, meaningful life and which could be acquired only by the emergence of a bottom-up, family-ignited (vs. state imposed), self-sustained and lifelong alternative approach to education.

In the first part of this guide to what you really need to learn to be successful in life, I had taken on Stephen Downes original ten points from 2006, and tried to refine, expand and curate them in greater depth than I had done the first time around.

But as I went through the process of curating those ten original points, I realized how many more skills could have been listed and summarized and therefore I decided to expand drastically the scope of the guide and to include in it all of the skills that I would myself consider mandatory in preparing a human being for a successful, rewarding and meaningful life on this planet (and possibly elsewhere).

And as I jotted down some, more would come to mind (I have now identified more than 40 of them).

What you will find therefore in this second Part of the guide is a continuation of what done in the first, with the only difference that the skills listed here are the fruit of my own intuition, research and evaluation of what I would like to see added to Stephen Downes original list.

Here then, a new set of life-critical skills needed to survive and thrive on this planet and which I think would be good substitutes for most of the topic areas we are forced to learn in our present-day school curriculum. This second set includes:

11) How to Ask Good Questions

12) How to Curate

13) How to Focus

14) How to Learn to Speak Other Languages

15) How to Code

16) How to Make Things (Makers)

17) How to Grow Your Own Food

18) How to Survive in the Wilderness

19) How to Provide First Aid

20) How to Defend Oneself

Here all the details: (Part I here)

11) How to Ask Good Questions



"to ask good questions means to be able to ask questions that can provide you with the information you need to have."

Source: Robin Good

"Good questions are ships that sail us into discovering lands and that can open up the opportunity to uncover things we would have never imagined... unless we asked."

Source: Robin Good


Asking questions is the highway to learning and understanding more about the world that surrounds you, about how it works and about how to get anywhere you want to go, physically or mentally.

Due to the way our cultures have developed, to religion, media, education and other factors it is very likely that our individual view of reality is limited to what we have seen, heard and from what other people around us have chosen to believe. Our knowledge of many things is most of the times based at best on trust, and at worst on pure faith, with no verification or inquiry on our hand as to whether something is really true or not.

On the other hand, by learning to ask good questions encourages exploration, critical thinking, engagement, drawing conclusions based on evidence, and it allows to get a deep understanding of any topic.

Asking good questions is what allows you to get where you want to be. So if you want to get there, wherever that is, you need to learn how to ask thought-provoking questions.

To ask good questions is therefore very important because only by asking smart questions you can get faster to the information you need.

Learning to ask good questions is also important because it trains you to evaluate the situation, to analyze its weak or unclear points and to see clearly where is the extra information that you do not have and need to know.


Play lots of different games that force you to think and to ask yourself many questions.

When dealing with information, play to be an investigator, a Sherlock Holmes who is always on the lookout for valuable clues, and for witness from whom to learn precious facts.

Read relevant books that showcase stories in which individuals ask very relevant questions.
Feel and identify the relevant questioning patterns and make them yours.

Avoid going to traditional earth-bound 19-21st century schools as they will do anything in their power to diminish and reduce human natural curiosity and capability of questioning things.

Learn how to do journalistic writing and investigative reporting and their methods and techniques.
Learn and practice the use of the 5 Ws. These are questions whose answers are considered basic in information-gathering. They are often mentioned in journalism (cf. news style), research, and police investigations. They constitute a formula for getting the complete story on a subject.

  1. Who is it about?

  2. What happened?

  3. Where did it take place?

  4. When did it take place?

  5. Why did it happen?

There are three main types of questions:

a) Factual

b) Interpretive

c) Evaluative

a) Factual questions are the ones that have only one correct answer.
Example: "What did you have for breakfast this morning?"
Value: Factual questions usually make the best inquiry-based projects, as long as they are answerable and have room for exploration.

b) Interpretative questions have more than one answer, but they still must be supported with evidence.
Example: "Why did Ahab chase Moby Dick?"
Value: Interpretive questions are effective for starting class discussions, for stimulating oral and written language exercises and, sometimes, for leading to good inquiry-based learning projects.

c) Evaluative questions ask for some kind of opinion, belief or point of view, and have therefore no wrong possible answers.
Example: "What would be a good place to take the kids on a field trip?" "Do you agree with Ahab's views on whales?"
Value: good ways to lead discussions and explore books or other artistic works

Source: Asking Questions - The Key to Engaging Students in Learning - LessonPaths

Don't ask yes / no questions. Always dig deeper.

"When you ask a yes or no question, you will most often get incomplete information. Instead, ask an open-ended question. By using an open-ended question you get insights and additional information you might not have known existed."

Source: How to Be Amazingly Good at Asking Questions by Michael Martel - Lifehack

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Video: How to Ask Great Questions by Derek Halpern
Duration: 3':04"

Tools & Resources:

  • Kahoot - A game-based classroom response system for schools, universities & businesses

12) How to Curate



"The ability to find, gather, organize, contextualize, add value, present and preserve unique items representative of a specific area of interest either for personal or public interest."

Source: Robin Good

"Content curation. That is process of collecting, organising and displaying information relevant to a particular topic or area of interest."

Source: Charles Christian


Curation can help a great deal in creating transferrable know-how, and in providing highly useful information references and options that can be used in most any field, from hunting and plant seeding to galaxy or DNA exploration.

The ability to find, gather, collect, organize, present, share and preserve valuable information and/or physical artifacts, is the same mandate originally given to libraries and later to museums.
Both represent a mirror of our cultural heritage and have offered for decades insight, inspiration, great learning opportunities and tangible data to those searching for the understanding of our past, present and future.

In the 21st century, thanks to the Internet and digital media, curatorial skills and abilities have started to become available to anyone with enough interest, time and personal subject matter expertise to take on this demanding task, thus suddenly expanding our potential for collective understanding and learning of at least an order of magnitude.


To learn how to curate there is no other way but doing it, possibly around a topic or interest for which one has already a good degree of affinity.

When I was a kid for example, some perfect unschooled curation courses were:

  • Collecting old stamps or coins

  • Being a DJ (both live and on-air)

  • Creating beautiful annotated family photo albums

All these passion-drive activities are ideal playgrounds to develop a number of skills which are vital to develop some of critical curatorial abilities. These include:

  • Strong interest and motivation for the topic at hand
    Unless you are truly motivated in what you are about to curate, it is quite difficult to learn anything useful. So it's best to start from something you really enjoy. Books, movies, places, songs, images, it doesn't really matter as long as your interest in it is very high.
  • Time and patience
    Curation is by definition a slow process, not one can be rushed or done under pressure. To curate well, having proper time and low pressure is a good thing because to find, pick, organize and add value to any item in a collection it does take time.
  • Ordering and classifying
    To curate effectively one must practice the science of creating groups, categories and taxonomies. To learn it one must be confronted with the need to organize and separate into relevant groups large numbers of items.
  • Pattern recognition
    The ability to start noticing similarities and characterizing traits among different objects or information items starts to develop when you dedicate systematic time to review and select these while having a specific set of criteria to make those choices.
  • Adding value
    Buying, finding or collecting items of whatever kind does not make someone a curator. What makes someone a curator is the ability to add personal value to it, by personalizing it, contextualizing it, labelling and introducing it or by way of how to share and present it to others.
  • Presentation and display
    A collection inside a drawer is non-existent. A set of records gathering dust in a shelf are useless. A photo album that nobody can look at is like it didn't exist. What matters for a curator is creating venues to share, present, showcase and make his collections as accessible and open as possible and to further augment the value and interest that can be generated by skillfully ordering, juxtaposing, placing, formatting and editing the items in his collection.
  • Preservation
    A curator is highly motivated to do anything he can to properly archive and physically preserve the collections he has created so that they can remain useful and accessible to others for as long a time as possible.
    (example: the recording of a DJ live performance)

Suggested Readings:

Guide: Content Curation Guide by Robin Good, 2014 - Gibbon

Tools & Resources:

13) How to Focus



"the ability to pay particular attention to something specific."

Source: Google

"focus is the ability to pay undivided and sustained attention to what you
have decided to pursue

Source: Robin Good


Today, in the 21st century, there is a very large number of people who work and carry out projects while in a continuous state of distraction. From telephones ringing to email, SMS messages, alerts, news, and demands from other people around you, there's a universe of things ready to distract you systematically, unless you take some proactive actions to change this.

I am sure that the experience of having done a million things during a day in front of the computer while feeling as if nothing really important has been achieved is not new to you. The Internet, together with our other telecommunication tools, from TV to phones, are our number one opportunities for mindless distraction, which keeps us feeling busy and engaged, but which also distracts us from focusing on key important goals and keeps us from working on them effectively for sustained periods of time.

Email, instant messages, breaking news, tweets and social media posts offer the opportunity for a sustained stream of micro-orgasms, as within a very short amount of time you can address, check and do something with them easily. Micro-tasks which indeed keep you busy and engaged and with a sustained stream of small rewards, but which do not move your bottom-line strategy and need to get larger projects and ideas moving.

Imagine how much better could be your work could be if you were able to focus more and longer on one task at a time without being distracted by all these micro-tasks.

Whether the task at hand is to take a decision, to evaluate alternative solutions or to write an article, the more you are able to focus the more successful and effective you will be at executing that task.


  • Set your priorities
    To be able to focus the first thing you need to do is to set your priorities so that you don't have many things pressing your mind at the same time. Lay down all you want to do and set an order of importance for the things you want to do. First should be the items that have the most impact on your ability to achieve your desired goal(s).
  • Time your assignments
    Set also a predefined amount of time you want to devote to a certain activity, instead of going on with it until you are completely done. While "not giving up until one has fully achieved a goal" is a valuable skill, it is more important first to master how to achieve something within a specified time constraint rather than not having any constraints at all on this front.
  • Turn off distractions
    Switch off anything that can distract you. If you have a computer or smartphone, you have right there the source of tens of possible distractions. Turn them all off. Close all your alerts, email notification systems, turn off your phone and ask someone else to handle the door. Initially, the more external distractions are present, the more difficult it will be more difficult for you not to pay attention to them for extended periods of time. As you train yourself to focus, external distractions will matter less and less.
  • Create a focused environment
    Architect and organize your space (in the case of your office or studio) in a way that supports focus and reduces distractions to a minimum. Physical distractions include not just sound generating devices, TV sets, radio, but also the amount of free space and orderliness around you. So a desk full of messy papers and books with little space available for you to write or take notes is not the ideal situation in which to increase your ability to focus.
  • Focus on one thing at a time
    Notwithstanding what you may have read on the web, by definition it is possible to achieve maximum focus only by dedicating yourself to one activity. If you engage in multiple activities at the same time one or more of them will receive less attention units and care from you than if you were engaged in just one. Avoid then the habit of doing more things at the same time, or the even more popular one of rapidly switching among different tasks (from email replies, to browsing, to writing, etc.) with the illusion of being more productive and faster.
  • Have a specific objective
    You can't really focus on something unless you have decided first what it is that you want to achieve and what needs to be done to reach that specific goal. The clearer the goal is, the more focus can be applied to achieving it. The less clear is the final objective to be reached, the more difficult it will be to effectively focus on what really needs to be done.
  • Break tasks into simple steps
    To facilitate task execution, whatever the job at hand, it is always best to break down and see the work to be done split down into several smaller tasks rather than looking at it as one monolithic big task. The more you learn how to break down your selected assignment into several small tasks, the easier it will become to carry out large tasks while remaining highly focused throughout the process.

Suggested Readings / Videos:


Book: Focus by Leo Babauta

Tools & Resources:

14) How to Learn to Speak Other Languages



"Being able to communicate to others through a spoken language different than your native one."

Source: Robin Good


Learning a foreign language can be very useful in living a successful life, as by knowing more than one language one can dramatically expand the number of places and people he can get to know and talk to. Being able to read and write in more than one language also opens up access to new literatures, traditions, and ideas.
Furthermore, being bilingual, and/or being exposed to two languages and cultures, can foster greater tolerance for other cultural groups.

People who have learned more than one language can think better, and even fend off old age ailments.

"Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age."

"In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism -- measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language -- were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset."

Source: Why Bilinguals Are Smarter by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, March 2012 - The New York Times

Learning a different language than one's own native one, requires a lot of active effort, creativity and discipline, which the learning process can also help strengthen.

On the other hand it is also true that knowing two languages makes it easier to learn additional languages.

Knowing more than just one language creates a new mental thinking apparatus which can provide additional flexibility to our intellectual capabilities, as the ability to interpret and describe things in more than one way, or the ability to describe and process reality through a completely different set of sounds enhances our ability to analyze, recognize differences and common patterns.


Here are ten straightforward actions you can take to start learning a foreign language now:

  1. Find a very strong motivation to do so.
  2. Get familiar with the sound and with the faces. Watch films, people singing, pay close attention to the words and to how they pronounce them. Look at their facial expressions when words are being pronounced.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the basic building blocks of that language, so that you can say some very basic things.
  4. Start playing and conversing with someone else.
  5. When you learn another language the rule n.1 is to speak only and exclusively the language you want to learn. Always. Even to ask for help.
  6. Learn by heart songs and poems and get to fully understand their meaning.
  7. Play games - physical and digital - that you greatly enjoy, in the new language you want to master.
  8. Once you have the basics immerse yourself in a group of people that does something you really enjoy but who speaks only the language you want to learn. For example sign-up for a theater, music, painting or even a sport class you really love but which is offered in the language you want to learn.
  9. Read more books and write down what you learn in the new language.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Video: How To Learn Any Language in Six Months by Chris Lonsdale
Duration 18':26"

Tools & Resources:

15) How to Code



"write code for (a computer program)."

Source: Google

"Coding is the ability to read and write a machine language as well as to think computationally."

Source: Doug Belshaw

"ability to codify commands, procedures to a machine capable of executing them unassisted."

Source: Robin Good


In a world where almost everything has either a digital component or is somehow digitally mediated, being able not only to be receivers but learning how to act-upon, modify and design our environment is without doubts a life critical skill.

Also, learning how to code is not so much about equipping future generations to work as software developers, but it is more about promoting the idea of "computational thinking".

"Computational thinking is how software engineers solve problems. It combines mathematics, logic and algorithms, and teaches you a new way to think about the world.

Computational thinking teaches you how to tackle large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems. It allows you to tackle complex problems in efficient ways that operate at huge scale. It involves creating models of the real world with a suitable level of abstraction, and focus on the most pertinent aspects. It helps you go from specific solutions to general ones."

Source: Why every child should learn to code by Dan Crow, February 2014 - The Guardian

In essence, learning how to code, can be classified as an essential life skill because:

a) It helps you to get good at solving problems
Writing, debugging and remixing your own and other people's code are fundamentally problem-solving activities. Whether it's code that won't run because of syntax errors, something working differently than you expected, or figuring out how to do something cool, these are all things that involve lateral thinking. And often this problem-solving involves working with other people - either in real-time or following tutorials, blog posts and howtos (and then sharing back).

b) It boosts your confidence and sense of value
Knowing how things work, understanding the deep meaning of something often leads to an increased sense of confidence. By this I refer to a sense of confidence in being causative about reality and the environment that surrounds us as wel as in shaping it to suit our future goals and needs.

c) It gives you opportunity to shape reality
Knowing how to code opens up the opportunity to design and realize anything from software applications, to digital appliances, useful services, physical objects and even art objects. Realising that you can not only change and influence things, but build things that other people can use is, Steve Jobs said, is "perhaps the most important thing."

d) It allows to see what's under the hood
Understanding how code works can help you have a much better understanding how things work or don't, instead of having to depend on "experts" or other third-parties to help you make sense of them. At the simplest level you can imagine someone who publishes a web page and who can inspect and detect whether there is some technical error in it, from someone in the same situation who can't do anything, if the page doesn't show up properly, but to call in an expert to see what's wrong with it.

 Robin Good -
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posted by Viviana Brun on Tuesday, May 6 2014, updated on Saturday, June 14 2014

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