Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What We Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life - Part I

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If there were no schools and traditional academic curriculums, and one had the option to question and rethink a human being learning curriculum what would be in it?

Photo credit: Clever pupil boy by Shutterstock

If we suspend momentarily the reasoning and goals that went into the creation of the present educational system, what would be the key things that an individual would really benefit to know in order to survive, be independent, self-sufficient and to live a meaningful life in the 21st century?

In 2006 I published on MasterNewMedia How To Be Successful, a very instructive guide originally written by Stephen Downes and which was originally published as Things You Really Need To Learn.

Today, eight years after, I have decided to go back to that guide and dissected it, updated it, curated it and expanded on it as to further broaden up its scope and usefulness.

What I have done is the following. I have:

  1. first re-read corrected, edited and improved the original text, by making several improvements to it.
  2. applied a simple content structure to each learning topic as to have an easier to scan information setup, transforming what was basically a normal article, into a set of information cards.
  3. added my own content contributions in many different parts, by introducing new text and relevant additions.
  4. added to each learning point relevant definitions, suggested readings, video clips, books and tools or resources when available.
  5. added custom images to each one
  6. expanded the original ten points into thirty and structured them into a three-part guide.

Here follows Part I with the first ten points, originally identified by Stephen Downes, curated and presented into this new updated edition:

1) How To Predict Consequences

2) How To Read

3) How To Distinguish Truth from Fiction

4) How To Empathize

5) How To Be Creative

6) How To Communicate Clearly and Effectively

7) How To Learn

8) How To Stay Healthy

9) How To Value Yourself

10) How To Live Meaningfully

1) How To Predict Consequences



"...the effect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier"

Source: Dictionary.Reference

"something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions"

Source: Merriam Webster


People don't think ahead.

The most common utterance at the scene of a disaster is, "I never thought..." The fact is, most people are very bad at predicting consequences, and schools never seem to think to teach them how to improve.

The prediction of consequences is part science, part mathematics, and part visualization. It is essentially the ability to create a mental model imaging the service of events that would follow, "what would likely happen if...?"

The danger in such situations is focusing on what you want to happen rather than what might happen instead. When preparing to jump across a gap, for example, you may visualize yourself landing on the other side. This is good; it leads to successful jumping. But you need also to visualize not landing on the other side.

What would happen then? Have you even contemplated the likely outcome of a 40 meters fall?


You should always be taking the opportunity to ask yourself, "what will happen next?" Watch situations and interactions unfold in the environment around you and try to predict the outcome.

To learn how to predict consequences you need to compare the current situation with your past experience and calculate the probabilities of different outcomes. If, for example, you are looking at a five meter gap, you should be asking, "How many times have I successfully jumped five meters? How many times have I failed?" If you don't know, you should know enough to attempt a test jump over level ground.

Write down or blog your predictions.

With practice, you will become expert at predicting consequences.

Even more interestingly, over time, you will begin to observe patterns and generalities, things that make consequences even easier to predict. Things fall, for example. Glass breaks. People get mad when you insult them. Hot things will be dropped. Dogs sometimes bite. The bus (or train) is sometimes late. These sorts of generalizations - often known as 'common sense' - will help you avoid unexpected, and sometimes damaging, consequences.

Suggested Readings:

The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future-Just Enough by Vivek Ranadive and Kevin Maney, 2011

2) How To Read



"to look at carefully so as to understand the meaning of (something written, printed, etc.)"

Source: Dictionary.Reference

"to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc."

Source: Merriam Webster

"how to look at some text and to understand, in a deep way, what is being asserted (this also applies to audio and video)."

Source: Stephen Downes


A lot of writing is fill - wasted words intended to make the author look good, to distract your attention, or to simply fill more space. Being able to cut through the crap and get straight to what is actually being said, without being distracted, is an important skill.

Though your school will never teach you this, find a basic book on informal logic (it will have a title like "critical thinking" or something like that). Look in the book for argument forms and indicator words (most of these books don't cover the other three types of writing) and practice spotting these words in text and in what the teacher says in class. Every day, focus on a specific indicator word and watch how it is used in practice.


The four major types of writing are: description, argument, explanation and definition. You should learn to recognize these different types of writing by learning to watch for indicators or keywords.

Then, you should learn how sentences are joined together to form these types of writing. For example, an argument will have two major parts, a premise and a conclusion. The conclusion is the point the author is trying to make, and it should be identified with an indicator (such as the words "therefore", "so", or "consequently", for example).

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Video: How To Read A Book For Maximum Learning by Matt Morris
Duration: 6':25''

3) How To Distinguish Truth from Fiction



"How to tell accurate information from inaccurate information, misinformation, and disinformation."

Source: Howard Rheingold

"The process of inspection, analysis and verification used to understand the truthfulness, objectivity and bias of any information, news or story."

Source: Robin Good


Unfortunately this is an area largely forgotten by classical education.

One of the reasons for this is likely due to teachers feeling their students must absorb knowledge uncritically. Their pedagogical assumptions include such as myths as the one that if students question everything the teacher says, then they cannot really learn anything. That is, unless they memorize without questioning, learning, in their view, is not achieved.

But one of the first and most important elements of good learning is the ability to question what is given for granted and the one to verify and check where assumptions or data are actually failing.


The first thing to learn, to become capable of detecting crap or false information is to actually question:

  • what you are told,
  • what you read,
  • what you see on television and in general,
  • what others would seem to take for obvious or granted.

Do not simply accept what you are told.

Always ask, how can I verify that this is true?
What evidence would be needed to make me believe that this is false?

Every day, subject at least one piece of information (a newspaper column, a blog post, a classroom lecture) to thorough scrutiny. Analyze each sentence, analyze every word, and ask yourself what you are expected to believe and how you are expected to feel.

Then ask whether you have sufficient reason to believe and feel this way, or whether you are being manipulated.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, 2012

Tools, Resources:

4) How To Empathize



"Empathy is a genuine feeling in yourself that operates in synch with another person. Empathy is a way of accessing another person inner mental states through the sympathetic operation of your own mental states."

Source: Stephen Downes

"Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being."

Source: Wikipedia


Every person on this planet has his own distinct view of life, reality and on how things work and on what is really important.

To assume that since we are all human beings we are all alike and we think, see and evaluate things in the same way is a very crass mistake.

No-one is exactly like you. We are all different, not just in the way we look, but also and more importantly, in the way we perceive and think. Everyone lives in his own customized "realized" and has its own view of life and on how things work.

Understanding this fact, will save you from the error of assuming that everyone else is like you. And even more importantly, this will allow other people to become a surprising new source of knowledge and insight for you.

Part of this process involves seeing things through someone else's eyes. A person may be, quite literally, in a different place. They might not see what you see, and may have seen things you didn't see. Being able to understand how this change in perspective may change what they believe is important.

When you are empathetic you will begin to seek out and understand ways that help bridge the gap between you and other people.

Being polite and considerate, for example, will become more important to you. You will be able to feel someone's hurt if you are rude to them. In the same way, it will become more important to be honest, because you will begin to see how transparent your lies are, and how offensive it feels to be thought of as someone who is that easily fooled.


To learn how to empathize you need to be able to imagine how other people feel. The better you become at this, the easier it will become for you to understand more rapidly the situation while being able to establish more effective communication channels.

This means that you have to create a mental model of the other person's thoughts and feelings in your own mind, and to place yourself in that model.

This is best done by imagining that you are the other person, and then placing yourself into a specific situation.

An excellent approach to master how to immerse yourself in the character of another person is to study drama (learning how to act in plays) or by spending some time in different role-playing games (RPGs) and practicing being someone else, with different beliefs and motivations.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Video: What is empathy?
Duration: 3':31"

5) How To Be Creative



"the ability to make new things or think of new ideas."

Source: Stephen Downes

"Creativity is the ability to recognize patterns, and to use individual elements from them to remix, recombine and mash-up apparently unrelated ideas, concepts and approaches, into new ones."

Source: Robin Good

Facts / Backgrounder:

Contrary to popular belief:

  • Everybody can be creative.
  • Humans have a natural capacity to be creative, because that's how our minds work.
  • With systematic practice anyone can become very good at it.
  • The trick to learn creativity is to understand how creativity works.

Many people think that creative ideas spring out of nothing, but creativity is in fact the result of using and manipulating your knowledge in certain ways.

Genuine creativity is almost always a response to something. This article, for example, was written in response to an article on the same subject that I thought was not well thought out.

You could say in fact, that creativity blooms in situations where there's a need to face an issue, a problem or a difficult situation.


In order to train oneself to be more creative, here is where you need to look:

  • problems to solve,
  • things that merit a response,
  • needs that need to be filled.

This takes practice (try writing it down, or blogging it, every time you see a problem or need).

In addition, creativity involves a transfer of knowledge from one domain to another domain, and sometimes a manipulation of that knowledge. When you see a gap in real life, how did you cross a similar gap in an online game?

Creativity, in other words, often operates by metaphor, which means you need to learn how to find things in common between the current situation and other things you know.

This is what is typically meant by "thinking outside the box" - you want to go to outside the domain of the current problem. And the particular skill involved is pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition is a hard skill to learn, and it requires a lot of practice. This is one of the reasons why it takes time to and parctice to become more creative.


Learn to collect, curate and recognize similar works in:

  • in music
  • in photography
  • in paintings
  • in poetry
  • in movies
  • in books

Develop a true passion / interest for one of the creative arts and immense yourself periodically into it, so that you can absorb enough different materials to be able to start noticing patterns.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Video: How schools kill creativity by Ken Robinson
Duration: 19':25"

6) How To Communicate Clearly and Effectively



"Communicating clearly is most of all a matter of knowing what you want to say, and then employing some simple tools in order to say it. Hardest part: knowing what you want to say."

Source: Stephen Downes

"Communicating effectively means to be able to convey a specific message using the minimum amount of words, while achieving the maximum level of comprehension on the part of the listener/viewer/receiver."

Source: Robin Good

Facts / Backgrounder:

To communicate effectively has nothing to do with the ability to speak, or to articulate words or sentences comprehensibly and accent-free in a specific language.

Effective communication is listener-driven. It cannot be self-directed by the communicator without full awareness and understanding of the receiver needs and available reception apparatus.

Perfect communication is the result of a very high level of empathy, affinity and understanding of the receiving end language, terminology, education, background and expectations.

Good, clear and effective communication is often recognizable by its simplicity, straightforwardness and conciseness.

Key elements that also contribute to higher levels of communication effectiveness include:

  • language and terminology,
  • empathy,
  • affinity, shared reality and
  • structure.

For example, professional writers employ a small set of fairly standard structures. Other writers prefer articles (or even whole books) consisting of a list of points, like this article. Another structure, often called "pyramid style", is employed by journalists - the entire story is told in the first paragraph, and each paragraph thereafter offers less and less important details.

Inside this overall structure, writers provide arguments, explanations, descriptions or definitions, sometimes in combination. Each of these has a distinctive structure. An argument, for example, will have a conclusion, a point the writer wants you to believe. The conclusion will be supported by a set of premises. Linking the premises and the conclusion will be a set of indicators. The word "therefore", for example, points to the conclusion.

Becoming familiar with such structures and with the elements that compose them can prove very useful in acquiring greater awareness of the communication devices at one's own disposal.


  • To learn to communicate clearly the first thing to do is to become aware of how you are communicating now.
  • Re-read aloud what you write.
  • Listen with the ears of someone else (put yourself in someone else shoes, and listen as if you were that person, and see if that person would understand you).
  • Clarify to yourself what you want to say before you say it. You achieve this by not talking or replying impulsively but by reflecting and thinking before doing it.
  • Employ some structure, in the things you say, so that who is listening, can follow your reasoning, story or explanation more easily. Some of the best ways to learn how to structure your communications (whether in writing or not) are:

    1) Learn how to give speeches without notes. This will force you to employ a clear structure (one you can remember) and to keep it straightforward.

    2) Learn the structure of arguments, explanations, descriptions and definitions.

    3) Learn the indicator words used to help readers navigate those structures.

    4) Master basic grammar, so your sentences are unambiguous.

    5) Master the tools the professionals use.

  • Practice your writing every day. A good way to practice is to join a student or volunteer newspaper - writing with a team, for an audience, against a deadline. It will force you to work more quickly, which is useful, because it is faster to write clearly than to write poorly. If no newspaper exists, create one, or start up a news blog.
  • Learn sign-language.
  • Go to live in another country and learn another language.
  • Read lots of good books.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Winging It: Everybody's Guide to Making Speeches Fly Without Notes by Keith Spicer, 1982

7) How To Learn



"to acquire knowledge of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience"

Source: Dictionary Reference

"to gain knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something"

Source: Merriam Webster

""Learning":is the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information."

Source: Wikipedia

Facts / Backgrounder:

Your brain consists of billions of neural cells that are connected to each other. To learn is essentially to form sets of those connections.

When you learn, you are trying to create patterns of connectivity in your brain. You are trying to connect neurons together, and to strengthen that connection. This is accomplished by repeating sets of behaviours or experiences. Learning is a matter of practice and repetition.

Think about learning as how to throw a baseball. Someone can explain everything about it, and you can understand all of that, but you still have to throw the ball several thousand times before you get good at it. You have to grow your neural connections in just the same way you grow your muscles.

The study of mathematics, history, science and mechanics can be more effectively viewed as the study of archetypes and the basic patterns that you will recognize over and over.

Because you are trying to build networks of neural cells, it is better to learn a connected whole rather than unconnected parts, where the connected whole you are learning in one domain has the same pattern as a connected whole you already know in another domain.

Learning in one domain, then, becomes a matter of recognizing that pattern.

When studying any academic discipline, one should always ask "what is the pattern?" (and not merely "what are the facts?"). Asking this question will actually make these disciplines easier to learn.

Some people think of learning as remembering sets of facts. It can be that, sometimes, but learning is generally more about pattern recognition than about remembering.

Learning to learn is the same as learning anything else. It takes practice.


When learning anything, do not simply learn it in isolation, but look for patterns:

a) Does it fit into a pattern you already know?

b) Is it a type of thing you have seen before?

Embed the new word or concept you want to learn about into your existing knowledge by using it in some way - write a blog post containing it, or draw a picture explaining it.

Think / Become aware of, always:

1) how you are learning and

2) what you are learning at any given moment.

Remember, you are always learning - which means you need to ask:

  • What are you learning when you are:

    • watching television,
    • going shopping,
    • driving the car,
    • playing baseball?

  • What sorts of patterns are being created?

  • What sorts of patterns are being reinforced?

  • How can you take control of this process?

Sometimes the patterns we use are very artificial, as in 'every good boy deserves fudge' (the sentence helps us remember musical notes). In other cases, and more usefully, the pattern is related to:

  • the laws of nature,
  • logical or mathematical principles,
  • the flow of history,
  • how something works as a whole.

Drawing pictures often helps people find patterns (which is why mind-maps and concept maps are so popular for learning, explaining and illustrating new concepts and ideas).

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Love of Education: A Shifting Paradigm by Robin Good
Duration: 34':09"

8) How To Stay Healthy



"possessing or enjoying good health or a sound and vigorous mentality"

Source: Dictionary Reference

"to enjoy a fully functioning body"

Source: Robin Good

Facts / Backgrounder:

As a matter of practical consideration, the maintenance of your health involves two major components:

  1. minimizing exposure to disease, poisons or toxins, and
  2. maintaining your physical body in good shape.

1) Minimizing exposure to disease and toxins is mostly a matter of cleanliness and order. Simple things - like keeping the wood alcohol in the garage, and not the kitchen cupboard - minimize the risk of accidental poisoning. Cleaning cooking surfaces and cooking food completely reduces the risk of bacterial contamination. Washing your hands regularly prevents transmission of human borne viruses and diseases. etc.

In a similar manner, some of the hot-button issues in education today are essentially issues about how to warn against exposure to diseases and toxins. In a nutshell: if you have physical intercourse with another person you are facilitating the transmission of disease, so wear protection. Activities such as drinking, eating fatty foods, smoking, and taking drugs are essentially the introduction of toxins into your system, so do it in moderation, and where the toxins are significant, don't do it at all.

2) Personal maintenance is probably even more important, as the major threats to health are generally those related to physical deterioration. The subjects of proper nutrition and proper exercise should be learned and practiced. Even if you do not become a health freak it is nonetheless useful to:

  • know what foods and types of actions are beneficial, and
  • to create a habit of eating good foods and
  • practicing beneficial actions.


My personal advice based on what I have realized have been my weak points and under-optimized areas:

a) Drink more water (and make sure it is good water)

b) Get more sleep

c) Get color in your food (colorful foods are rich in antioxidants)

d) Purge negative people from your life

e) Use vitamins, minerals and other supplements

Also: every day, seek to be active in some way:

  1. cycle to work or school,
  2. walk a mile,
  3. play a sport, or
  4. do physical exercise.

In addition, every day, seek to:

  • eat at least one meal that is "good for you",
  • that consists of protein and minerals (like meat and vegetables, or soy and fruit).

If you are not providing yourself with proper exercise and nutrition, do something about right now. You can't learn anything if you're sick and hungry.

You never have to justify protecting your own life and health. If you do not want to do something because you think it is unsafe, then it is your absolute right to refuse to do it. The consequences - any consequences - are better than giving in on this.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health by T. Colin Campbell, 2006

9) How To Value Yourself



"the sense of one's own value or worth as a person"

Source: The Free Dictionary

"the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness."

Source: Nathaniel Branden's definition

"Self-esteem is a term used in psychology to reflect a person's overall emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self."

Source: Wikipedia

Facts / Backgrounder:

It is perhaps cynical to say that society is a giant conspiracy to get you to feel badly about yourself, but it wouldn't be completely inaccurate either. Advertisers make you feel badly so you'll buy their product, politicians make you feel incapable so you'll depend on their policies and programs, even your friends and acquaintances may seek to make you doubt yourself in order to seek an edge in a competition.

You can have all the knowledge and skills in the world, but they are meaningless if you do not feel personally empowered to use them; it's like owning a Lamborghini and not having a driver's license. It looks shiny in the driveway, but your not really getting any value out of it unless you take it out for a spin.

Valuing yourself is partially a matter of personal development, and partially a matter of choice.

How we think about ourselves is as much a matter of learning as anything else. If somebody tells you that you are worthless over and over, and if you do nothing to counteract that, then you will come to believe you are worthless, because that's how your neural connections will form. But if you repeat, and believe, and behave in such a way as to say to yourself over and over, I am valuable, then that's what you will come to believe.

What is it to value yourself? It's actually many things.

For example, it's the belief that you are good enough to have an opinion, have a voice, and have a say, that your contributions do matter. It's the belief that you are capable, that you can learn to do new things and to be creative. It is your ability to be independent, and to not rely on some particular person or institution for personal well-being, and autonomous, capable of making your own decisions and living your live in your own way.

All of these things are yours by right. But they will never be given to you. You have to take them, by actually believing in yourself (no matter what anyone says) and by actually being autonomous.


In order to value yourself, you need to feel you are worth valuing. In fact, you are worth valuing, but it often helps to prove it to yourself by attaining some objective, learning some skill, or earning some distinction. And in order to value yourself, you have to say "I am valuable."

You have to take charge of your own sense of self-worth. Do it every day.

Tell yourself that you are:

  • smart,
  • cool,
  • strong,
  • good, and
  • whatever else you want to be.

Say it out loud, in the morning - hidden in the noise of the shower, if need be, but say it.

Then, practice these attributes:

  • Be smart by (say) solving a crossword puzzle.
  • Be cool by making your own fashion statement.
  • Be strong by doing something you said to yourself you were going to do.
  • Be good by doing a good deed.

And every time you do it, remind yourself that you have, in fact, done it.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

Cover-book- the-Fountainhead_110.jpg
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, 1943

10) How To Live Meaningfully



"your lifetime dedication to some purpose or goal"

Source: Stephen Downes

"to live with purpose while creating something, whether physical, artistic or spiritual"

Source: Robin Good

Facts / Backgrounder:

To live meaningfully is a combination of several things. It is:

a) your dedication to some purpose or goal.

b) your sense of appreciation and dedication to the "here and now".

c) the realization that your place in the world, your meaningfulness, is something you must create for yourself.

Too many people live for no reason at all.

They seek to make more and more money, or they seek to make themselves famous, or to become powerful, and whether or not they attain these objectives, they find their lives empty and meaningless.

This is because they have confused means and ends - money, fame and power are things people seek in order to do what things worth doing. Not goals by themselves.

But what is then worth doing?

This is up to you to decide.

I have chosen to explore and share new ways and to communicate, learn, market and collaborate more effectively with others, but you may choose to master new ways of improving our health, to explore outer space, to grow self-sustainable communities, to do commerce with alternate currencies or to seek spiritual enlightenment.

If you don't decide what is worth doing, someone will decide for you, and then, at some point in your life you will realize that you haven't done what was really worth doing.

Whether you like it or not, what you are doing right now is the thing that you most want to do. Now you may be thinking, "No way! I'd rather be on Malibu Beach!" But if you really wanted to be on Malibu Beach, you'd be there. The reason you are not is because you have chosen other priorities in your life - to your family, to your job, to your country.

When you realize you have the power to choose what you are doing, you realize you have the power to choose the consequences. Which means that consequences - even bad consequences - are for the most part a matter of choice.

To live meaningfully is probably the hardest thing of all to learn, and the least one taught academically.


1) Spend some time, today, thinking about what is worth doing. You can change your mind tomorrow. But begin, at least, to guide yourself somewhere.

2) Live in the moment. It means having awareness and control of your thoughts.

3) Your thoughts have no power over you; the only thing that matters at all is this present moment. If you think about something - some hope, some failure, some fear - that thought cannot hurt you, and you choose how much or how little to trust that thought.

Suggested Readings / Videos:

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, 1988


End of Part I
See Part II: What We Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life - Part II
And Part III: What You Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life - Part III
And Part IV: What You Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life - Part IV
And Part V: What You Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life - Part V

Original inspiration for this article, thanks to Stephen Downes, "Things You Really Need To Learn".

Originally written and curated by Robin Good and first published on MasterNewMedia on Tuesday April 29nd 2014 as What We Really Need To Learn To Be Successful In Life.

Photo credits:
How To Predict Consequences - Man with binoculars by Shutterstock
How To Read - Reading female student by Shutterstock
How To Distinguish Truth from Fiction - Red or blue pill by Shutterstock
How To Empathize - Touching fingers by Shutterstock
How To Be Creative - Collage by Shutterstock
How To Communicate - Modern road sign by Shutterstock
How To Learn - Father teaching his son by Shutterstock
How To Stay Healthy - Fresh salad leaves by Shutterstock
How To Value Yourself - Eye macro shot by Shutterstock
How To Live Meaningfully - Worker Hands by Shutterstock

Robin Good -
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posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, April 29 2014, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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