Baltimore, MD

These 5 Skills Are the Low-Hanging Fruit of Personal Development

Declan Wilson
Photo: Thought Catalog/Unsplash — Yes avocados are fruit

Self-help culture is ripe with the newest fads and trends that promise to solve all your woes and worries. Remember when bullet coffee was a thing?

Gurus are always looking for the next best (unoriginal) idea to push on to their followers. I can’t blame them, to stay relevant in this fast-paced online world you either need to find something old and repurpose it as your own or come up with unproven wanky ideas.

I prefer to stick to the tried and true life skills that have benefited mankind for millennia.

There’s no need to overcomplicate things. If you are looking to make changes to improve your life, put the butter and blender away and just drink your coffee black.

There are other less sexy ways to make massive changes to your life without investing in the next fad.

1. Learn to budget

You can budget. You should budget.

This is one skill I wish I learned at a younger age. It saves you money. It prevents you from spending money you don’t have. It brings you peace of mind.

And yet when you tell someone they should start budgeting, what do they do?

  • Most people will do nothing and go on swiping their credit card wherever they please and not even think about if they have enough to cover rent next month.
  • A small few will take a stab at budgeting and download a Google Sheet template only to abandon their efforts after a few days.
  • And an even smaller minority will take you seriously and think “Yeah, I’m tired of living paycheck to paycheck and not knowing how much I should be spending on groceries.”

Be the last kind of people.

My $26,000 mistake

Last summer my personal finances were out of control. My wife and I were preparing to move our family to Brooklyn (until a last-minute job offer sent us to the much more affordable city of Baltimore instead).

We had no idea how much we were spending or where our money was going. We took out a personal loan to cover moving expenses because we didn’t have enough cash in the bank.

After doing some math, I realized we had racked up $26,000 in debt and had no clue how we would pay it off.

That was my awakening. I sat down at my computer and asked Almighty Google to help me find the best tool for budgeting.

And I found it, the aptly named: You Need A Budget (YNAB for short).

What is YNAB?

Other than our bidet, YNAB has had the greatest impact on my life over the past year.

YNAB is a budgeting tool on steroids. The premise is simple. You give every dollar you earn a job. So instead of looking at your bank account and seeing $1,000, you’ll know $100 is for your car payment, $200 for groceries, $50 for gas, etc.
Image by author (Remind me to put more money into the wine budget)

Instead of walking into Target and buying everything on a whim, I now have the mindset of “If I overspend $10 on house supplies I need to cover that from another category.” In other words, no more spending money we don’t have.

Because of this tool, we’ve been able to pay down debt (it’ll be gone by next summer), save up for a family vacation to Italy, and put aside money for a new car.

Resources for budgeting

Learning Budgeting does take work. Even if you don’t use YNAB, their budgeting philosophy is still applicable.

For that reason, I highly suggest watching their tutorial videos and reading about their “Four Rules” of Budgeting.

It took me a few months to master budgeting, but now I can never go back. It’s a skill I’ll use forever (or until I’m filthy rich and never need to think about money).

2. Learn online literacy

Many times I open my computer and am bombarded with hot garbage of nonsense. As a millennial, I pride myself on being able to wade through the garbage and find what I’m looking for, but even for me, it’s exhausting.

There always seems to be a lot going on in the world that it’s difficult to uncover:

  • What the heck is going on?
  • Why the heck is it important?
  • How the heck am I supposed to use this information?

Some people shut down and try to tune out the noise. While I advocate for periodically unplugging to focus on you and your mental health, it’s still important to know what’s going on around the world, or at least in your neck of the woods.

Stick to unbiases-ish news sources

Do yourself a favor and stick to news sources who’ve proven their unbiased and fair reporting of events. They do exist:

It’s no surprise that CNN and Fox are on opposite ends of the spectrum. You could, in theory, read both and try to formulate an opinion but you might end up like Voldemort and tear your soul apart.

Instead, stick to news sources such as NPR, PBS, Reuters, and our friends BBC across the pond. More factual reporting and less analysis will do you some good.

But if you’re looking for analysis….

Subscribe to newsletters

Over the past few months, I’ve fallen in love with newsletters. I love the idea of having someone else compile all the relevant happenings in the world and distilling them into bite-sized chunks for my inbox.

I have a few favorites:

  • Morning Brew — Easily the best newsletter on business, entrepreneurship, and pop culture. The MB team is witty, funny, and entertaining.
  • WTF Just Happened Today — I think the name says it all. Curated by Matt Kiser, WTFJHT is the “essential guide to the daily shock and awe in national politics.” Kiser does admit his left-leaning bias but tries to be fair. Tries really hard.
  • NextDraft — Curated by Dave Pell this newsletter shares all the more fascinating news that sometimes gets lost in all the hubbub.
  • Anti-Racism Daily — Ever wonder how to fight racism? Here you go.

Never, ever, ever, ever, just read the headline

Just so I’m clear, never read a headline of a news story and formulate an opinion. Read. Find another source. Read. Check the facts. Read.

In other words, don’t get caught in the crossfire of clickbait wars. Do the research.

He has a point…

3. Learn to cook

Homecooking in America is on the rise, which is a good sign. More healthy meals. More money saved.

However, how many recipes do you have in your arsenal? How many meals can you make from scratch? How many without a recipe? Do you tend to stick to one or two signature meals?

A recent poll seems to suggest that yes, Americans cook but are only confident in their ability to cook breakfast (or grilled cheese).

Cooking has become one of those pretentious skills that seems unattainable to most. However, transforming materials from the earth into consumable calories is not a magic trick.

What I’m suggesting here doesn’t mean you should aim to become a foodie or one of those Instagram cuisine posters or whatever Guy Fieri is. What I’m suggesting is this: Learn the fundamentals of cooking.

The fundamentals of cooking

If you can master these basic skills you’ll be able to handle a wide variety of dishes.

  • Knife skills (various ways to chop and slice)
  • Cooking methods (frying, roasting, steaming, grilling, etc.)
  • Measuring ingredients (wet vs dry)
  • Sauces
  • Properly cooking pasta
  • Prep and clean up
  • Making dough
  • Pantry staples

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I did, however, find this curated list of tutorial videos that are helpful.

Reasons to start cooking

Cooking is a skill you can (and should) use multiple times a day. It’s also a skill you’ll use for the rest of your life. Learning the fundamentals not only improves your overall skillset in the kitchen, but it’ll also boost your confidence to try new dishes and cuisines.

Cooking is also a way to control what you put into your body. My general rule of thumb at the grocery store is, the closer you are to the food (ie less packaging) the healthier it is. It’s also a way to control how much you put into your body.

Cooking and eating healthy is a lot cheaper than people think. My household has four people, two adults, and two children. We spend $100 to $120 on food (and diapers) each week on groceries. Compare that to the USDA’s Moderate-cost plan of $204 for a family of four. How do we spend so little? Meal planning and an understanding of ingredient overlap.

How to cook better

My wife and I are good cooks. We work as a team. We started our culinary “training” in college and even started a blog to share what we learned (although we’ve significantly improved since then).

We’ve learned best by putting ourselves in the kitchen and trying new recipes multiple times. However, we’ve found we learn new skills best by watching others cook.

Who do we watch?

There’s a world of information out there. But nothing beats getting your butt into the kitchen and giving it a go.

4. Learn to write

You can write. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Writing is another overlooked and underappreciated skill because we write all the time. Email, texting, note-taking, blogging. However, converting thoughts in our brain into symbols for other people to comprehend is astounding. You are reading what was originally in my head at 7:47 AM on 12 June 2020. Unreal.

Learning to write better will improve many aspects of your life: social, creative, career.

But, and this is a big but, there is a big difference between those who can write and those who write well. Those who write well understand the power of simplicity and the importance of dedicated practice.

Keep it simple

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
— Jack Kerouac

Simplicity is more important now than ever before. Your words are competing against all the other distractions that are only a swipe away. One ding and you’ve lost your reader. Unless your writing is compelling enough to keep their attention.

When I started writing online I wanted to sound smart. So I used fancy words and long-winded sentences. The more I wrote, the less I said.

The question you should ask yourself if you want to improve your writing is: What am I trying to say? Then say what you want to say as quickly as possible.

I could berate the topic of simplicity some more, but that would be counter-productive.

How to practice your writing

I sucked at writing in high school. I don’t suck anymore (or at least I don’t think I suck).

I still struggle to call myself a capital-W Writer, but I can sit down and in an hour churn out 1,500 words (most of them usable).

It’s pretty cliche to write about writing on Medium and there are plenty of writers who can offer better tips (aka

Todd Brison), but my go-to tip is setting aside time each day to write.

For me, it’s every morning at 6:15 until 8:15 before my kids wake up — before the day starts and distractions run amuck.

However, there’s no need to dedicate two hours every day to improve this skill. Start by setting aside a half-hour each day to practice. You don’t have to publish your words, use this time to free write.

Download Grammarly and use the free version to help you analyze your style and pick up those grammar and spelling mistakes you might otherwise miss.

If you have a Mac, WordCounter is a terrific tool to track your writing progress by looking at your daily output.

Focus on conceptualizing your thoughts in a succinct and organized manner. There’s no need to write a report, just try to be compelling enough to focus a reader’s attention on one subject. Say something without saying too much.

We all write. Few write well. Be one of the few.

5. Learn to understand statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain*

*[No one’s actually sure where this quote came from. But Twain did use it.]

Numbers and data may seem scary at first, but learning how to understand those numbers is a skill few people attempt to master. In other words, don’t skim over this section.

When I see people misconstruing numbers to push their agenda across, I cringe. Anytime I see a statistic on Twitter without evidence, I throw my phone across the room.

Remember, 73% of statistics* are made up, keep that in mind. *[citation needed]

Why are statistics important? Because they help to take seemingly random events in our universe and create a narrative for us to understand.

There’s no need to audit your community college’s Stats 101 for a semester, instead, keep a few things in mind the next time you see some numbers across your feed.

Averages for the Average Joe

An average is a number that represents a diverse group of samples. Let’s use a high school for example. If you calculated the average age of students (sum of ages divided by total number of students) you’ll most likely arrive at around 16.5 years old. This is because high school is only open to teenagers between the ages of 15–18.

Now let’s say you wanted to take the average weight of the students. Weight isn’t a prerequisite so there will be outliers. Some students might be small, others larger. These outliers skew averages.

Hypothetically, let’s say we calculate the average weight to be 130 pounds. There’s a danger here because people often interchange average with typical. If school administrators use this one number to determine lunch sizes, only a small margin of students would receive the right number of calories (the one-size-fits-none conundrum).

Averages are only good for comparing samples over time. Which leads me to my second point.

Never rely on just one number

One data point is never enough to tell the whole story.

Continuing the high school example from above. Let’s say the average student weight at the high school keeps increasing year over year. Do we know why? No, but comparing two or more data points over time allows us to see a clearer picture of reality.

Comparing averages over time is called a trend. However, there are other ways to compare numbers that statisticians call statistical tests. There are various tests we can use (and we won’t go into them here), but what’s important to keep in mind is the phrase: statistically significant.

If a neighboring high school conducted the same analysis and determined their average student weighed 140 pounds, does that mean their high school is heavier than ours?

We can’t (and shouldn’t) formulate any conclusions until a statistical test is performed to compare the two groups of high school students and determine if there is, in fact, a statistically significant difference between the two.

This is all to show that simply comparing two numbers sometimes isn’t enough either. You need to poke around the data.

When in doubt, use per capita

Per capita translates to by the head, meaning an average per person. Going back to our high school example. Let’s say instead of taking the average weight, we decided to look at how many students are considered obese (a better indicator of overall health).

Our high school registered 10. Our neighboring high school registered 40. Wow, we are so much healthier! Not so fast, we need to understand how many students are in each school.

Our school has 240 students. So 10 out of 240 is 4.17% or 42 out of every 1,000 students are obese. Our neighbors have a much larger populous: 2,700 students. 40 out of 2,700 is 1.48% or 15 out of every 1,000 students are obese. A big difference.

That previous paragraph is a math salad, but you can easily see how numbers don’t always show you the right picture.

There is so much more I can cover about statistics, but I’ll restrain myself. Instead, I loaded up a search query on YouTube if you want to learn some more on your own.

Now what?

If you’ve managed to read through this entire piece, I applaud you.

However, you could have skipped to the end and saved yourself 10 minutes of reading to arrive at the obvious conclusion:

Personal development is just that, personal.

Everyone has their own faults and weaknesses, and those faults and weaknesses don’t define us. If you can’t cook, don’t beat yourself up. If you don’t understand math, so what?

At the heart of personal development is a deep respect for oneself. Without that respect, it’s hard to see the potential within us.

If you want to improve, love yourself first, then find something small to work on. That’s all it takes.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD

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