Are There Prerequisite Courses for Living?

Prerequisite courses are the subjects you need to learn before you can learn more advanced topics. Before you learn calculus, you need to understand algebra. Before you can learn algebra you must have been taught arithmetic. Are there prerequisite courses for living on this planet?

Are there any subjects that are so fundamental to understanding how the world, your body and your mind work, that you can’t ignore them? I feel there are more than a few subjects which any self-actualizing person should invest in learning.

I’ve only been deliberately educating myself in life-prerequisites for a few years. But even in such a short time I’ve found having a basic understanding to be extremely helpful. Here are a few of my picks of prerequisites for life:

1) Economics

No subject opened my eyes up more to how the world worked than studying economics. But if the only education you’ve had in the subject is from Freakonomics or news broadcasts, you’re probably missing the fundamentals. I don’t think a PhD in economics is necessary to fully understand basic questions like:

  • Why to we use money?
  • Why do some careers pay more than others?
  • How are interest rates, inflation and unemployment linked?

I’ve been striving to educate myself in this subject over the last few years. Economics in One Lesson is a great book for getting started. Right now I’m reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, often regarded as the basis of economics today.

2) Nutrition

I don’t mean diet books. Do you know what the glycemic index of foods means? Do you know of the different scales used for evaluating the quality of protein? Do you know how many calories are in a gram of carbohydrates, protein and fat? Your health and energy levels are founded on nutrition, so it pays to know these facts.

The reason I switched to a vegetarian diet over two years ago wasn’t out of an outpouring sympathy to the animal world. Instead I simply learned more about nutrition and began to see how the Standard American Diet didn’t make sense. Learning about nutrition won’t force you to become a vegetarian, but it will make you more aware of what you put in your body.

3) World Religions

Understanding world religions is important to me for two reasons. The first is that it in order to understand world events, you need to understand world religions. It is hard to interpret the path different cultures have followed unless you understand the forces religion play in shaping culture.

The second reason is highly personal. I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean that I feel religious works are devoid of all significance. Reading about Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism has helped me reorganize my philosophy towards life. On my to-read list for this subject is the Bible and the Tao Te Ching.

4) Politics

Not just current affairs, but the underlying political theories. What is capitalism, communism and socialism? How do different political theories work? How do governments form and what are the forces that keep or remove them from power?

This is a subject I’m afraid I’ve studied too little on. Aside from some online reading on the subject, I’ve only read a few books. The Communist Manifesto and a few books on different political theory are on my to-read list for this topic.

5) Investing and Personal Finance

Money isn’t everything. But it’s hard to say that if your poor. Increasing your financial IQ should mean understanding how stocks, bonds and mutual funds work. You should also know how to save money, budget your income and cut expenses.

6) Psychology

Know why you do what you do. Habits, productivity, motivation and quality of life are all built on your understanding of your own mind. A few subjects I’ve found useful within psychology include:

  • Heuristics and Biases. Know your blindspots when it comes to thinking.
  • Conditioning/Habits. Understanding classical and operant conditioning were essential for me in changing my own habits.
  • Happiness. What makes you happy, what doesn’t. Science has just begun to turn up interesting results.

7) Communication

Know how to write, speak and listen. Understand how to have a healthy debate with someone without it becoming an argument. Know how to communicate yourself from the perspective of another person. Communication is a skill, but there are still many great guides for improving your interactions with other people.

I’ve just covered seven ideas of life-prerequisites. Are there any categories you feel should be up here as well? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

  • Thomas

    An elementary grasp of numbers and statistics. I.e.: read Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos 😉

  • Joe

    Shop class. Hammer, nail, drill, pipe wrench, etc.

  • Michael Tyas

    I think with politics I’d mix in ‘world politics and crossing borders.’

    How to go on a vacation and/or work overseas. Emerging from high school and going to school in South Africa I was hit with the bitter reality of bureaucracy and international politics. A heads up would have been quite helpful.

    Also, to economics I’d add world exchange rates. It was a shock to me to learn that a hamburger in Canada cost the same in South Africa with the exchange rate difference.

  • Joseph Bernard

    Great ideas Scott,

    Under psychology I would put love. Yes a course on how to love, how to love yourself, how to listen with compassion, how to keep your heart open, how to forgive and move on, how to express love in all areas of your life, how to heal all problems with love, how to make the world a better place through love and many other aspects of love.

    It seems to me ultimately where are here to express love and to enjoy life.

    I write about self-development, purpose, passion, peace, progressive ideas and of course about love at my blog.

    Joseph Bernard, Ph.D.

  • Kerry

    I’d add a fundamental understanding of ecology and natural resource cycles to that list. This applies to so many things in our lives, it’s crazy.

    If you understand water cycles (the weather, drinking water), soil cycles, the way plants filter chemicals, how ecosystems work, you can make choices which not only protect your own well-being but protect the future sustainability of the planet. For a simple example, you’d know not to build your house on eroding soil, and to clear brush in fire season. For more complex ones, you’d know not to support water subsidies, and understand why the Endangered Species Act is not working.

    A good working knowledge of chemistry is also pretty valuable.

  • Jonas Park

    An interesting topic.

    What ties all of the above topics together is one’s inclination for multidimensional growth. In that case I don’t think we can leave out self-observation — the ability to watch one’s own thought processes, mental/behavioral patterns, and emotions. That’d be Eckhart Tolle way of putting it. Or to use Ilya Prigogine’s terms, the ability to let one’s self escape into a higher order when inputs (new life experiences, stresses, trauma) have exceeded one’s ability to dissipate entropy, forcing him/her into the bifurcation point. Or in layman’s terms, it’d be the ability to “stick it out” in times of difficulty, knowing that better times would come.

    By the way, it’d be super if we would be allowed to make changes to our posts – I know it’d be a pretty big hassle technology-wise but I always get so paranoid about spelling errors and such whenever I post things here.

  • ofg


    I’ve been subscribed to your feed for about 3 months now. I also follow other blogs on self-actualization/productivity/personal development. Props for the consistently original posts man!

    Alright, after that bit of ass kissing ( ;p ), back on topic:

    I’d expand “World Religions” into just “World Philosophies”. Reading stuff from Nietzsche, Buddha, or Plato helped me understand a lot about how the world came to be as it is right now, and also a lot about the things that I value in my life.

    Communication – I like this one. I’d argue it’s the most important one. You can get educated about the other 6 if you’re good at communicating.

    An awesome book I’m reading right now about communication is “Never Eat Alone” – it totally redefined my perception of how important it is to build a network of people around you.

    How did you learn to debate in a healthy way? My problem is that I’ll sometimes just nod my head and agree with the other person just to avoid getting into a yelling contest.

  • s427

    Science (for obvious reasons) and History, which ties all domains together.

  • Mats


    Interesting list. I agree with the fact that there are a few things that would really help if you approached the subject in a more structured matter. However some things you kind of have to learn by trial and error and thus very little theory helps. So also combine the list with life lessons that you can expose yourself to as early as possible would also help. Like living in a different country.

    Anyway, I think if you could add references and books to these subjects you would help the readers to quickly find good material to learn also.

  • Scott Young

    Great additions everyone!

    Actually, philosophy is the one topic I regret not adding to that list. It should have been in the top 3!

  • Greg

    This is a great discussion Scott.
    One more course that I believe is essential for instilling fundamentals from a majority of the topics listed above is competitive sports.

    I’m not talking about merely shooting hoops or kicking a ball into the back of a net, but learning, training, practicing, mental preparing, focusing, reading your teammates, reading your opponents, strategizing, thinking on your feet, trusting your instincts, digging deep, going the extra mile, 102%, playing through pain, pushing your limits, seizing the moment, and flowing.

    I learned a lot about time management through training at 5am for Junior Olympics and then going to high school and doing my homework on planes and buses so I could hang out with my friends.

    Communication. I learned communication skills through leading five other guys on a court and having to get everyone on the same page in a matter of seconds. Public Speaking. I knew exactly what to do during my student council speeches to 2,500 of my peers because I previously had to perform at my highest level before thousands of eyes watching at national competitions.

    Psychology. I learned to understand how others thought, functioned, and operate by glancing at my teammates or opponents and knowing exactly what their next five actions, then acting on it. I learned to stay present through all the distractions and just flow. I learned to get back up when I had been knocked down again and again. I learned how to do push-ups until I couldn’t physically move, and then at that point, I would do 10 more.

    Following your passion. I’ve traveled the world playing volleyball, met some the greatest people one could possibly meet in life along the way, but the entire time, I was doing it because it was my passion. I loved to play the game. I started playing the game without telling anyone. I simply walked into the try-outs after school on a hunch and fell in love.

    These have been just a few of my lessons. You can’t learn everything from competitive sports, but applying the lessons you learn to the other areas of your life has an immense impact. For more reading on competitive sports and applying them to your life, read Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning”.

  • Pablo

    I’d like to add a book about genetics and evolutionary psycology: The Mating Mind. It will be a classic some day.