What skills are important to success in the modern world? Among all the innate skills that you possess and the training and education you’ve received over your life, what do you believe has been most important to your success? And what skills or training have you missed out on that caused you to fall short of where you could have been – or would like to have been?
By extension, where are you are placing the emphasis in your ongoing education and that of your children (if you have any)?
I suspect that – like me – you hear a lot about us living in an age of science and technology; that our workplace desperately lacks the skills of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. I suspect you also hear a lot about the importance of continuing education: that each of us needs not only an undergraduate degree, but at some point – sooner rather than later – also an advanced degree. And in this busy and demanding world, for most of us that usually means going back to school while working full time and taking an MBA in the evenings.
I certainly don’t want to dismiss the importance of acquiring these hard-core skills. My own early education placed considerable emphasis on math and the sciences, and I qualified both as a Chartered Accountant in the UK and a CPA in the USA. The skills and related credentials certainly helped me enormously in my career. But I capped out in the corporate world for reasons that I could not see, and I am confident that it is the skills I’ve been developing in the last decade which have led to greater happiness and to a better livelihood – to what, by every measure, I regard as greater success. I’ve increasingly come to believe that the skills that matter most in life are not those we learn in a STEM classroom.
Recently I’ve come across several conversations that support this assertion, and I hope they are signaling the leading edge of a shift of perspective. In particular I have been hearing a great deal about the importance of creativity and social skills.
First creativity. I spoke recently on the New Business Mindset podcast with Susan Reed (Igniting Creativity), whose business is about helping organizations make a shift towards a more creative workplace. She observes that 98% of us are innately creative but that only 1% of us use that creativity…and that adults who wake up to their creativity feel it is “like bringing happiness and joy back into my body.” Her findings are consistent with many of the conversations I’ve had on that show, and are in line with one of my all-time favorite TED Talks by Sir Ken Robinson, who spends 20 minutes exploring the question “Do Schools Kill Creativity?“. I encourage you to listen to both Susan and Sir Ken, and I think you’ll agree with them that for the most part our creativity is undeveloped. I think you’ll also conclude that there are ways we can intentionally engage and develop our creativity, and that we will be happier and more successful if we do so.
The inspiration for today’s post, though, was not creativity, but rather basic social skills. I came across an article in USA Today titled, “Stow the flash cards mom and dad: Social skills better for your kids“, which begins, “Parents who want their kids to succeed have been known to play Mozart in the nursery and quiz their preschoolers with flash cards. A new study suggests these parents might want to go back to the basics by teaching children to share and take turns.”
I decided that, rather than take USA Today at face value, I would go to the source, so I visited the American Journal of Public Health website and paid $22 for the full paper, “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness by Damon E. Jones, PhD, Mark Greenberg, PhD, and Max Crowley, PhD.” I don’t think AJPH would appreciate me reproducing it here (though if you are interested and would like to contact me directly, I’ll email it to you), but to recap from the paper:
“Objectives. We examined whether kindergarten teachers’ ratings of children’s
prosocial skills, an indicator of noncognitive ability at school entry, predict key adolescent and adult outcomes. Our goal was to determine unique associations over and above other important child, family, and contextual characteristics. Methods. Data came from the Fast Track study of low–socioeconomic status neighborhoods in 3 cities and 1 rural setting. We assessed associations between measured outcomes in kindergarten and outcomes 13 to 19 years later (1991–2000). Models included numerous control variables representing characteristics of the child, family, and context, enabling us to explore the unique contributions among predictors.
Results. We found statistically significant associations between measured social-emotional skills in kindergarten and key young adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.
Conclusions. A kindergarten measure of social-emotional skills may be useful for assessing whether children are at risk for deficits in noncognitive skills later in life and, thus, help identify those in need of early intervention. These results demonstrate the relevance of noncognitive skills in development for personal and public health outcomes.”
I found the article fascinating. In perhaps more accessible terms:
- “Social interactions, attention and self-control affect readiness for learning.”
- “Children’s social competence can be assessed by their kindergarten teachers, who observe many instances in which children need to manage relations with peers and adults….such skills are important for successful progression in early grades.”
- The study of 753 participants measured non-cognitive skills at the earliest stage reasonably possible by taking the input of kindergarten teachers and “examined whether early childhood social competence predicted outcomes measured up to 2 decades later.”
- The study concludes, “Our results suggest that perceived early social competence at least serves as a market for important long-term outcomes and at most is instrumental in influencing other developmental factors that collectively affect the lie course.”
In short the article makes what I believe is a compelling argument that non-cognitive skills are directly correlated with adult success.
So let’s return to the original question: What skills are important to success in the modern world? Specifically, among the innate skills that you possess and the training and education you’ve received, what do you believe has been most important to your life success?
I’d suggest that while your ability to perform technical tasks that draw from a STEM education may be important to your success, without the ability to engage socially with others, your career prospects would be limited…and that to the extent you can enhance your ability to think laterally and creatively you will also boost your career prospects. And not only will you boost your career potential, but you’ll be doing so with richer personal relationships, and in an environment of more innovative ideas and conversation, which should all contribute to you being happier as well!
A little over a decade ago, coming out of my early days of meditation and leaving the corporate world, I found myself naturally starting to write, and after a gap of thirty years I returned to playing the piano. I did not realize it at the time, but I was embarking on a process of reawakening my innate creativity. I was also transforming the way I relate to people, a transformation that I have been cultivating both through my spiritual practices, and also through the work I have been doing in this blog and with my participation in the New Business Mindset. My growing levels of creativity and the shift in my business relationships have changed the way I engage in the world. I am able to look back and see that the advancement of my successful corporate career stalled not so much as a result of favoritism, but because STEM skills and brute force could only take me so far. I am able, having spent a decade cultivating creativity and enhancing my social skills, to see that it was weaknesses in these areas that caused my career to stall, and also meant I could never find true happiness!
My daughter is entering her third year of university education and my son is about to enter his first year. While both are more than competent in STEM subjects, I am delighted to report that of their own volition they have both chosen to pursue a liberal arts education. My daughter is at Hampshire, a small college in the Northeast US which has a fascinating approach to education and does not offer grades; and my son is going to be attending Kings College, London, where he will be studying history. In different ways and in different environments both are learning about the fabric of human relationships, and cultivating within themselves the social skills that I believe are the foundation of success. With those as their platform, I see both as being completely able to acquire technical skills and to harness those of other people to allow them and their collaborators to be successful. I am so glad that I found these skills in my own life, and see my kids intentional cultivation of creativity and social skills as the gateway to their future life and career success and happiness.