The 7 Essential Life Skills

What we have now is a picture of human development built on the idea that humans are learning creatures, and that what we are depends on what we learn, from cradle to grave.

Like the cockroach, we humans are extraordinarily adaptable creatures. At the same time, we are creatures of habit, and our lives can easily become routinized to the point where the very idea of change becomes terrifying. This is the flip side of adaptability – we can fit ourselves into a niche so snugly that we never want to leave.

Developmental psychology – the study of neural, cognitive, and socioemotional human development – has provided us with some of our deepest insights into human plasticity, our ability to change even the physical structure of our brains to adapt to new challenges. The French psychologist Jean Piaget is generally recognized as the father of developmental psychology – and as our brains and consciousness are most flexible and rapidly developing during childhood, it's not surprising that his research focused on children. Piaget mapped out stages of cognitive development through which the child grows from a sensory infant, to a toddler unsure of the boundaries between her imagination and the external world, to an older child able to manipulate complex abstractions like algebraic formulas.

If Piaget formalized the stages of human cognitive development, his successors have been busy mapping out the “play in the system" – the specific ways in which different minds develop differently depending on everything from dna to their parents' personalities to their own free will. What we have now is a picture of human development built on the idea that humans are learning creatures, and that what we are depends on what we learn, from cradle to grave.

Video: The 7 Essential Life Skills, with Ellen Galinsky, for Big Think Mentor

By the time it reaches the general public, this research is often distorted into hyperbolic claims like “Listening to Mozart will make your baby smarter." Taken together, these often mutually contradictory prescriptions serve only to drive non-scientists crazy and make intelligent people cynical about developmental psychology as a whole.

Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making and president of the Families and Work Institute spent much of her career on the faculty of Bank Street College – a progressive school of education and educational laboratory where cutting-edge research from developmental psychology is turned into educational practice. In her view, the most important findings of developmental psychology add up to a consistent, substantial picture of the 7 essential skills humans need to keep learning and growing throughout the lifespan.

We tend, erroneously, to think of learning as preparation for doing. For this reason our education system is built around the idea that you finish your education, then you start your career. But the key lesson from developmental psychology is that the tangible markers of what we think of as “success" – emotional well-being, professional reputation, and so on – are simply the byproducts of a life spent learning.


In a fast-changing world, only our higher-order thinking skills can keep us aware, engaged, and growing. In The Seven Essential Life Skills, her workshop for Big Think Mentor, Mind in the Making author Ellen Galinsky teaches lessons learned over decades of psychological research into how humans learn throughout the lifespan. The seven essential skills she teaches here, and demonstrates with stunning video footage of classic psychological experiments, are invaluable tools for adapting to, learning from, and thriving within a world in rapid flux.

The seven essential life skills you'll hone in this workshop are:

  • Focus and Self-Control
  • Perspective Taking
  • Communicating
  • Making Connections
  • Critical Thinking
  • Taking on Challenges
  • Self-Directed, Engaged Learning

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

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