The most important life skills, according to Americans

The Pew Research Group conducted a survey on the most important life skills to several thousand Americans. Here's what they said.

The most important life skills, according to Americans
Photo credit: Taylor Grote on Unsplash
  • People are obsessed with learning about what skills they need the most to get ahead in life.
  • To try to answer this question, the Pew Research Group surveyed several thousand Americans to identify what most believed were critical life skills.
  • Here, we discuss the top three life skills, what their characteristics are, and how to improve them.

Nobody can deny that the world is changing, and it seems to be changing faster and faster. The life skills we'll need in order to navigate this world are changing too. But at the same time, there are certain skills that will always be relevant and necessary. How can we best untangle the world around us and identify which skills we should be cultivating?

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey to answer that very question. They asked a randomly selected, national sample of 3,154 Americans what they thought were the most important skills to have. "Regardless of whether or not you think these skills are good to have," they asked, "which ones do you think are most important for children to get ahead in the world today?" Here's how the results broke down.

1. Good communication

Photo by Nik MacMillan

By far, good communication was considered be the most important skill to have. It's something of a nebulous concept — who can't communicate well, and how would one go about getting better at it anyhow? But people do differ in regard to how well they communicate, and good communicators have better lives in almost every way.

Research has shown that good communicators have better marriages (duh). They also make more money, and communication skills are the number one skill that employers look for in candidates. After all, it's hard to complete a project if you don't understand the requirements and can't explain its benefits. Good communicators like themselves more, are more likely to be successful entrepreneurs, and are better at thinking critically about media and parsing questionable sources.

Unsurprisingly, psychotherapists have much to say on this subject. They've identified four basic types of communication styles.

  • The assertive style: Assertive communicators are clear, direct, and explicit. They stand up for themselves, but don't violate others' rights when communicating, even if they're communicating something difficult or unpleasant. It's the style that we should aspire to.
  • The aggressive style: Where assertive communicators are direct but respectful, aggressive communicators are just direct. The aggressive communicator is often misunderstood because people pay more attention to the rude or hostile messenger and don't hear the message.
  • The passive style: Passive communicators don't open up about themselves. They don't discuss their wants or needs, and so it's not surprising when others take advantage of them or ignore them.
  • The passive-aggressive style: Rather than simply failing to communicate, passive-aggressive communicators express themselves in confusing and roundabout ways that not only hurt others but also leads to increased resentment on the communicator's part, creating a vicious cycle of passive-aggression.

2. Strong reading abilities

Like communication, reading seems like a skill that nearly everybody already has and doesn't really need to be improved further. This isn't entirely true. Many of us spend time reading in high school and college, but that practice often falls off in adulthood. In fact, about one-quarter of American adults claim that they haven't read a book in the past 12 months. What are we missing out on when we don't keep our reading skills sharp?

For one, reading makes you more intelligent. A study on 1,890 twins found that whichever twin had the stronger reading ability also scored higher on general intelligence tests, even in nonverbal domains. Reading ability has also been shown to protect memory, to promote self-esteem, and to encourage greater life-satisfaction.

But these benefits aren't gained from the majority of content that we read today. The fast-paced nature of internet articles encourages us to just read the headline and skim the first few paragraphs, but this doesn't provide the total immersion that occurs 10 or 20 minutes after getting into a good book.

Experts can offer us some practical advice as to how we can really upgrade our reading routine. First, reading with intention is an excellent way to dive deeper into whatever work you've chosen. This could look like deliberately setting aside a reading time, taking notes, highlighting, or just telling yourself that "Now I'm going to read for a little while." A lot of people cite a lack of time as the main thing that stops them from reading. But as reading comes to take a larger place in your life, you'll make time for it. Setting small, achievable goals is a great way to start making that time. Just reading for a few minutes at the same time every day, say, five minutes before bed, is a great way to build a habit.

3. Math know-how

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Even though math skills are clearly more tangible than reading or communication, it's still undervalued compared to other, more clearly work-related skills, even ones that involve math like engineering, chemistry, or business. There is no math class in the history of math classes where the question "When am I ever going to use this?" hasn't come up. In reality, possessing strong math skills is at least as beneficial and as ubiquitously needed as possessing strong communication and reading skills.

In fact, research has found that having strong math skills at an early age is the best predictor for later success. Part of this is because of the technical and prestigious fields that a strong math education can lead to, but another part is that mathematics relies on strong executive functioning, like the ability to suppress distracting thoughts and sensations, to mentally hold and work with information, and to think in a flexible manner.

One persistent belief about mathematics is that some people are just born with the right kind of head for it, and others don't have the innate spark that makes some people gifted in this regard. Like any skill, this is only partially true. Researcher Tanya Evans conducted brain scans on groups of children to identify what was going on in the heads of kids who were particularly gifted at math. Evans found that having more gray matter in certain regions of the brain predicted math performance, but that the connections built over time between these regions were extremely important as well. Even identifying these kinds of characteristics in the brain couldn't predict whether a child would be successful at math 100% of the time

"There's a remarkable amount of heterogeneity in how each kid can end up," Evans told The Boston Globe. "That's pretty promising for parents. Just because at this age my kid is not performing as well as I'd like them to doesn't necessarily set them on a path to do poorly."

These three skills — communication, reading, and mathematics — are what Americans believe to be the top three most important life skills for individuals to cope with and thrive in our dynamic world. It's often tempting to look at one of these domains and say that we're just not cut out for it, but this defeatist attitude excludes us from the benefits that even a little work would provide. Not everybody is going to be an orator, a literature professor, or a theoretical physicist, but we can all benefit from learning how to improve our interpersonal communication, from honing our sense of empathy through books, and from thinking about the world in a more precise and rigorous way.


To learn emotional intelligence, communication strategies, and analytical thinking from world-class teachers subscribe to Big Think Edge!

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

Keep reading Show less

End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
  • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
  • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
  • Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

Scroll down to load more…