Six critical skills for the future

Published Tuesday, September 3, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Depending on your perspective, it’s either a wonderful time of the year or a terrible time.  School’s in and the annual cycle of learning starts anew.  

In the necessary transition to a more sustainable world, our youth are critical stakeholders.  Schools are the institutions by which we strive to equip them with the knowledge and perspective they will need to succeed and thrive in the world we anticipate for them.  

Given that their world promises to be very different than the one we grew up in, here are six aptitudes I hope they will learn in school.


In earlier, leaner times, our forebears knew all about growing their own food, minimizing waste and getting the most out of everything.  

So much of what’s in our trash bins today – paper, cardboard, metal, plastic – would be considered wealth in any other era.  Every year, humans consume 1.5 times what the planet produces.  Resourcefulness – the ability to manage with less, be more self-sufficient, minimize waste and get the very most use out of everything we use – will be important in the resource-constrained world of the future.


Resilience is the ability to persist in the face of stress and challenge.  Resilient people are positive and optimistic.  They can manage their emotions.  They see failures not as defeats, but as learning opportunities.  They get back up with strength and resolve.

We Canadians are blessed to live in a world of safety nets, from employment insurance to reliable electricity to public health care and pensions.  The downside is that perhaps we’ve become overly dependent upon them, and are less able to fend for ourselves when something goes wrong.  One would hope that all we’ve built will be there for our children, but if anything lapses, those with resilience will have a definite advantage.


Individualism is today’s cultural norm.  People are encouraged to do or wear or be whatever they want to do or wear or be.  That’s great, but in the process perhaps our sense of social responsibility has eroded.  Perhaps we have lost our appreciation of the importance of working together when necessary.

Collaboration, the ability to work well with others toward a common goal – and to know when to lead and when to follow – will be a critical skill for solving the big challenges of the future.


In The Upside of Down, author Thomas Homer-Dixon defines the prospective mind as a mindset that can roll with constant changes, surprises and instability, and even find advantage and opportunity.  It’s fair to say that today’s innovators and thought leaders have prospective minds: the ability to constantly be in tune with the world around them, and make rapid course changes on the fly as circumstances warrant.

Change can seem overwhelming, but, from technology to energy to climate, it is reality.  Mental flexibility will be key to coping well.


The challenges of the world of the future will require solutions not yet known.  Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Once again, Einstein was right.  The future will need people who are realistically creative.  The ability to fix things – another rapidly ebbing skill in our throwaway world – wouldn’t hurt either.


Ours is the age of distraction.  People are blitzed continuously by texts, tweets, pop-ups, ads, updates and more.  Multitasking is all the rage, even as we discover that it actually makes us less productive and more error prone.

Unwavering focus is at the root of every major accomplishment in human history, from automobiles to rockets, from iPhones to symphonies.  The ability to sweep aside distractions and focus with full mental bandwidth will undoubtedly be at the root of every major human accomplishment of the future too.

Not exactly math, English or social studies, but hopefully these six critical skills will percolate into every subject and every classroom this fall.