If You Could Teach Only One Skill

A bunch of student in their university yard.Recently, I was asked to name the most important skill I’d want students to learn.

I took a moment . . . bounced my leg a bit . . . looked upward . . . tapped the table, and then, knowing all along what I’d say, responded, “problem solving.”


Because most of life involves problem solving. You start a new job, go to a new school, enter a new grade level, join a new group, travel to a new place. In each instance, you have to problem solve. To survive – even to succeed – you have to figure things out. Then you have to act on what you’ve figured out. In many cases, you’ll try things out, learn some more, and then have to try again. That’s all problem solving.

As part of this process, you’ll probably end up drawing on a host of other incredible skills, like creativity, risk taking, resilience, grit, self-control, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, research, to name a few. You’ll also find that problem solving can apply to any subject and come into play at any age.

At the same time, to experience success, you’ll probably need to shift your attitude. While you might feel overwhelmed, intimidated, or even incapable, you can only sit with those feelings for so long before you need to act. As you begin to act, you may find yourself engaging with the problem in a more playful and curious way. You may begin to let go of the need to have one right answer or a simple solution. As you begin to think differently, you may find you’re becoming more comfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the problem-solving process.

By the way, none of this is linear. It’s iterative. We feel overwhelmed, we reach out for information and help, and we act. We learn from our actions and find that we’ve got to make another shift and try something else. We learn some more, try something new, gain different feedback and, eventually, if we stick with it, we solve the problem. Along the way, we increase our self-confidence and build increased resilience for the next time.

Now it’s your turn. What skill would you teach, if you could teach only one?