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The Alarming Decline in Our Most Vital Skills

“We are approaching a new age of synthesis. Knowledge cannot be merely a degree or a skill… it demands a broader vision, capabilities in critical thinking and logical deduction without which we cannot have constructive progress.”

- Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong business magnate and investor, #1 on Forbes Richest List, 2018

Even before the introduction of AI, my work has been in developing leadership in all, as well as emotional and social intelligence, critical thinking, personal responsibility, problem-solving, social interest, internal motivation, trust, and empathy. Now, with the arrival of AI, it is likely people will lose more of these and other vital skills needed to meet the challenges of today and the future. More than ever, people need to have confidence and competence in exercising their thinking for creativity, collaboration, and communicating ideas effectively to meet the complexity, rapid change, and technology needs for agile, innovative, and strategic thinking and behaving.

Data shows that:

  • Critical thinking skills have been declining, with many people struggling to think deeply and reflectively (Source: Psychology Today)

  • Cognitive decline is accelerating, with mentally stimulating activities decreasing (Source: Harvard Health)

  • Empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years, especially among younger generations, with a 40% drop in empathy among college students compared to their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago (Source: Scientific American, University of Michigan study)

  • An Average American spends 5 hours and 24 minutes on their phone every day (Source: What’s the Big Data?)

  • Burnout exhausts, paralyzes, and reduces productivity. Mentally, it’s as if the brain hits a wall and struggles to concentrate, experiences memory slips, irritability, and anxiety. (Source: The World Health Organization)

  • Over 75% of American workers say they’ve experienced burnout in their workplace at some point, impairing their cognitive functioning, with roughly one in four feeling it “very often” or “always,” (Source: Gallup)

  • 23% of workers suffer from work-related stress, with a loss of focus and effectiveness, (Source: Kind Mind)


In our client sites, we see firsthand the fear and discomfort people exhibit when asked to draw upon their often rusty, neglected, and under-utilized critical thinking skills. We incorporate a Socratic method in all of our services. We use thought-provoking questions in our individual online training programs, workbooks, surveys, staff-led small group review sessions, and peer and reverse mentoring. Our methods stimulate heuristic thinking on things never before considered or needed. This elicits engagement with, and support of, people, projects and organizations. When we train them to say less and ask more (SLAM) to expand critical thinking in each other, this seems new and often feels awkward during initial conversations. For those asked what and how questions for heightened awareness and to manage behavior, many freeze, fight or flee emotionally and even physically.


The decline in critical thinking, cognition, empathy and social interest (recognizing consequences we cause others) are side-effects of the conditioning with control methods used on people from infancy to adulthood, often scaring them about their power and perspectives. In an effort to develop children into good citizens, there is often use of scolding, punishing and shaming (autocratic control), bribing (rewards as control), grading, praising or criticism (judging as control), and enabling by giving answers instead of helping others find them (pampering and spoiling as control).

Beyond control, often outdated formulaic beliefs and solutions are foisted upon people with an expectation that they blindly comply. Further, add the extensive use of electronic devices and AI that also interrupt creative thinking and problem-solving needed for innovation, and effective responses to challenges in yet-imagined future scenarios. Instilling systems that strengthen intelligence, initiative, and competence are vital for happiness, psychological safety, fulfillment, and progress, including as in the evolvement of people and organizations.


Among a lot more, be sure to adopt a model in which you are asked Socratic questions to strengthen these vital skills. They should be "what" and "how" questions, not "why" (analysis) and "who" (blame) questions for:


The analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments in order to form a judgement

  • What are the logical conclusions in your current plan?

  • What are the needs of the situation today?

  • What is your detailed vision for the ideal outcome, including all results?

  • How will you develop your heuristic thinking so you come up with new ideas created on the fly that meet today's unique challenges rather than fall back on outdated, algorithmic ones?


The process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses

  • What new information will further your evolution?

  • How can you grow in your awareness of yourself, others, and the world?

  • What specific actions can you take to overcome change blindness?

  • What is your plan for your ongoing improvement and development?

  • What group or persons support your ability to absorb relevant future-facing trends?


Taking on the perspective of others in a way that they know you understand how they feel without judgment

  • What do you think your decision will cause for others

  • What occurs if a lot of people recognize the unity and wellbeing of the whole affects each part?

  • What stories can you recall include taking the perspective of another and communicating you knew what they are feeling? How did it make you both feel?

  • How will you meet this person where they are at?

  • What might your choice of connection with someone cause them?

  • What ways of listening and responding support community and co-creation?


Considering the consequences our actions 'cause' others.

  • What will you reflect on and choose related to "causing" things intentionally?

  • How do your purpose and values help you align with causing what you do at your best?

  • What mechanism or tools ensure you consistently create the best outcomes for everyone?

  • What values are supporting your unity with others?

  • How can you practically apply values that support your commitment to making everyone wildly successful?

Make these vital skills a priority, especially in the face of increasing complexity, speed of change, diversity, technology and globalization. These are needed within the shifts we currently face and to face those we encounter going forward.


Since 2002, JUDY RYAN has been CEO of LifeWork Systems and a recognized thought leader on organizational culture transformation and personal and professional development for exceptional outcomes. She is an award-winning Author, Columnist, System Developer, Consultant, Strategist, Visionary, and Keynote Speaker frequently interviewed on TV, radio, and podcasts. For over 20 years, Judy has been leading innovative methods to favorably impact the most important aspect of any organization: its people. She has created a digital, scalable culture transformation system and implementation framework. Judy’s purpose is "to create a world in which all people love their lives." One of her primary visions is to fulfill her purpose "in partnership with like-minded, like-hearted, and innovative thought leaders and change agents worldwide."



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