The Three Mega-Skills: Thinking, Writing, and Speaking

Posted on April 2, 2015 by Mark Ford

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Today, I’d like to talk about the most important skills we need to be successful in life. I’ve been thinking about this subject for several decades. I hope that what I’m about to say will be helpful to you.

I’ve identified about a dozen skills I believe are important to a successful life. Of these, three are fundamental: thinking well, speaking well, and writing well.

At some level, every human being can think. But some people, I’m sure you would agree, think better than others.

 

Thinking Well

Thinking well means having the capacity to reason. It means being able to assess, analyze, and solve problems. It means being able to create and follow a trend of thought. It means being able to recognize good ideas from bad ones. It means understanding logic.

Having the ability to think well gives a person a great competitive advantage. It allows him to solve problems and accomplish objectives quickly and efficiently. It distinguishes him as a smart and capable person. Thinking well is the basis for all of the other important social skills, as you will soon see.

In thinking about thinking, we must remember that there is a difference between thinking well and intelligence. Thinking well is a skill. Intelligence is a natural capacity.

Having a sizable intellect is an indisputable asset. It makes it so much easier to learn how to think well. But it does not guarantee it. The world is full of intelligent people who have never learned how to think well. They grow up to be adults who do not have the intellectual capacity to fend for themselves. They live out their lives dependent on the kindness of others.

Thinking well, like any other skill, can be learned.

If it can be learned, it can be taught. And that teaching will fall primarily on your shoulders. Government-run schools and many private schools, as well, have neither the interest nor ability to do this. The job is, and should be, up to you.

There are at least three ways you can teach your children to think well.

The most important is probably through thoughtful conversation. Taking the time to walk your children through problems and obstacles is invaluable. Asking them questions and questioning their answers is also important. And finally, it is important to encourage them to have their own ideas. Society wants to make us all think alike. You can’t possibly be a good thinker unless you have the temerity to think for yourself.

The second most important is probably through a good formal education. A good formal education, in my view, is one that emphasizes the liberal arts: literature, language, history, and the arts. Some knowledge of science and mathematics is helpful. But these are skills that are not likely to make you anything more than a successful or celebrated worker bee. The skills you learn in liberal arts teach you how to think.

The third way you can teach your children to think well is by exacting a diligent control over their use of computers, video games, television, and access to the Internet, generally. My wife and I unplugged our televisions during the 25 years that our children lived at home. And we banned video games and encouraged our children to “play” games that were educational.

Today, there are hundreds of games you can download for free or a few dollars from the Internet. These include fundamental thinking games about discrimination, recognition, sorting, pairing, etc., and more advanced games that focus on skills such as analysis and logic.

 

Speaking Well

Another thing I’m proud to say is that our children are reasonably proficient speakers. In my view, speaking well is the second most important social skill.

As with thinking well, we need to make a distinction here. Speaking well involves grammar and diction, but these are not as important as the ability to express worthy thoughts concisely and clearly.

However good your grammar and diction may be, you can’t speak well if you have trouble “saying” what you “mean.” To become a good speaker, you must practice the skill of speaking concisely. And you must also develop the habit of saying things that are worth saying.

It is amazing to me how many college-educated people I meet who can’t speak well. They are the people who have good ideas but cannot express them. When trying to express even a modestly complicated thought, they hem and haw and pepper their phrases with expressions like “you know” and “it was like” and so on. Then there are the articulate people who never say anything that isn’t shallow or trivial.

Having the ability to speak well is such a rare quality that the possession of it will immediately separate you from most other people in the room. It will give you social power that they lack even if they are richer, taller, and better looking than you are.

How do you teach your children to speak well?

Again, the most important way is by speaking well yourself. A child’s first and most frequent exposure to the skill of speaking is with his parents. Small children absorb the intricacies of language like sponges. If you want your children to have this second most valuable social skill, then speak thoughtfully when you speak to them and expect them to do the same with you.

You can also encourage your children to speak well by insisting they take courses that involve speaking in school. These would be primarily the liberal arts courses but also any courses for which you can’t get a grade simply by checking off boxes.

And thirdly, there is the Internet. There are dozens and dozens of applications available that will improve one’s vocabulary and grammar. As I said, these are not the most important elements of speaking well, but they help.

 

Writing Well

The third most important social skill is writing well.

Writing may seem to have become less important in the age of instant messaging, but writing short communications is still writing.

And as your child enters into the world of work, writing well will become an increasingly valuable skill. Having the ability to express him or herself well in memos, business letters, proposals, personal notes, and so on is a very powerful skill.

Writing well is dependent on speaking well, and speaking well is dependent on thinking well. So if you educate your children to think and speak well, it will be quite easy to teach them to become good writers.

Again, writing well is the skill of expressing worthy ideas concisely and clearly on paper. Writing well demands some additional facilities beyond those of speaking well, but for the most part, if you can speak well, you can also write well.

The most important way you can teach your children to write well is to insist that they spend some amount of time writing every day. You might encourage your children to write letters to an out-of-town relative or find a pen pal through one of the supervised pen-pal sites on the Internet.

Thinking, speaking, and writing well are the three most important social skills. If your children learn these, they will be set for life. They will have the ability to analyze problems, find solutions for them, and thus be seen as problem solvers. They will be able to stand out in any social group (at work or outside of work) by their abilities to express good ideas concisely and clearly. Plus, if they acquire good manners, they won’t have to pay the cost of treating other people badly.

Mark Ford

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43 responses to “The Three Mega-Skills: Thinking, Writing, and Speaking”

  1. Paul Anthony says:

    Good advice from Mark, as usual. My son once asked me why I seemed so confident each time I spoke. He admitted that I was usually right, but wondered how that could be. I explained that I never spoke before thinking and when thinking, if I could not reach a definitive conclusion I DID NOT SPEAK.

    Thinking well and speaking well are extremely important. Be careful to do them in the right order.

  2. Gordon says:

    Good insights. I would add that extensive reading is an essential part of developing all these skills. Assuming at least a part of our reading is of people who have mastered these skills, reading their books and essays will guide and direct our efforts as well.

    On a separate note, as a civil engineer, I will take slight issue with Mark's opinion of science and math. These are at least as important as the fields of the liberal arts, and are not commonly found among many otherwise very competent and thoughtful people, leading them at times to promote or pursue ideas or projects that are impractical or even impossible, as well as missing a great deal that is of beauty and interest.

    A final note: Humility and a recognition of how little we really know help us maintain stability and an open mind. The expert in one field who believes that his expertise conveys authority in all fields is a trope, but one that we find around us all too often. Never stop learning.

  3. bullwink says:

    Thank you for an uplifting article ! Thank you more for mentioning that you unplugged the tv, when raising your children, when i went to boarding school media was largely forbidden, learning was not supposed to be entertaining, I remember reading a 26 volume encyclopedia, after completing my homework, Latin and French were compulsory, you had to eat all the food on your plate…
    I was accepted to college at 15 yrs old, have worked at many professions , the ability to reason and communicate clearly is essential, especially in business..
    tho I've found less is more, and unfortunately those who don't "get it" never seem to , misunderstandings are usually caused by deceit , the other party wants something from you but doesn't want to pay the cost, and costs caused by delays or misinformation are never reimbursed.
    Good manners is simply being aware of other's needs, as a conservative I believe socialism "bad manners"
    There is an English Proverb " where you are in life is where you should be "

  4. Peter says:

    Actually, many people need to engage active discussion or narrative as part of the thinking process. Particularly extroverts. It can lead to a far more intuitive and creatively chaotic process. Any merely thinking before speaking process is self referencing at best. A relatively small world from within the realm of possibility.

  5. lopaze says:

    Great! The way we speak, write and think is very important today than ever. Because we tell the world who we REALLY are when the words come out of our mouths…

  6. Venkat Raman says:

    Thank you for this post. It speaks to the basics of successful life and the beauty is, these are accessible to everyone. Lamentably, there are relatively few that pay close attention to developing these traits. I have some personal experience in consciously choosing to focus on these.

    While thinking well is something I believe in and must thank my parents for instilling in me, speaking well and writing well have been less important in the early part of my life. While I personally took pleasure in writing, and writing well, speaking was an issue.

    While it is true that I speak reasonably well when I speak, I don't speak much. I am beginning to remedy it. The resource I use, Toastmasters, should help you as well. You will shed your fear of speaking, and also learn to speak well. I am enrolled in it now, and am just starting the journey.

    I am also proud to acknowledge that I consider writing well to be important. So important that I consciously left an established career in software engineering to pursue a career in copywriting. I have embraced persuasive writing. Persuasion is arguably the most powerful tool to master.

    There is a lot to learn, but every lesson is worth it.

    Venkat

  7. Bill Zimmerly says:

    Outstanding! Well done, Sir. :)

  8. TheLookOut says:

    Very good article. Listen, Think, Speak, Act, and listen again,
    oh how much I learn when I'm humble.

  9. James Parker says:

    I must disagree with Mr. Ford on his placing such a high emphasis on "Liberal Arts" as compared to Mathematics. I suspect this is because he has not received much education in Mathematics — not surprising, since most schools (especially government schools) do not really teach it.

    Most people think Mathematics is about numbers. Not so, although some branches do indeed use numbers. Rather, it is about the rigor of logic; selecting a set of axioms, and applying those axioms and only those axioms (as well as theorems, which are simply useful, general results derived from the axioms) to produce results consistent with those axioms. Mathematics is the only discipline of thought to use complete rigor in reasoning.

    Literature, language, and the arts are sloppy and error-prone; logic is often abandoned in favor of rhetoric and "feelings", which leads to fallacy and inconsistency — these tools, if not balanced by mathematical rigor at some point, will result in a morass of fantasy and nonsense.

    There is art associated with Mathematics, assuredly; it is found in the selection of axioms and the way the axioms and results are applied (mapped) to reality. The mathematician Kurt Goedel proved definitively that no single mathematical system is complete (that is, there are true statements in any such system — other than the most simple — that are true in the system but cannot be proven), so no single mathematical system is definitive. Thus, both are needed, and in equal measure. However, minimizing the fundamental importance of Mathematics, as Mr. Ford does here, will invariable lead to crippled thinking.

    • Scott theczech says:

      The good and effective liberal arts schools teach scientific reasoning and testing as well as poetry, literature, the "classics." In these institutions of higher learning liberal arts majors are required to develop sound hypotheses, testing such hypotheses in scientific fashion. An idea can't even become a theory until the central hypothesis is challenged and tested, often submitted to rigorous peer review.

      Both disciplines compliment one another, however I tend to agree with Mr. Ford; that liberal arts education and training are indispensable in the pursuit of success.

  10. bullwink says:

    apparently my comments are without merit, I'll never post again, thanks for showing such courtesy…

  11. Ken Oden says:

    Many of us with ToastMasters involvement – participation – membership experience say that belonging is the best investment that a person can make in their future and that we get the biggest ROI. Learning and practicing listening, organizing ones thoughts and speaking clearly and effectively at a weekly meeting will move you up the ladder of success two rungs at a time. When I had my own businesses, applicants for employment with ToastMasters experience always moved to the top of my list. I coined the phase – 'We start on time, we end on time and we do NOT waste any time.' Think about that at your next meeting. When TM's are in charge – things happen EFFECTIVELY. IMO

  12. Mohammed says:

    Mr. Ford, sir, I am taken aback by your comments regarding the role of science in communication!

    The most important skill – one that is self-evidently lacking in your analysis – is an awareness of bias. To be able to reason and see through and around any view is the most important life skill.

    It always irks me when experts from the humanities and science take it upon themselves to argue the merits of one side … it marks them as biased and not worth powder and shot!

    • Paul Anthony says:

      I'm guessing you've never taken a course in Philosophy (considered an important part of a liberal education).

    • Brian says:

      If all bias were removed from discourse then there would be nothing to discuss but the absence of X,Y,Z or the inclusion of X.Y.Z. Nothing but structures of logic.

  13. meli says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece, and found the comments that followed to be very interesting. What is most interesting to me is that those who disagree are thinking for themselves, which is one point that Mr. Ford touched on as being important. I didn't interpret the message to mean that everyone should major in liberal arts. By all means, be scientists and mathematicians, or whatever your heart desires, but adding some courses in the liberal arts will make you more effective in all areas of life.

  14. Dennis Dennis says:

    Great article Mr. Ford. I would totally agree. One of our biggest assets as humans is the ability to communicate orally and through written text and neither could be accomplished without intelligent forethought. Do you have any reading recommendations that could improve our own abilities in these important skills. Sincerely, Dennis

  15. psychicmindvandervoort231 says:

    The "engineering types" don't know POETRY and have no idea what they are missing. To me they are super-boring people.

  16. Mohammed says:

    Poetry?

    Look at the great bridges – of which you have some of the best in America – and what do you see?

    I see poetry in action – sublime yet practical!

    A formula written in the language of science is the purest form of poetry – one that will outlive the greatest classics!

  17. RealitySeeker says:

    I'm not familiar with Mr. Ford's work. Doug Casey seems to like his writing, so that means some of Ford's work might not be that bad. On the other hand, the above article I'd never pay a dime to read, in fact I would't have read it for free had I known its content in advance.

    For example, I laughed when I read the dimwitted phrase: "Thinking, speaking, and writing well are the three most important social skills".

    Really?

    I have a son whose critical thinking, speaking and writing skills are unparalleled among his peers. His IQ is 160+. He is well educated. He can type words literally as fast as somebody can speak. He's truly an adroit communicator, well groomed and well trained in poise and personal appearance. He has a great career, material possessions and so much more going for him. He's successful, but not nearly as successful as his younger brother. His younger brother has a better social life, more wealth and more money. His younger brother is a lesser man in every way but four:

    1) He's stunningly handsome ( a real-life Tom Cruise).

    2) He's got a Marlin-Brando-like charisma that draws people to him.

    3) He's got natural talent.

    4) He's lucky, damn lucky.

    Any combination of the above in sufficient measure is far better than being able to "think, speak, and write well".

    Unless you really want to be an egghead.

    • Avery Horton says:

      The only problem with the 4 things you mentioned is you would have to win the DNA lottery to have them. The 3 things mentioned in the article are skills that can be mastered. Maybe one can learn charisma and learn to dress well to appear good looking.

      • RealitySeeker says:

        "The only problem with the 4 things you mentioned is you would have to win the DNA lottery to have them".

        You'd have to win the DNA lottery to think, write and speak like Henry David Thoreau, too, but who'd want to look like him or have his love life? Some would, yes, and that's fine— for them.

        Most everything scales, including the natural capacity and disposition to become an interesting articulator.

        Kids can "learn" to have style and/or class. They can learn how to fight. And as they grow into young adults, knowing how to kick some ass breeds confidence; the body language of a young, fit, confidant male is crazy sexy. Exuding genuine confidence is not a bad thing for a man's social life— even if he's not a Tom Cruise. Men can "learn" how to be sexy just like they can learn public discourse. Many other social skills can be mastered, too. You mentioned dress. I agree: knowing how to dress is important.

        One of the first thing any child should be taught is human nature. That's why "looking Out for # 1 was required reading for my children. The book is human nature 101. It teaches young people the facts of life. It's written so a child can understand it. it's not rocket science, but you'd be surprised how few people "get it".

  18. Science proceeds from points of view or the acceptance of necessity, which lie in the domain of the liberal arts. Pre-historic man had no science, so his fitness to survive was definitely a result of his native ability to observe nature. With that , thinking improved, followed by babel and then coherent language. All found expression in the writing in the caves.

  19. Rob Bonter says:

    Yes, these are the basics. Where it comes to the application of these basic skills, I believe, without a doubt, that ~networking~, especially with powerful, influential people comes first.

    I refer to the indispensable value of cultivating powerful contacts in the lyrics to a song I wrote ("Get In The Game"), as follows:

    "If you don't feed a cop, if you don't bribe a judge, if you don't own a politician your life won't amount to much. You chug-a-lug Lone Star Beer, wolf down that Spam and hash, they'll tap your phone and snoop around and call you trailer trash." Etc.

  20. Mike says:

    This has been a great article. Yes, there is some value in liberal arts as well as science and math. That is why we go to school…to learn how to think. But too often, young people think they know everything they need to know, which couldn't be further from the truth. How you speak to your children is also vitally important in the success process. This was a very good read for me – a confirmation of what I knew all along. Glad I am not alone.

  21. Serge says:

    The 3 R's are the foundation of a strong America. To minimize math and science would be like loosening the foundations of many jobs and professions that keep our nation strong. Math is the foundation of many careers from basic construction, accounting to rocket science. Math is even used in the arts such as music, dance choreography and artwork. I agree that effective speaking and writing is vital to sell products and services. But the engineers and people who use their math and science skills to design, create and build are still a very important part of a strong economy.

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