The Single Most Important Skill of the 21st Century

Steven Hopper
Sep 22 · 4 min read
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

It’s no secret that technology is having profound impacts on every facet of modern society. New tools means new ways of doing things, which means new skills and new knowledge needed to learn them.

All children are now digital natives; they have grown up using technology so much that it’s in their DNA. But there’s also a major problem with this tech-heavy lifestyle. It has become impossible for kids to ignore all of the alerts and notifications, the games and the apps, and all of the binge-worthy entertainment.

Nir Eyal, instructor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, refers to this crucial skill as being “indistractable.”

Eyal authored an entire book on the subject and in an article for CNBC he writes,

“Becoming indistractable is the most important skill for the 21st century — and it’s one that many parents fail to teach their kids. After years of studying the intersection of psychology, technology and how we engage with it, one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making is not empowering their kids with the autonomy to control their own time.”

And schools are making this mistake too. In fact, I would argue that schools are making it worse for students.

The school day is designed to tell students when and where to be as well as what and how to learn. In regards to technology, teachers and administrators create school-wide policies that ban students from using cell phones and implement firewalls to block students from all “fun” content on the internet.

But these conditions are not how adults live out in the real world.

All schools are doing by controlling student behavior and technology usage is taking away the ability to learn how to become indistractable.

And as Eyal highlights in his article,

“One thing is for certain: Technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive. While it’s important our kids are aware that products are designed to be highly engaging, we also need to reinforce their belief in their own power to overcome distraction. It’s their responsibility — as well as their right — to use their time wisely.”

Students must learn the ability to manage all of the distractions and their overall technology consumption.

I know this from experience as a high school teacher, because this was my biggest challenge by far. Every day I had to pull my students away from technology so that they could interact with their peers and I had to help them ignore all of the distractions when using technology as a tool.

I reminded them constantly to take out their ear buds or close their laptops or stop scrolling on their cellphones and engage with the world around them. Then I would hear excuse after excuse about how technology was the reason they couldn’t finish their work or score high enough on an exam, when really the problem was their inability to learn without using technology.

The issue is that schools — and society at large — equate shiny new tech toys with higher levels of engagement. So technology is a positive thing, right?

But students already know how to engage with technology. What students need to learn is how to disengage from technology. They need to learn how to self-regulate and become aware of when technology is not the right tool.

As Eyal puts it,

“It’s only when kids can monitor their own behavior that they learn the skills they need to be indistractable — even when their parents [or teachers] aren’t around.”

It has to be a combined effort by both parents and teachers to work together and reinforce the skills of time management and technology mindfulness so kids can learn how to become indistractable.

Otherwise, these students will graduate from school and go out into the real world where there are no restrictions and then they won’t know how to manage themselves in situations when technology isn’t the answer.

After all, if the future generations don’t become indistractable, it doesn’t matter what other skills and information they have. We have to teach future generations this critical skill first.

Steven Hopper

Written by

Stories of a former high school teacher, now business consultant. Husband. Travel fanatic. Obsessed coffee drinker. And all-around nerd.

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