As the father of two children, ages 13 and 10, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about different approaches to education and how to best prepare them for their lives as adults. Identifying the attributes of high-performers and the methods by which they got there is also an issue that is highly relevant in my capacity as an early-stage investor, as well as a thinking and caring citizen of the planet Earth. There has been extensive debate about the “right” methods of education, how to measure academic progress, and how to respond to the competitive imperative posed by the rising power of nations such as China and India. Huge swaths of our economy and those of other Western nations are being disrupted, with massive consequences for individuals, companies and societies. In the moment, it is pretty easy to get freaked out about the prospects for our country – and ourselves – particularly those who sit in the cross-hairs of industries that will necessarily be restructured – or die. Curling up in a ball or pointing fingers will be of no use in combating this challenge; there is simply no way of turning back the clock. But the question remains: how can we best prepare our children for the world of tomorrow while helping adults adapt to a far different environment than the one which prevailed when they entered the workplace? No silver bullets here, just some thoughts concerning issues we all should be thinking about.
I was raised in a world of traditional education. Read book. Listen to lecture. Study notes. Take test. Write the occasional paper. Rinse. Repeat. No group work. No real problem-solving. Limited discussion. Few opportunity to share perspectives with others. I think my education was successful in cramming a bunch of facts into my head and teaching me the rudiments of writing, but unsuccessful in preparing me for the real world. And this was a world of 25 years ago. No Internet. No Google. No online access to news archives. Nada. Today the value of memorizing troves of facts is essentially worthless. Students can sit in the back of class with their laptops and check to make sure that their teachers have all the dates and places right. There is no value in a teacher simply standing up in front of a class to impart facts. We can get that virtually, for free, through Kahn Academy. However, what if a teacher threw out a position that related to a reading from the night before and used that to catalyze a discussion. Students chimed in, offering their own opinions and supporting them with citations from the text as well as their own unique worldview. Other students might have opposing views, providing their arguments and support delivered in a logical and appropriate manner. Perhaps the reading brought up alternative interpretations of historical events, and the teacher asked the students to integrate the study of history to augment and enhance their understanding of the literature thorough added context. You get the point. In my example, students are building skills in oral response, constructing logical arguments, public speaking, integrating new information and adjusting their own views, collaborating with others and problem solving. This is reality and happens every day in almost every walk of work life. As I’ve said before, facility with statistics and the basics of computer science are important for every student regardless of vocation, and a firm grounding in maths and the sciences is essential for being a well-rounded person. But inquiry-based, integrative learning in english, literature, history and the arts is critical for fostering creativity, lateral thinking, group problem-solving, persuasive communication and the construction of logical arguments so essential for succeeding in tomorrow’s world. Daniel Pink, Howard Gardner and Tony Wagner all have interesting and relevant perspectives on this challenge.
There is so much to learn by putting yourself out there in the real world. If you are a student, whether in high school, college or graduate school, work to engage with a company that can really use your skills, insights and energy. Research firms in your area, study what they do, and come up with a concrete plan for how you can drive real value (e.g., sales) to the company. Offer your services for free. Go in with 3-4 great ideas. It is the rare company that will respond poorly to a display of such passion, brains and initiative. This can be a launching pad for you to better understand what you’re interested in and where you believe you can make the greatest impact. It may also serve as fodder for generating your own business ideas, sparking an interest in you starting your own company. I was just on a panel at Columbia with my friend Jon Steinberg, President of BuzzFeed, who commented that he’d love to be approached by a smart kid who had really researched the adtech market, studied BuzzFeed’s business, and came with a plan to close a few new accounts. Little downside for Jon and the company, and huge upside for the kid taking the initiative. Nobody has approached him with such an offer. How is that possible? Spend less time writing bland letters and sending out resumes, and more time micro-targeting those opportunities you’d like, really digging in and creating a value proposition that is just too compelling to resist. These are the kind of people companies want to hire.
Every few months I have breakfast with my friend James Altucher. James is an exceptionally bright and interesting guy, and I find the time I spend with him to be chock-full of fascinating discussions often projecting well into the future. This week’s meal was centered around education and how long-time corporate executives can stop hating life within drab, de-humanized, sclerotic bureaucracies and to bring their skills to new ventures. James has some well-defined views concerning the value of higher education (his view: not much) versus learning by doing out in the workforce. We both agree that experiential learning is critical for kids, but how to translate this for adults who are in need of re-tooling to be competitive in and enriched by tomorrow’s world? In almost all cases it will require short-term economic sacrifice from those creatively destructing their own work lives, but the key is how to funnel these experienced professionals into roles where both they and their employer obtain value during the transition process? Can corporate IT-types add value to rapidly scaling businesses through their experience in managing large-scale data organisations? I’d say yes. Can a senior marketing professional help out a successful start-up looking towards geographic expansion or moving towards new vertical markets? Invariably. I’d spend less effort thinking about how long-time corporate denizens can start companies and more figuring out how they can plug into existing companies. Moving from a large corporate to a start-up or a small / medium-size business (SMB) requires a huge cultural shift, and to bridge this gap before taking on the risks and stress associated with starting one’s own company seems like a far more achievable objective. Perhaps a whole new market of “expert consultants” could emerge, enabling start-ups and SMBs to engage seasoned professionals on a “try to buy” basis, creating a win-win with a minimum of risk and disruption should the match not work out. In any event, this is an area where far more calories need to be spent. Coping with the inevitable tsunami of 15-20 year corporate veterans facing job displacement in the wake of dramatically shifting work world.
Like it or not, tomorrow is already here. Edifice Rex is crumbling. Legacy titans are being disrupted in every vertical, and even those less than 10 years old are facing the impetus to proactively destruct and re-create or be destroyed by others. Managing in a real-time world takes thinking, not just doing. Analytical geniuses will need to be able to apply their mental models in creative ways, while marketers and sellers will need to develop a facility with quantitative tools to better execute their strategies. Right brain, left brain – both hemispheres are required. And helping those who have spent careers cultivating one or the other will be key in our transformation as a society. We shouldn’t strive to directly compete with China or India – we need to re-define the terms of engagement. And this means re-evaluating the way we teach, the way we mentor and the way we celebrate achievement. We may only be in the first inning, but this is a game that will be played very, very rapidly.
This post originally appeared at Information Arbitrage.