The working world is unpredictable. It already exists as something else than it did 20 years ago. Work doesn’t look the same as it did then. Working looks the same as playing. Who knows if you’re looking at that spreadsheet Bill from accounting just sent out or at pictures of your friend’s vacation? They both look similar save, maybe, for a subtle difference in facial expression and some body language, things the average bear overlooks anyway.
We don’t know how to prepare for the future until it arrives, same as when we were all still living in the forest, fanning the flames from fires that licked up our backs to keep predators at bay.
The new predators are not physical beasts lurking in the dark woods. Now, they are society’s tenets on the acquisition of knowledge and what is valuable in the world of today and that of tomorrow. Automation sends shivers down spines.
How that value is defined may have changed but some things have not. The value of anything is also unpredictable. When we lived in the woods, sticks and stones had value. Until we didn’t need them anymore.
A pal recently asked me:
What do you think is the most valuable skill to teach your child?
That question was easy to answer but the answer is not one of the easiest things to do:
How to engage with imagination and empathy to connect with others and create things that solve practical problems.
Certainly, practical problems can be defined broadly, from the narrow, business-focused sense to the strictly whimsical, but the most important question to ask about how to shape and foster this elusive quality in the coming generations might be:
How do we get out of the way and let children’s natural creativity, curiosity and problem-solving grow?
We’ve always assumed the way forward is to ensure that more people study longer, but value is not found in how much to care about this or that but deciding what’s worth caring about. I think that this shift means that we need to prepare kids in a complementary but different way by shifting what we value most.
By 2040, a 5-year-old today will be a full-on member of a working world that is incomprehensible. Teaching our kids to code is not the answer because software is already writing itself (even much further along than this article, published in 2005), yet kids will obviously struggle to communicate and create meaningful interactions with others as grown-ups if they can’t read and write. So, how important are the other skills we’ve been focusing on? How much longer will the so-called soft sciences play second fiddle to the hard ones? The hard sciences, such as engineering and technology can’t create solutions to problems without first creating connections and mutually beneficial collaborations between disciplines via channels created through an understanding and respect for practices like anthropology, for example. Looking backwards to see a better way forwards is not and should not be the sole domain of rigid science, alone.
More than ever, we are creators of value through relationships. Or we better be, else we will be soon be replaced by the machines as humans are relied on less-and-less for the menial, tactical stuff. How to code, how to design buildings, make corporate media of any kind, how to make things that require little or no strategic skill will hold less and less value and very, very soon. We won’t need to know how to do those kinds of things.
What we will need to know how to do is build and foster meaningful relationships and imagine, drive a vision and mobilize teams. These skills will be more valuable than ever.
The focus of education over the next 50 years will shift, slowly at first then gaining momentum, towards the skills required to be successful in this context with a focus on collaboration, recognizing strengths in others and building teams that are more valuable in total than the sum of their parts.
I’ve seen early signs of this already. When the web began, the people getting the most out of it had a knack for usability, in the sense of how to learn to connect with the few others who were online at the time and build relationships that maximized the value of the information that was available. Connecting with others in this way validates curiosity, builds confidence and fuels an ongoing need for more and more relationships with experts or others who know more about things than we do. That’s the way to define and, in time, define progress.
This skillset has empowered some people to already have had jobs in many different fields and industries. This is soon to be more the norm, where people have multiple careers in a lifetime, earning their living from multiple companies simultaneously. The aging business owners and workers cannot imagine this, though, which is why they are falling further and further behind.
I think about it like this: children are powerful and resilient because of their imaginations. Even if they don’t believe they can do something, they can imagine themselves as someone (or even something) who can and will. Their imagination is actually part of their problem-solving process. Imagination is their constant driver. It’s how they communicate internally with themselves and externally with each other.
No one makes us do anything. Everything is a choice. We don’t have to allow ourselves to move further away from these natural abilities as we grow older. Our imagination and ability to connect with each other are the only things impervious to the rest of life’s uncertainty.