Friday, May 24, 2013

Class Of 2013: Real World Advice

I saw this article by Don Peppers on LinkedIn and thought it had a lot of good food for thought:

It is now my great pleasure, graduates, to welcome you to the Real World – a world that is quite different from the Real World my own classmates and I first encountered a few decades ago.

When we graduated, finding a job and earning a salary was pretty much the only way to go. But today such jobs are no longer so easy to find. In fact, the data shows that by 2020 more people in the United States will be working for themselves than are drawing salaries, with most of the salaried employees being older, and most of the self-employed younger.

And then there are all the changes brought on by computerization. As highly interconnected and computerized as we are today, by the time you young graduates reach retirement age you'll be roughly a million times more interconnected and computerized. And what is it that computers do? They solve problems, that's what. They solve any kind of technical or mechanical problem involved in creating the things that have economic value. So the more computer power we have – and we have twice as much of it every 18 months or so – the more problems computers will be capable of solving.

In fact, if you can state something as a technical problem that has a solution – a task to be completed – then eventually this problem can and will be solved by computer:

It shouldn't be a mystery where all the salaried jobs have gone, because problem-solving jobs like these – jobs that pay perfectly good wages to human beings, or at least used to – are virtually all being automated away. It's not a question of whether enough computer power will be available to solve these problems, only of when.

There are only two ways to "beat the clock" against the kind of galloping automation already consuming so many jobs. One way is to become very good at dealing with interpersonal issues – people skills. We are all much more interconnected, and our economic activities are more and more interdependent. So resolving the people-to-people issues that plague organizations and groups of cooperating people is a skill that is likely never to go out of style, and it's obviously beyond the capabilities of any conceivable computer.

The other way to beat the clock is not to focus on solving problems but on discovering them. Discovering new problems is something that computers can't really do, and are unlikely to be able to do in your lifetime. Discovering new problems is otherwise known as "creativity." Andcreativity, graduates, is one of the most important keys to generating economic value. By its very definition, creativity involves solving a problem that wasn't there before.

Maintaining a creative and open-minded outlook and relating well with other people are likely to be extremely important skills in whatever career path you choose, bar none.

    • Launch a business on your own, even as a free-lancer, and you won't be able to land a customer until you've discovered some problem you can solve better than a computer, and you have enough interpersonal skills to convince someone else that you can.
    • If you go into sales, your prospect will be able to use computer power to solve the problem of evaluating your product's capabilities, but you'll still be able to generate value if you can converse with her in such a way as to discover new problems to solve.
    • Go into finance, and your computer will solve the problem of making profitable trades based on trends and probabilities, but you can generate value yourself by thinking creatively about financial problems that haven't yet been solved.
    • If you go into teaching, computers will take over more and more of the problem of basic instruction, but you'll still be able to generate value as long as you can come up with new pedagogical perspectives, or you can creatively improve a student's performance through your personal relationship.
    • Even if you're graduating pre-med, you won't be able to generate economic value for long simply by solving the problem of operating a scalpel or interpreting a CAT scan. Rather, you'll need to discover new problems, perhaps by doing research, or perhaps simply by listening more creatively to a patient's own description of her symptoms, human to human.

Gosh, I just wish I were your age! What a marvelous time it is to be alive, and to be joining an economic system that prizes originality over conformity, and relationships over transactions. It truly is a wonderful future you face, even though it will be radically different from the future my colleagues and I faced when we were your age.

There is one more extremely important piece of Real World advice I need to leave you with, however. Technology is advancing so rapidly that things have become a lot less predictable than they used to be. No matter how good you are at discovering new problems to solve and relating to people, there will be ups and downs, bonanzas and disasters, that you simply cannot anticipate. No one could.

So how do you prepare for such unpredictability? How do you increase your chances of success, and remain resilient in the face of the occasional reversal? There is only one sure-fire way to prepare for such a changing world, and it is one of the most time-tested, old-fashioned ideas known:

Always be trustworthy to others.

Live your life in such a way that others can trust you. Do this, and you'll find that others will come to your defense when you need defending. Others will want you to succeed. It won't insulate you from failure, but it will make failures more tolerable, and recovery more achievable.

Technologies may come and go, problems to solve and the business models required to solve them may appear and disappear, but having the trust of your friends and colleagues – that is a genuinely timeless asset.

And, you'll be happier. You can trust me on this.

Hm.  Obviously, I am in total agreement on the trustworthy thing, but I think he really hits on some important concepts.  As fast as things move nowadays, no amount of school or training will ever adequately prepare you to succeed in the Real World.  I'm becoming more and more convinced that the single biggest purpose for going to school is nothing more (or less) than to learn how to learn.  This one critical piece of knowledge will enable you to confidently take on new challenges, new tasks, and new responsibilities with the reasonable expectation of success.  You will never know everything you need to know for any job; you will rarely know even a relatively large chunk of what you need to know for any job.  But, if you know how to learn what is needed, you can succeed in just about anything.

Just my opinion, of course, but Mr. Peppers seems to agree.  Good company, I'd say.

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