Foundation for the Future

This summer, I spent a significant amount of time addressing the questions of young people who are starting their careers or who are contemplating the appropriate course of study at college.  Perhaps this is in part because I have a daughter entering her second year of college and another who is a junior in high school.  The Joshua Green Corporation has a substantial number of shareholders who are thinking about their future careers, and in discussing these issues with them, their questions carry familiar themes:

  • What recommendations would you make to a young person about career choices/course of study?
  • What do you look for in a job candidate?
  • To what do you attribute the success you have had in your career?

While I do not believe there is any “right” or singular answer to each of them, I can share the gist of my responses.

The world is undergoing rapid change—iphones, robotics, artificial intelligence, driverless cars, etc.  And with this change a lot of people are focused on the coding, computing, algorithms, and such that make all that change possible.  There is a lot of commentary on the need for much greater STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.  In the past few years I have had conversations debating whether there was even a need for a liberal arts education any more.  While I agree with the burgeoning need for more and broader STEM-related education and the related skill development, the common thread running throughout my responses to young people may be viewed as contrary to that trend.  It also seems we are being pressured to become more specialized, which I think is to our detriment.

People are the single most important asset in most businesses.  I believe that a deep understanding of people is just as important as the ability to code or solve a particular formula.  Our rapidly changing world requires us to develop a rich understanding of human psychology and behavior.  What people offer that is critically different than algorithms, is a sense of morality, empathy, judgment and sensitivity.  A good understanding of history and a broad exposure to current events are critical in providing context for problem solving, and so an appreciation for reading and a thirst for continual learning are important.  It is equally important to build a foundational capability in understanding how to learn or to improve oneself as the world around you changes.  A key issue is what does one do to prepare for an uncertain and ever-changing future?  While learning a specific skill can be valuable, it is more important to understand how to interpret circumstances, find new answers, assess people, and to be adaptable to change.

Humans are biological creatures; we do things out of habit.  History tends to repeat itself in part due to biological reasons; our ability to understand that helps us in our dealings with others.  Human nature has been formed over millennia and it is not changing any time soon.  Contrary to those who have suggested a course of study in the liberal arts is a waste of time, I believe psychology, sociology, history, and similar fields can be great platforms from which to build a successful career.  What I look for in a job candidate is someone who has a natural and keen sense of intellectual curiosity; who wants to dig in and learn “why.”  They may not know the answer; in fact, in most instances, will not.  But, they are comfortable with searching, asking, digging in and using resources to better equip themselves with means by which to succeed.

My views on this subject are informed by my own reading.  I enjoy reading biographies of historically significant people.  It is rare that such people have a particularly unique talent.  What is clear is that they made themselves students of the circumstances in which they found themselves.  Successful people prepared themselves for the situation in which they were placed and for which they became known.  This preparation is often rooted in “people” skills and a deep commitment to developing understanding.  Two biographies that I read this past summer underscore this point: “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson, and “Grant” by Ron Chernow.

Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci” portrays a man who prepared himself for the greatness he achieved.  Da Vinci’s insatiable desire to know and understand contributed to his ability to paint some of history’s most famous paintings (e.g., the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper”).  He was much more than a painter.  His artistry came from his work as a sculptor, humanist, scientist, engineer, and naturalist.  For example, to learn about the human body, da Vinci dissected over 30 corpses, teaching himself about nerves, muscles and other elements of the body.  That understanding was then introduced into his art.  Leonardo had an intense intellectual curiosity; it drove him to learn about a great number of subjects which became part of his life’s work.  Isaacson observed that the world’s greatest painting “is the work of a man who had used those skills to immerse himself in a lifetime of intellectual passions.”

Ulysses S. Grant had similarly prepared himself through an understanding of historical battles and what his soldiers needed from a commander.  When life presented him with opportunity, he acted on it and was prepared for success.  Grant stated “It seems that one man’s destiny in this world is quite as much a mystery as it is likely to be in the next.  I never thought of acquiring rank in the profession I was educated for; yet it came with two grades higher prefixed to the rank of General officers for me.  I certainly never had either ambition or taste for a political life; yet I was twice president of the United States.”  We cannot predict our future with certainty, but we can certainly prepare ourselves to best respond to it.

In response to the expression of concern one young person had about the fragility of their future, I said:

“Your future is not fragile.  Perhaps it is uncertain, but that is not something to fear.  It is waiting for you to arrive in it fully prepared and ready to take it by the horns.  Your career will be what it should be.  Your job today is to prepare for whatever it is going to be by developing the skills, relationships, thought processes and disciplines that will enable you to perform at the level you desire as that path is unfolding in front of you.  And don’t do those things that distract or cause deviation from those deep traits.”

Over the course of a 50-year work life, things will change dramatically for the 25-year old entering tomorrow’s workforce.  Today’s technical and vocational skills may well lose value relative to much of that change.  What will still be essential are skills of persuasion, social understanding, empathy, and the ability to motivate and inspire others to take action.  I believe that a natural curiosity is an important complement to those skills.  Consequently, we are all well served by continuing to pursue the liberal arts and perpetually working to better our understanding of people, places and things.

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