How to future-proof students

JANUARY 8 — The biggest risk about formal education is how it leaves students stuck in the past. Take, for example, that #1 “studying method” Malaysian students are familiar with: memorisation. 

It sucks if it doesn’t work, but it’s more dangerous if it does. A student who learns primarily via memorisation is going to suffer in the work place. 

Such a student would not be future-proof. Present success is bought at the price of future vulnerability.

What follows are three suggestions to help students steel themselves for the uncertain (nay, unknown) times ahead.

1. Beat the world

Be the best in the world at something. “World” here being whoever knows you knows that nobody can hold a candle to that thing you do. 

Seth Godin said there are literally a gazillion things to be “best in the world” at. It doesn’t have to be something “glamorous” like quantum lasers and s***. 

It could be plumbing, chess, haggling at the pasar malam, fixing computers, app trends, which cereals not to eat, where to get the best deals on TVs, etc. 

Once you’re damn good at something, build on that.

If you can monetise your skill, great. If not, it’s fine, too. As long as you love this stuff you’re amazing at, you will be “paid” somehow.

Why is this important? How would we even know that such skills are important for the future? The answer is twisty: You need to be a universe-class expert at something NOT so much for your sake, but for the sake of other people when they dive into an uncertain future.

When more people face more and more ambiguity and unfamiliarity, the value of anyone offering even a modicum of assurance and real-to-the-bone expertise goes up. 

Like a translucent buoy in a crazy-ass raging ocean of darkness, if you’re exceptionally good at something, you’ll stand out. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Even in quantitative disciplines like accounting and finance (key areas sure to be usurped by big computers and even bigger data), it is doubly critical to have experts (like you?) who can see and do what the analytics can’t.

When we can’t know what’s about to happen down the road, let’s at least be a bad-ass monster at what we do know.

2. Enhance your calm

Future-proofing involves not so much what we know will work, but also what we’re pretty certain won’t. And one kind of behaviour which jeopardises almost any career outcome are those caused by emotional outbursts i.e. EQ that sucks.

For starters, think about your history and those times you went completely ape-s***. Now, how would your life be if you hadn’t gone berserk? How would your life have played out if you had not had that meltdown, if you had not made that threat, if you had not said that unkind word, and so on?

Add this to the increasing mental health issues in Malaysia and we know how critical this dimension is. There’s no point scoring a zillion distinctions (and making a ton of cash) if we end up losing our minds.

Folks low in EQ are fragile. And what happens to everything fragile? They break eventually. Future-proofing is nothing if not ensuring we do not break.

For this reason, if there’s one method I’d propose everyone (without exception) learn up it’s mindfulness. Develop the habit of being open, being “awake”, being aware of ourselves, our thoughts, being present.

Watch our breathing. Breathe deeply, regularly, carefully. In other words, calm the heck down. 

It helps.

3. Try everything

I once asked a group of students what their goals over their next few years were. Their answers utterly depressed me: “I just want to get my degree.”

Seriously? That’s messed up. 

Three to four years and the only thing we want to achieve is to get an awkwardly shaped piece of paper handed to us by a guy (notice it’s always a guy) in a Harry Potter suit in a ceremony held somewhere with expensive parking. 

Three to four years and the highlight of our journey in life are exams, assignments and lousy cafeteria lunches.

That’s sad. That’s not future-proofing; that’s just being les misérables forever. 

Try this. Other than obtaining that BSc or BA or whatever, how about these equally important goals during, say, your three years in university?

·         Earning at least RM10,000 over three years (online, part-timing, free-lancing, whatever)

·         Learn at least three new skills (tap-dancing, juggling, origami, magic tricks, photography, how to make roti canai, etc.)

·         Visiting at least four countries (now everyone can fly, remember?)

·         Making at least 20 friends or “connections” which could form a strong initial foundation for your career

·         Running at least three marathons

·         Reading at least 30 non-fiction books (that’s only 10 books a year, hardly Nobel Prize standards)

End of the day, whatever the result, it’s a rich body of experiences and insights gained. Way, way better than looking forward to nothing but those pricey sandwiches served on graduation day. Have I mentioned that you’ll also learn a lot in the process?

So, be a master at something/anything, don’t screw things up, and don’t be a dull daisy. Take the Zootopia advice. Try everything.

And with that, the future should be way less scary and more exciting than before. Seize it. It’s yours.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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