With so much recent talk and public debate about education as our path to prosperity, I was asked recently by a career training program what I believed were some key areas of focus students should pursue to assure job readiness. While I hardly consider myself a subject matter expert in this complex arena, the question certainly got me thinking about what I am looking for when I hire or when I recommend people for open positions. Here are three items I hope are obvious, but unfortunately may not be obvious enough.
Critical Thinking: These two words are so overused and misunderstood they are becoming clichés even before they are broadly adopted in practice. When I advocate critical thinking, I am talking about the ability to apply abstraction to a real-world problem, wrestle with the alternatives and implications in abstraction, and then synthesize the relevant tangents to a firm set of hypotheses that can be tested against the original problem. Here’s an example: Suppose the sales on your company’s website are trending poorly after a period of hyper growth and you are tasked with attacking the problem. The first thing I want you to do is abstract the problem, noting all the possible reasons sales could be down from seasonality to price to competition to product selection—you name it, the variables are endless. Now I want you to challenge your own reasoning against every one of those possibilities as they might apply in other real-word scenarios that are similar to yet somewhat different from your own business, whether it’s storefront sales or online sales in a different industry segment. Next I want you to narrow the possibilities to a set of concepts you can test so you are not boiling the ocean for an answer. Then of course I want you to act, where acting means collecting data that proves or disproves your hypotheses so you can make a recommendation. Studying math, science, philosophy, or the arts can help you learn critical thinking, but I promise you when you enter the workplace, the number of people you find who are really good at this will always be too few. That’s an opportunity for you to shine!
Fast Iteration: Coming directly down the path from critical thinking is fast iteration. What this means is that after you abstract a problem, you don’t have an endless amount of time to serve up your practical solution—competition is always coming at you without pause. You may have heard the phrase, “fail fast, fail often.” This is a mantra of Silicon Valley culture, where failure is often encouraged if it results in learning that can be applied. Fast iteration means framing a rough solution for a problem, testing it in application, reading the data and interpreting it quickly, and then putting a new version of your solution to test that incorporates the results of your prior test. Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as A/B testing or multivariate testing. This is a fancy way of saying take something that sort of works, make a change of one kind or another, send some of your customers to the original version and others to the new version and see which one performs better. Then take the knowledge of what performs better and repeat the cycle, with a champion version of the work being the best one you have and the challenger being one where changes are being made. This cycle continues endlessly, and the faster you can make changes and test new assumptions, the faster you will make continual progress. Want to know what you should learn from science labs like chemistry and physics? Learn this method of inquiry. It can help you sell shoes, put rockets into outer space, cure disease, or make better ice cream.
Results-Driven Teamwork: This one flows nicely from fast iteration. I don’t care if you are the smartest person in the room if you can’t work well with others. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, you still can’t get things done as quickly as a small team of people who are all reasonably smart. We used to time people playing a really difficult computer game that would take the average person about 40 hours to solve alone. Two people could solve it together in about 25 hours. Three people could solve it in about 10 hours. Four people could solve it in about 3 hours. Funny enough, adding more than four people created diminishing returns, which also brings its own learning. The point is there is exponential leverage in putting teams against projects to work together by exchanging ideas and challenging each other’s thinking to move at lightning speed past dead ends and serve up new ideas that can be vetted and recalculated with extraordinary results. Most complicated challenges in the workplace today are broken down and resolved by individuals sharing ideas and refining plans, not so much resolving design by committee as building consensus through collaboration. Software engineering is a good example of this, as libraries can be compiled from contributors all over the world, many of whom you might never meet in person. You can learn this skill participating in team sports, playing in an orchestra, performing in a play, or being on the debate team—anywhere you have to be great at what you are doing, but the whole result is beyond what you could do on your own. That’s today’s workplace, a collection of specialized talents interacting as an empowered collective.
Obviously this is not meant to be a comprehensive framework for anyone’s curriculum, but I think if you embrace concepts like these, you will put yourself on a path to being a lifelong learner. Make no mistake: If you want to be successful, learning only begins in school. What you most need to learn from formal instruction is how to continue your learning on the job and off the job. If you learn how to learn again and again, your core skills will never become obsolete because you will be continually replenishing them year after year. Remember also the intangible values and qualities you bring into the workforce are as or more important than your learned skills. Think resilience, perseverance, integrity, flexibility, openness, honesty, and a positive attitude. More than a prestigious diploma, what you need to take from school is the ability to think on your feet, work well with others, embrace nonstop change, and never consider your learning mission complete.