The Most Valuable Skills For The Future (That School Failed to Teach You)

July 14, 2020
Still of Dustin Hoffman's portrait from the movie The Graduate

The first time I realized the world was changing faster than we could keep up with was five years ago. As a business and marketing graduate, I was looking for a job to start my career, and I noticed that most job offers required skills that were not in any company’s radar when I started my studies.

It took me by surprise, I thought I was supposed to be done studying now that I had a degree. Sure, I could acquire the extra skills to get the job, but I felt that something wasn’t right.

“What if the job market changed again later on?”, I started wondering, “would I need to upskill myself again? And again? And again?”.

It took me some time to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: I trusted the education system to give me the tools I needed to succeed in this world, but for the most part, it failed me, along with the society around me that endorsed it.

Disillusioned, I decided to do things my own way. Instead of trying to fit in an ever-changing environment I started investing in my ability to adapt to it. I prioritized personal growth and reinvented myself from scratch, starting with a blank page and a pen.

Enduring Human Capabilities

My choice at the time was based on intuition, but now it’s supported by research. A 2019 report by Deloitte explains why, in the 21st century, developing human capabilities is more important than reskilling.

A girl sitting on her dad's shoulder looking through glasses made with her fingers
Photo by Edi Libedinksi

If we look at the 20th century we observe that companies operated mostly in a stable and predictable environment using standardized procedures to create products and services. In this context, it made sense for employees to specialize in specific skills because they didn’t evolve very fast. It also made sense for the education system to teach students how to follow standard processes and comply with authority.

However, today fast technological innovation and a growing social complexity are creating the need for more and increasingly diverse skills. As the report suggests, what’s crucial to thrive in a constantly disrupted environment is not gathering specific skills but rather developing enduring human capabilities that underlie the ability to learn, apply, and effectively adopt those skills.

Some examples of enduring human capabilities are imagination, empathy, curiosity, resilience, creativity, sense-making, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and collaboration.

Ironic isn’t it? Exactly those skills that the education system meant to equip you with, completely ignores. Basically school prepares you for the wrong century.

Legacy Mindset

Today the world is a radically different place than just a few decades ago. It was never meant to stay the same, but the pace of change is unprecedented. As historian Yuval Harari points out in his book 21 lessons for the 21st century, in the past things always changed quite slowly, which is why trusting the adults for advice about the future was a relatively safe bet.

But nowadays, although society is morphing before our eyes, most adults are completely blind to it. They suffer from what is called a legacy mindset.

People with a legacy mindset don’t want to change how they do things and they are not interested in learning new ones. They are perfectly happy to keep plugging away in the same way they always have, regardless of how the world is changing around them.

But they forget that change comes whether we like it or not. The recent overnight adoption of remote work for companies all around the world due to COVID-19 is a striking example. Many managers and employees were forced to reconsider their long-held beliefs about how work should be conducted by rapidly adopting new tools and procedures.

A graph of how change impacts work over time
Source: Deloitte

Let’s face it: companies can’t be resilient if workers aren’t. Many CEOs claim that they will start programs to reskill the workforce, but only a few seem to have a clear sense of how to address the problem. It’s quite a big challenge to teach abilities like emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and resilience in a systematic way, as they are usually better learned organically through personal experiences or jobs that constantly require tackling novel situations.

On top of that, rewiring synapses and reinventing ourselves every few years is not easy, it takes hard work and it’s psychologically stressful. It’s definitely something you can’t fit in the rigid routinary life of the average worker.

Lifelong Learning

Personally I learned a lot about emotional intelligence through traveling and meditation, critical thinking by reading books and discussing them with people from different backgrounds, or resilience by moving to different countries and taking risks with life decisions.

A traveller in the Atacama Desert in Chile

I was able to learn these skills because I valued them highly, and because the company I worked with was open-minded enough to give me the opportunity to do so. But how many other corporates are willing to give the same opportunities to their employees? How many will incentivize them to go on a spiritual retreat, a mindfulness course, or travel for a while?

These skills are not only necessary to stay relevant to the workforce but also more broadly to deal with life in the 21st century. A new global deal for lifelong learning is very much needed: public policies and businesses will have to do their part to smooth the transition for all of us, as we increasingly start demanding more empowering working conditions.

In the meantime, my advice is to start working on yourself and get very comfortable with uncertainty. After all, why wait if you see the wave coming?

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