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Here are three personal skills your children will need

Jul 04, 2021 Success, Sunday Nation

I have a lot of time for Margaret Heffernan. She writes really thought-provoking books; acts as a mentor and guide to many leaders; and is a lecturer in real-world leadership. Oh, and she has also been a BBC producer and a tech entrepreneur!

CV aside, Ms Heffernan is an extremely clear and lucid thinker. In the many podcasts I have listened to that feature her, she is always calm and incisive and gets to the heart of the matter quickly. In a recent interview for the Aspen Initiative UK, she offered some guidance that I think should reach more people in this part of the world – particularly parents and educators.

But let’s reverse a little first. Back when I was a boy, anyone who had good grades at school was required to stay within some tightly delineated boundaries. First, apply to the most prestigious universities; and second, undertake a career in only a handful of professions. The expectation was that the good school would give you a ticket to ride; and the career choice would allow you to travel on the train of success for all your life.

In those days, this life-plan kinda, sorta, worked. Doors seemed to open if you arrived flaunting the right credentials; and success came if you served your chosen profession with distinction. Will that still be the case today, though? What are you recommending for your own children these days when uncertainty is the defining feature?

That question was put to Ms Heffernan in the Aspen interview, and she answered it with her usual clarity. The personal skills we should all be hoping are adopted by our children are these: curiosity, communication, and change.

Curiosity first. In this fast-morphing world where work and accomplishment change so rapidly, it does not help to have fixed mindsets. Cramming the case-law of the past or medical textbooks alone will not give you much distinction in a world where artificial intelligence is likely to search for patterns and precedents way faster than humans can. Approaching your work with set tools and fixed approaches might soon see you made redundant.

To counter this, Ms Heffernan advises we cultivate “well-stocked minds.” We need to be curious about all sorts of knowledge, not just the stuff we think is core to our professions. I have beaten that drum on this page for a long time. To be mentally nimble enough to take on uncertain futures, we must develop the curiosity muscle. Pay attention to the things that drive economies in unexpected directions; pay even deeper attention to people – what makes them different, what changes their behaviour, what turns them into a collective.

I am always surprised by the paucity of curiosity in so many business bosses and leading professionals. They read or follow nothing new; they are wedded to their trusty toolkits of yesteryear; they regard openness and inquisitiveness as traits to be suspicious of. Do not push your children into this prison of closed minds and dogged dogma. Give them the gift of curiosity.

The second set of skills they will need: communication. We don’t really ever succeed on our own; success is a team sport. We need to be able to convince others to see our points of view; we need to make our voices heard. The person who can craft compelling storylines drives the narrative. The one who can demystify and clarify becomes the voice most listened to. This is not about silver tongues and silky writing; it is about precision and persuasion.

And thirdly: let’s please prepare our children for constant change. There are no longer any lifetime tickets to success. There is no one-time education that works. Even the most-skilled can find themselves made obsolete in a flash; even the most robust business model can be upended. Today’s performance indicators can become the warning signs of tomorrow’s failures, by locking us into fixed formulae.

So what to do? Embrace continuous learning, and develop shock absorbers. School and university are only the beginning of learning, not the end. Degrees and qualifications are only important as launchpads, not as landing sites. Your learning happens as your life happens, not just at special times in special places. And it helps to have some buffers, both financial and mental, to cope with adversity.

Whichever schools or professions or enterprises our children end up in, we must gently encourage them to inculcate these three personal habits. Be curious about the world and its many mysteries, not cocksure and inflexible. Be able to shape the narrative and have an authentic voice. And be ready to be sideswiped by something unexpected and bounce back, by developing mental resilience and multiple capabilities.

(Sunday Nation, 4 July 2021)

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