SINGAPORE: “By the time you graduate, everything you will have learnt will already be obsolete.” said the CFO of a major global bank to the audience of University students at a career workshop I was hosting.
“So what’s the point of school?” whispered one of the students to another, both shaking their heads in commiseration.
Welcome to the huge elephant in the room of higher education. No one quite knows what skills will be relevant for us in the future. Not the students, not even the employer and certainly not the grey-haired academics nominally in charge of preparing your daughter or son to face the age of disruption.
The most dangerous notions about education, in my opinion, come from the people who have the most influence over the future of our youth and the least idea about how to guide their children. Yes, parents, I’m looking at you.
Over the years, in my previous life as a director of a university career centre, I have heard hundreds of stories from the frontline where my team of more than 20 career coaches counselled students who were burned out, run down or plain old disillusioned with life.
Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety were rising rapidly. More often than not, the root cause was them doing a course because of parental expectations rather than pursuing their own interests.
My clinical psychologist partner Greg too hears similar stories from clients further down the line in their careers, who may seem successful on the outside, but feel like they’re struggling with old emotional baggage and in finding meaning from life and work.
This left me convinced of the urgent need for us parents to update our attitudes and mindsets, and reimagine how we steward our youth into this brave new future.
In particular, I want to highlight some common unintentional mistakes I’ve seen parents make which sabotage their child’s chances of finding joy and meaning from their higher education and work life.
MISTAKE #1: THINKING STEM SUBJECTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE HUMANITIES
Data suggests that demand will continue to rise for jobs in the science and tech sector. But did you know many employers in tech and life sciences sectors are more interested in hiring students from the humanities disciplines?
One surprising trend I’ve seen over the past few years is traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) companies trying to diversify their talent and hire more non-STEM graduates. For example, bio-pharma companies who are trying to hire anthropologists and social science students to help them pivot their business focus into wellness, and tech titans trying to hire liberal arts students to boost their innovation capacities.
As a senior engineer from a leading tech firm said to me: “If I hire 100 computing science students in Singapore, I normally get just one answer to a problem. They’re trained to see the problem in the same way. But if I hire 10 humanities students, I get 10 whole new perspectives.
Diana Britt, APAC & Japan Head of Google Cloud Search, says: “Most people think of Google and believe it’s all about engineering. Yet our capacity to be a leader and innovate is based on “diversity of thought" merging the best engineers with the best creative thinkers to come up with the "best decision".
Futurists also agree that the most valuable skills of the future are linked to humanistic, social emotional competencies machines find hard to replicate and that students need to expose themselves to a broad array of generalist experiences rather than devote themselves to a single deep area of expertise that risk being disrupted.
There has never been a more crucial time for our students to invest deliberately in cultivating their soft skills like empathy, creativity and self-awareness, and for parents and educators to place as much importance on them as learning math or science.
MISTAKE #2: BEING FIXATED ON GETTING YOUR CHILD INTO A PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY
The truth behind why people pay so much for a university degree is because in the past, that piece of paper signalled to employers, friends and family: “Look at me, I am smart and diligent.”
In the past, when university degrees were rarer, they did a more efficient job in allowing employers to identify talent.
Nowadays, half of Singapore has a university degree. The piece of paper doesn’t do much to separate your child from thousands of others with the same piece of paper.
We are already seeing trends of employers like Apple, IBM and Google scrapping college degree requirements and CEOs such as IBM’s Ginni Rometty saying that vocational training and on-the-job experience is more relevant for tech sector than traditional four-year college degrees.
Employers may still use degrees as one of the ways for them to identify talent, but in today’s hyper-competitive jobs landscape, employers don’t just want to know where you went for your education, but more importantly, what life skills and competencies you have learnt. How you can tell a compelling story of how your unique experience will make you an effective team player for them.
Even within the same university, students will end up with very different experiences depending on who their educators are.
The trick here is to advise your child to research what specific courses they are interested in, look up their potential educator’s body of work, and even speak to recently graduated alumni to garner feedback on their experience, rather than blindly trust the institution’s brand name.
Also, don’t limit your thinking to universities but think further upstream. With society’s chase after an Integrated Programme, the reality is a polytechnic education can be a desirable feeder system into university or work life but is often overlooked.
Polys tend to work very closely with employers to devise highly practical curricula and training that maps on to industry needs. The poly education also exposes students early to real-life work through internships and applied learning.
Polys also tend to have less historical baggage – and do not have to deal with the influence of tenured professors on the deanery, so they can be more agile with changing up their approach and course offerings to suit market needs.
Poly students are also increasingly being seen by employers as more entrepreneurial and resilient, whereas we see more “grade-focused” students in universities coming from the junior colleges who tend to have a harder time accepting failure and setbacks, and are used to external validation for their scores and accomplishments.
MISTAKE #3: VALUING A HIGH STARTING SALARY OVER ENTREPRENEURIAL EXPERIENCE
During University Open Day, I used to be bemused by parents whose first question was about the average starting salary of the various courses we offered.
If you headed over to certain faculties, you could hear a chorus of parents yelling: “Pai Tan!”(hard to earn in Hokkien) while steering their kids by the shoulders away.
The problem is, starting salaries are highly meaningless metrics, and no predictor of continued long term success. Many design students start off with low salaries and then come back to visit us as millionaires after starting their own companies. The most successful individuals, who are heralded as role models, chose starting their own company over a stable entry wage.
“Every year I stand on stage accepting donations from our ‘C’ students so that the ‘A’ students can do their research” laughed a University president I spoke to at a donor gala. It’s a well-known joke in university circles that ironically, our biggest donors are the self-made entrepreneurs who never cared much about grades in the first place.
In this age of disruption, we actually need more entrepreneurial mindsets and less focus on grades, plus a skills-focused approach to education.
For continued career success, even if you don’t intend to be a business person, I firmly believe that every single person needs an entrepreneurial mindset.
Even for university academics, the ones who succeed and obtain funding are those who know how to sell their ideas and evaluate risks and opportunities like an entrepreneur.
The same goes for doctors, lawyers and any other profession you can think of. The world of the future is one where everyone needs to be their own best advocate, marketer, influencer and understand how to utilise the power of a network.
Hence, I would encourage students to devote time to developing entrepreneurial mindsets and trying out projects or developing “side hustles”, whether they are graded or not.
This is an area where polytechnics have an edge - their project-based pedagogy requires students to develop people skills early - negotiation, influencing, communicating - all in high demand in the future, as AI and automation take over workplace tasks that don’t require emotional intelligence.
MISTAKE #4: THE ‘COMPARE AND DESPAIR’ SYNDROME
Almost every parent knows that their child is special and incomparable. Yet, most of us fall into the trap of comparing our child to other people’s or even to our other children.
What works for your child depends very much on their personality, strengths and weaknesses. Also, some children are later bloomers than others. Like the old saying goes: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”
Comparisons are psychologically toxic and damaging for self-esteem. And what often happens, is that children end up chasing their parents’ affection and pride rather than rebelling or asserting their needs.
A 2007 study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health concluded that Singaporean children have higher rates of internalising problems compared to their Western counterparts, and that cultural factors greatly influence children’s manifestations of emotional problems.
Researchers hypothesised that this could be because aggression is discouraged in Asian countries, while self-control, emotional restraint and social inhibition are encouraged.
Palliative care expert Bronnie Ware says that the one of the most common regrets of the dying are “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
In leadership camps with more than 100 participants, we did a repeated questioning exercise where participants were asked over and over again “What do you really want?”
During the first few minutes of repeated questioning, participants gave responses like “I want money” or “I want a holiday”, but after participants were asked to dig deeper, almost half the room ended up saying something incredibly surprising - some version of “I just want my Dad/Mom to be proud of me”.
READ: Commentary: Give workers permission to disrupt – one way Singapore businesses can accelerate digital transformation
This is a prime example of extrinsic motivation – doing something because of some external reward, including pleasing others. Yet research has shown that extrinsic motivations are not just ineffective, but also often demotivating, while intrinsic motivation taps into people’s desire to do things because they themselves find that thing interesting or meaningful.
What the world of work needs more of is people who are intrinsically motivated and self-driven, and less people focused on delivering what they think others want to hear.
MISTAKE #5: KEEPING UP THE FAÇADE OF THE PERFECT PARENT-HUMAN
The world is full of challenges. Our youth need to understand that setbacks are normal and how to navigate them skillfully.
It’s impossible to be perfect or be right all the time, yet I cannot tell you the number of youth who see their parents as infallible or never having done anything wrong, and hold themselves to impossible ideals.
Parents can help their kids be more resilient by sharing stories of small challenges that they are experiencing where appropriate. They can talk about how they overcame these challenges, what strengths and beliefs they drew on to help them, and what limiting thoughts they managed to dispel.
Oftentimes parents boast that they never argue in front of kids but if children are mature enough to handle it, I’m a proponent of modelling how to have a respectful difference of opinion.
This means displaying active listening skills and empathy for the other person’s opinion, without necessarily agreeing with them. It is also a valuable learning for your child to see you apologise and admit that you were wrong, so that they know that it is acceptable to make mistakes, and how to take responsibility for errors.
This ability to empathise and really hear another person fully, while also representing your own point of view and taking responsibility, is a very key communication skill for life, relationships and work.
And as I write this, my 13-year-old son who’s looking over my shoulder is crowing that I too have been guilty of making all the mistakes that I write about in this commentary, which brings me to my final point.
Above all, perhaps the most important lesson we can teach our children is that we are all, parents included, are human beings. Fallible, vulnerable, trying our best in a messy and unpredictable world.
And that you don’t need to be perfect to be loved, or to have a right to exist. You don’t need to have a “purpose” at 16, but perhaps you can believe that life itself is intrinsically meaningful and to trust in your own curiosity as a compass.
That no one is successful because they haven’t ever made any mistakes, but because they have exercised their muscles by failing on a thousand different days in a thousand different ways, and getting up a thousand and one times - sometimes, with a little bit of help from their parents.