Being curious, and four insights about the world of work I wish I had known when I graduated

Commencement Speech, Linfield College, Class of 2017

President Hellie, members of the Linfield Board of Trustees, faculty, proud parents, family and friends, and, above all, graduates of the Linfield Class of 2017 – congratulations, and thank you, for the opportunity to join you as we celebrate this special day.

Being asked to deliver a commencement address is an extraordinary honour, and a great responsibility.

It is also a humbling experience, once you come to the sober realisation that nobody remembers these speeches anyway. I’ve always suspected that half the audience is hungover while the other half is wondering when we can get on with the mortar board toss and selfies.

Confronted with this reality, I have thought long and hard about what insights I should share with you. I have searched deep within my head and heart to crystalize a few lessons learned in the years that have transpired since my own graduation.

For those of you who are already starting to drift off, let me just get to the point. Which is that the world which awaits you demands that you reinvent yourself. Constantly. And even though I presume the last thing on your mind right now is to hit the books - again - you must keep your hunger for learning alive as you embark on the next phase of your lives. You must be - very very curious.

Living in an Age of Disruption

But let us first talk about living in an age of disruption.

The First Industrial Revolution began in England in the late 18th century, as manual production methods evolved to mechanical methods driven by water and steam power. Virtually every aspect of daily life was impacted. The standard of living for the general population began to increase steadily, and incomes began to exhibit unprecedented growth.

Yet, there was unease. The initial focus of industrialization was on textiles. And the Luddites, who were a group of English textile workers and weavers, fearing that the machines would replace their roles in the industry, took to destroying weaving machines as a form of protest.

Fast forward to today, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway. What we are witnessing is a fusion of technologies that are blurring the lines between digital, physical, and biological systems.

It’s one thing to appreciate how driverless vehicles and drones might render delivery drivers obsolete. It’s quite another to realize that less than a year ago, Watson, which is IBM’s cognitive supercomputer, had the ability to analyse 20 million cancer research papers (in ten minutes, I should add) against a patient’s genetic profile and medical data, diagnose a rare form of leukemia, and recommend the appropriate treatment. Up until that point, doctors had been completely stumped.

On the one hand, it is easy to see the life transforming aspects of such advances. Driving will actually be safer when humans are no longer behind the wheel. Have a drink before you hit the road in your driverless car? No problem! 

And surely we are pleased to live in a world with washing machines, ATMs, and mobile phones. Yet, each of these innovations unquestionably displaced thousands of workers.

A 2015 study by Deloitte economists that analysed employment data covering a century and a half from the England and Wales census revealed that in 1901, against a population - in England and Wales - of 32.5 million, 200,000 people were engaged in washing clothes. By 2011, the population had grown to 56.1 million, yet just 35,000 people worked in the sector, most in launderettes or commercial laundries.

We would see similar displacement of bank tellers as ATMs emerged. And with manufacturers of alarm clocks, street maps, desk calendars, cameras, photo albums, flashlights (shall I go on?) - as the functionality of each of these items is now embedded into these little devices we now find indispensable, called mobile phones.

It is profoundly unsettling to be caught in the eye of this storm called disruption. To see the turmoil that this will cause, as work, as we know it, continues to shift towards more tasks being automated.

A recent study by the management consulting firm McKinsey revealed that after researching 800 jobs in the United States and studying 2,000 tasks for all occupations, current technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform. The robots are not coming. They are here!   

Even jobs that may appear timeless, will be transformed in the years to come. Let’s take teaching, as an example. What we are discovering about neuroscience is likely to impact the way we teach in the future. In nursing, technology will continue to evolve to enable reliable home diagnostics and monitoring. How about journalists? Today, artificial intelligence is already being used to automatically generate content, for example in sports and finance.

All that said, creation and destruction are twin forces. You can't have one without the other.

Thus, we will continue to see new jobs emerge. Not too long ago, there were no data scientists, app developers, YouTube celebrities, mindfulness coaches, vertical farmers, social media managers, or body part makers.

Being Curious

The pace of disruption confronting us is unprecedented. And you, the Class of 2017, will face a world that frankly, feels like a roller coaster. On steroids.

How then, will you develop the mental agility and emotional resilience to cope with the twists and turns that will inevitably come your way? To me, it comes down to curiosity, which is what I'd like to expand on.

Back in 2005, at a commencement ceremony perhaps similar to this, Steve Jobs related how at the age of seventeen, he took a calligraphy class which at the time did not appear to have any practical application whatsoever. He simply found calligraphy beautiful, and fascinating. 

A decade or so later, it suddenly became relevant, as he embedded the aesthetic gleaned through those calligraphy classes into the Macintosh computer – and the rest is history. Most of you have not had to deal with the tyranny of “computers with ugly typography”. That's a good thing.

As he put it, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

This, is what curiosity is about - constructing a portfolio of knowledge, skills, and experiences that may or may not, on the face of it, seem coherent, relevant, or even practical. But collectively, spark the sort of innovation and creativity that is only possible when worlds collide. And, over time, build deep within you the ability to adapt alongside each successive gyration.  

In truth, I did not fully appreciate the value of a liberal arts education the day I graduated. It is only with clarity of hindsight, that I am able to share with you that my experience at Linfield provided me with a solid foundation for life.

You see, the interdisciplinary curriculum at Linfield enabled me to broaden my perspective, and instilled in me the importance of a holistic mindset, as well as fostered a certain ability to navigate in unknown territory by learning how to learn. It has kept me curious - about lots of things, even though they may sometimes be entirely random!

At Linfield, I also came to appreciate the power of diversity - living, working, and studying with students from Nepal to South Africa, Costa Rica to Japan, Indonesia to Germany, Oregon to Hawaii. One day I was a kid from this little red dot on the map called Singapore (which by the way, is roughly 14 miles north to south and 26 miles east to west), The next day I was thrust into this environment that was, in the words of Alice, “Curiouser and curiouser”! 

I found myself surrounded by this rich tapestry, knit together by the rich experiences and perspectives of individuals from around the world, many of whom I am still in touch with today. Thanks to Facebook, of course! 

In a world of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, what makes us human is our imagination and creativity. Our ability to bring a holistic, multi-faceted perspective to problem solving. Our ability to connect the dots. To communicate, influence, and inspire. 

This, and more, is what Linfield prepares you for. And you should take comfort in that. But the journey does not, and cannot end here. 

First, Be curious about ideas. Read widely and keep learning. Listen with an open mind to perspectives that are different from your own. Take time to reflect and ask yourself tough questions.

Second, Be curious about the world. Challenge yourself to take the path less travelled. Venture to places that challenge your world view. Seek an understanding of social, cultural, economic, and political systems that are foreign to you.

We are living in a world that is more interconnected than ever before. And that will require a fundamental reconfiguration of prevailing geopolitical, economic, environmental, and social structures. Put simply, the rules that have been in place for a long time need to be re-written for a new age. This is going to require the type of holistic re-thinking that is only possible with a broad view of the world we live in. Together.

Third, Be curious about people. Connect with people that exist in a different reality from yourself. Most personal networks are highly cohesive, which means your friends are likely to be friends with one another as well. However, research has shown that people with strongly clustered social networks, tend to think and act the same. In other words, people who live at the intersection of differing social worlds are more likely to have good ideas. And are probably more fun to hang out with.

Conclusion

What does this mean for you, dear class of 2017, as you are moments away from walking across this stage, brimming with excitement at the chapters that are yet to be written, while simultaneously attempting to quell that little voice inside that represents self-doubt, uncertainty, and even a little fear.

Let me share with you that I, too, was confronted with these paradoxical feelings, right here. The anticipation of the moment interrupted by questions such as - Will I get a job? What sort of job? What if I don't enjoy the work? And so on.

So to conclude, I'd like to share four practical insights about the world of work that I wish I had known when I was in your shoes.

1. A career is a marathon and not a sprint. Careers today are 40 years in duration, edging up towards 60 years, as our life expectancy increases. Pace yourself. Bear the big picture in mind, and avoid making career moves that yield short term gains at the expense of long term benefits.

For many of you, your first job out of Linfield is likely to bear very little relation to what you'll be doing five, ten, or twenty years down the road. Think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder. The world will continue to evolve, and so must you. Be curious - make learning a habit and seek opportunities to reinvent yourself.

For those of you who are tempted to keep looking for “the perfect job”, I hate to tell you this, but there are, in reality, very few perfect jobs. Besides, even IF you do find it, it’s probably not going to remain that way for long since things are moving so quickly! So, rather than chasing the elusive rainbow, strive to find meaning in whatever you do, and to develop mastery in it.

2. It’s not only about what you do, but how you go about it. I have worked with, and for, many highly intelligent professionals who have made the mistake of believing that technical prowess – whatever the domain – is what matters most. The truth is that having “the right answer” is important, but rarely sufficient. 

The most effective individuals, irrespective of their level or role, appreciate the importance of listening, understanding, communicating, and persuading. Be curious - put yourself in the other person’s shoes and really try to understand where he or she is coming from.

3. Cultivate resilience (also known as developing a thick skin). Life is going to throw you lots of curve balls. Some of them will be hits, but many are going to be strikes. You will get passed over for that job you really want. You will miss out on that promotion you worked so hard for. You will get a performance review that you feel is unfair. You will work with bad bosses (and some pretty awesome ones too). I've learned the importance of getting back up quickly. Be curious - ask yourself what YOU could have done differently, and learn a few lessons from it. And move on.

4. Stay humble and be compassionate. Whether you call it luck, serendipity, or divine intervention, I have come to appreciate that what happens to us is often not of our control, and naturally, the same holds true for others.

Of course it's a good idea to have clarity of direction. And, it's important to work towards the goals we set for ourselves. The thing is, life has a strange way of not turning out the way you planned it. That is, assuming you had a plan…! 

Once it dawns on us that our ability to direct outcomes is indeed limited, it becomes much easier to have empathy for those who might not have been at the right time at the right place. And it should cause us to have the humility to recognise that whatever we achieve is never entirely of our own doing. Our parents, family, friends, professors, supervisors, and colleagues, have all had a hand in it too.

Which brings us back to why we are here today! Linfield Class of 2017 - I congratulate you - and everyone who has supported you along the way - on this important milestone, and I wish you a life filled with Curiosity.

 

Su-Yen is a professional speaker and facilitator who engages audiences globally on the future of work, transformation, and leadership. Over the past two decades, she has helped some of the world’s largest, most innovative, and complex organisations navigate the intersection of technology, strategy, and people. And, she has guest lectured at leading universities from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. She brings a...

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Being curious, and four insights about the world of work I wish I had known when I graduated | Asia Professional Speakers Singapore

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