Today is the first day of school around here. If these kids are like many of the ones I’ve met over the years (and maybe even the two we raised), at some point the inevitable question pops up:
Why do I need to go to school?
As they get older, the question changes a bit (probably because they enjoy seeing their friends at school every day):
Why do I need to learn this stuff?
That’s our topic today, and I think it’s something that applies to the business world as well. The answer to the first question is pretty obvious, and it’s not just because your parents are exhausted after driving you around all summer and need you gone for a bit. I’m a lot more interested in the second question because I think that most students, parents, and teachers get the answer wrong. You don’t need to learn “this stuff.” I can’t think of a single instance in my adult life where understanding differential equations or the structure of the carbon atom has been required.
So as a public service, I’m going to give you the answer to the second question which hopefully also answers the first. I’ve given it out before but hey, it’s the first day of school and the questions might come up again so you’re welcome.
You go to school to learn two things.
- How to locate and verify pieces of information (let’s call them facts) in order to formulate your thoughts.
- How to express the thoughts you formulate both orally and in writing to communicate your thinking.
That’s it. Learn those two things and you can pretty much do anything you choose to do in this world. Ask yourself how many business people you know who can do those two things successfully and I’ll bet you also have a list of the best business people you know. In an era when “fake news” is a term thrown around like beads at a Mardi Gras parade, understanding how to determine what news is really fake and what’s just being labeled as such to distract you from facts is critical. Not everything you read in your school books is accurate, but if you don’t have a well-developed BS detector as well as the skills to track down the truth, how will you create accurate thoughts from inaccurate information either in school or beyond?
Please feel free to print this off and hand it to your kids, large or small, who are wondering about school. Feel free to ask yourself if you managed to learn those things along the way as well. If not, maybe it’s back to school for you too?
Some of you know that my professional training was as an educator. Hopefully that shows on the screed from time to time. In fact, my wife and eldest child are also trained teachers and my youngest does education as part of her profession. Focusing on the skills people need is a big deal in our house and that got me thinking about what those skills might be.
I spend a ton of time in the tech world. There are new skills that my clients feel as if they need to acquire almost every day. What is the latest and greatest way to code? How do we employ the social media platform du jour in order to stand out and engage our customer base? What’s the best way to run an A/B test of landing or other pages to optimize conversion rates? Those are only a few of the components of the rapidly changing skill set business people might need these days. You probably won’t find me working with them on those initially.
Instead, I like to start with the skills that matter. First and foremost of these is critical thinking. How would I define that? This is from The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, way back when in 1987 and I think it says it pretty well:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
That skill trumps the others. It’s the ability to figure out what data points matter and why. It’s understanding core business issues and not permitting the noise of the business world to clutter up that understanding. It’s what you use, having achieved that understanding, to choose the tools with which to carry out the business goals, strategies, and tactics. The point is this: the tools will change; the need to possess the ability to think critically won’t. Kids learning Word in the schools today may not use it in 10 years. I guarantee they will need to be able to figure out the world around them.
There are other key skills, of course. Writing and speaking clearly are the next in line for me since if you can’t explain your excellent thinking it does little good to the business. First things first, however. That’s how I see it. You?
This TunesDay I want to focus on something that every musician does – woodshed. That isn’t a non-sequitor.
(Photo credit: The Year of Mud)
With respect to music “woodshedding” means practicing your instrument but it’s so much more than that. The term comes from that people would go to their woodshed to practice without being overheard. Well, more like not imposing their unrefined craft on people until it had been honed. As a young guitar player, I’d sit in my room for hours listening to music and trying to play along. I think I did that all the way through college even though I was playing in a band (for pay!) by then. It wasn’t just about learning to play – I knew how to do that after a while. It was about getting better, internalizing the actions my fingers would take on the fretboard so they’d happen without thought. The goal was to let my brain hear what I wanted to play and for my fingers to play it, almost like walking or breathing.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the 10,000 hour rule. While “Outliers” may have popularized it, the concept can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. The notion is that “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years”. But Gladwell (“Outliers”) oversimplified the concept and ignored the fact that talent has something to do with the progress one makes. You can practice all you want and you might get better, but the true elite at an activity generally have some natural gifts that are brought out and improved by all the practice.
Why this thought today? Sometimes when I encounter a young businessperson they ask about how to grow: improve their skill set, learn more, make better decisions. We talk about woodshedding and the fact that a musician plays something wrong the first dozen times but eventually learns it. Making mistakes – playing it wrong – is an important part of the process. So are the hours you put in practicing. In business terms that can mean reading books, going to seminars, or taking online courses to refine and grow. You want to pick the right instrument too. You must have some basic talent – if you are terrible at math and not detail-oriented, accounting might not be your best choice.
If you aren’t always practicing, you’re falling behind those competitors who are. Your call.