When she was 13, Alexis Lewis invented the Rescue Travois, a wheeled cart that could carry at least two children. She got the idea from reading about the 2011 Somalia famine. “Families were forced to walk for weeks, and parents had to leave kids who were too weak to walk by the roadside to die.” Her lifesaving product could be airdropped and easily assembled.
Now 18 and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lewis says her family raised her to be curious and to have a sense of agency. “My grandfather was a rocket scientist who worked on the Apollo missions, but he looked at STEM as learning about the world around you, not as super-complicated maths,” she says. “You don’t have to be conventionally smart to solve a problem and make something really cool.”
Creative problem-solvers like Lewis will have an edge, says Roxanne Moore, a research engineer on the faculty at Georgia Tech and director of the K-12 InVenture Challenge. As jobs disappear to automation, soft skills such as agility and inventiveness may predict success more than grades, scores or core knowledge.
“It used to be easy. We’d say, get a business or law degree, but no one knows what’s safe anymore,” says Sue Ashford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Although there’s no one path to success, here are seven strategies that will help prepare for a rapidly changing work world.
Learn to embrace diverse ideas and accept feedback
To foster intellectual humility, keep on reminding yourself that no one has all the answers. “The example I give kids is, if I think red, and I’m with someone who thinks blue, together we can think purple,” says Ken Ginsburg, author of Raising Kids to Thrive.
Learn to listen to someone non-judgmentally. If someone is mean to you at school, instead of focusing on the hurt, you can be curious and ask, “Why did they do that?” “See the wider reality of people beyond that one objectionable comment, and build your ability to tolerate and engage with people who have different opinions,” Cain says.
When you get critical feedback, ask yourself what you can learn from it. Observe others’ reactions to them so you can get back on track.
Practise these skills at home, too, says Vicki Algeri, head of learning at Mindprint Learning, a programme that assesses the way an individual learns. “We get used to things like siblings bickering, but pause and ask, ‘What could each of you have done differently?” she says. Think about how these argue-points have been resolved before, such as taking turns at doing something.
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Cultivate ‘big likings’
Purpose doesn’t have to come from a grand passion, says Susan Cain, author and founder of Quiet Revolution, an organisation dedicated to tapping into the power of introverts. “A big liking can become a deep source of meaning.” Explore new interests.
Even a simple project can be life-changing. Sandy Speicher, partner and managing director of IDEO San Francisco, a design and innovation company, recalls the time a group of her students were tasked with designing name tags. “I thought, ‘Oh man, a name tag feels so small,” she says. But then she interviewed one of the student designers. Andrew, 14, said, “I learned to see myself as a leader who could create something that brings joy to others.” When she asked him how else he could imagine using those skills, he paused, then said, “I think the state economy of Michigan could use help, and also the school cafeteria.”
Nick Morgan, author of Can You Hear Me: How to Connect People in a Virtual World, recommends asking students to list their 10 most meaningful experiences. This will help them understand what drives them. Have this conversation regularly with your parents, because their answers will keep changing.
Free your ideas
Flip complaints into opportunities. Write down everything that irritates you, then consider how you might improve a product or experience. “Inventions don’t have to be a breakthrough technology; they can be small improvements,” Moore says. Ask questions that loosen your thinking. What would happen if you combined the product with something else? How could you make it more fun? Then test your ideas, says Ric Grefé, design thinker-in-residence at Williams College. You will develop the ability to adapt an answer to a situation, he says.
Sentence starters also can spur creativity, says Jeanine Esposito, founder of Innovation Builders in Westport, Connecticut. Listen to your or your friend's ideas without jumping to conclusions, even if their ideas seem absurd. Esposito likes posing the question, “What would have to be true for that to work?” To train yourself to think expansively, try to identify the worst possible idea, then state two good things about it. “Original ideas come from picking the best pieces of bad ideas,” she says.
Expose yourself to innovation
Do your best to meet real-life inventors, visit museums, browse websites such as Wired, Popular Science and New Scientist, check out YouTube channels such as Vsauce and Veritasium, or design rockets using the online Kerbal Space Program. Enter science competitions, or read about other students’ winning entries.
Take part in a the Design for Change challenge, which teaches students to use the design thinking process, a way of solving problems using creative, different solutions to tackle issues such as bullying or hunger. IDEO, a design and innovation company, created an Innovator page for the website DIY.org where you can earn badges for completing tasks.
Identify experiential learning opportunities at school, too. Or, join Young Post's Junior Reporters to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people.
Use writing and arts to develop emotion regulation and empathy
Journaling builds self-understanding, says Tope Folarin, a novelist. “It enables you to be genuine and understand that everyone has this teeming inner life.” When he was growing up, he’d feel angry but wouldn’t investigate the source of his anger. “Something missing in my childhood was constant engagement with what was happening inside,” he says.“No matter how the universe continues to evolve, we want kids to have a firm ability to manage their thoughts so they’re not overly negative or overly confident, and to know how to take action to make a situation a little better,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. If you tend to look for bad news, ask, “What’s the evidence that’s true? If that were true, how bad would it be? If a friend said that, what would you tell them?” Morin says. Then, when you experience a setback in life, you’ll be more likely to take positive action.
Give yourself room to explore and imagine
“Everyone is so over-scheduled,” says Margaret Rietano, founder of the Elements, an outdoor enrichment programme in the District of Columbia.To counteract that pressure, she tells her instructors to let youngsters run with their imagination. Give yourself time and space to explore on your own, whether you take the MTR to a museum or go for a hike.
The structure of school and activities can make it hard to find ways to access freedom, says Anne Dickerson, founder of media training firm 15 Minutes Group. Make a point of taking challenges that will make you feel confident that you can navigate the world independently.
Don’t think of your parents as your bosses
The more your parents control you, the more they lower your sense of control and motivation, says Ned Johnson, co-author of The Self-Driven Child. You need to practice making decisions and cleaning up mistakes.
Allow yourself to feel discomfort, says Emily Bianchi, assistant professor of organisation and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Her research has shown that adversity can lead to increased flexibility, gratitude and satisfaction later in life. Like most parents, Bianchi’s instinct is to shield her children from disappointment, but she says she “tries to let periods of unpredictability in their lives linger a little longer.”
Look beyond the grade-point average and imagine yourself as a 35-year-old with obstacles in their path. As Ginsburg says, if you are never allowed failure, compensation and workarounds, you’re not going to learn it later in life.