This excellence in studying I got from my father, who had PhD in Physics and was a world-renowned physicist. Even though I did well at school, I spent two years to get accepted to the most competitive law school in Russia, because I failed the exams on the first attempt. However, my parents' and my brother's support as well as my persistence strengthened my character and I finally got in. I was a diligent student, did well in law school, was awarded the Gold Medal for academic excellence and graduated summa cum laude.
Fast forward 10 years and I got accepted to the Wharton Business School, which is regarded as the number 1 business school in Finance in the world and one of top 5 overall. I studied like crazy, sleeping 3-4 hours a day even on the weekends. That was partly due to the fact that I didn’t have a strong background in Finance then, partly because my persistence and perfectionism in studying didn’t allow me to skip certain topics, and partly because I just wanted to learn. And most importantly, because I thought I wouldn't progress in life without this "book"-based knowledge. As a result, I graduated in the top 10% of my class.
My point here is to explain my perception of and respect for acquiring knowledge. I always respected people who know more than I do, study harder than I do and I guess it’s common for my generation as well because we were taught to respect those who know more than us, and teachers knew more by default.
8 years after I graduated from my business school, I am sitting here thinking about whether I actually needed these two degrees to succeed in what I do. Of course, these programs gave me the fundamental knowledge of the subject matters of Law and Finance. Could I have acquired this knowledge by just working and building my career? Law – probably not, but finance – yes. In fact, I know highly successful entrepreneurs who don’t even have a college degree and it makes me wondering what the value of my education lies in, at all?
Educational Systems Must Change
Jack Ma, in one of his interviews, said that the global educational system must fundamentally change to address the needs of the changing world. Machines and robots can keep enormous volumes of knowledge at their “fingertips” and find and make use of this knowledge in milliseconds. Humans are not capable of doing this. Thus, with machine learning and AI becoming more common, robots will start picking up jobs from humans which are based solely on knowledge. What machines will never (will they not?) learn though, is emotions, feelings, communication skills, empathy and all those soft skills in us that really differentiate us as human beings. Thus, we should shift our educational focus from “hard knowledge” to “soft skills”. My conversation with my business school classmate as of 3 days ago shows that some parents are already thinking about it. She didn’t want to put her son in a top-ranked school because they give so many tests there and focus so much on the knowledge-based approach that they tend to forget about soft skills. Instead, she is thinking about a different, lower (but still well-) ranked school where they give much more attention to a softer, human, side.
Indeed, if you think about it for a second, let’s say you need to analyze the financial statements of a public company. How much time will it take you to read their 10-K annual report, work out the margins, analyze competitors and come to a certain conclusion? Days, weeks? At the same time, this exercise can easily be done by a computer software that can be taught to analyze public companies’ performance and compare the financial statements with financial results of another company or a set of companies. Such software will give you the conclusion and a summary of financial results in just a few seconds. So why would you need to spend years studying how to analyze financial statements? I am not saying you shouldn’t but there is an alternative way of getting to the final result.
Soft Skills Matter Most
Having established that pure knowledge doesn’t have as much significance as it used to have, let me point out another side of the issue. We all know that Millenials are the largest generation in our modern history. These people are digital natives who are raised with instant access to Google and Facebook, who are used to getting the products as soon as they want them and who can simply find an answer to any question online without having to memorize things. Managing Millenials at work is challenging and there are numerous videos on the web about psychological aspects of establishing a strong connection with this new generation (here is one). I think the major reason and difference with previous generations is in HOW people treat knowledge.
Because previous generations grew up with no access to computers, knowledge was scarce and could only be acquired through days, weeks, months and years of studying and memorizing things (and often by physically sitting in the library reading paper books). Hence, in the workplace younger people respected older people by default – simply because older people knew more. These days, as we already established, anyone can find almost anything you already know instantly, it will take them just a few seconds to type the question in Google (of course, there are exceptions), so everybody is more or less on the same “educational” level. A simple consequence of this is that now you have to earn respect not through the knowledge you have acquired (luckily, experience still counts), but rather through an emotional connection, friendship and proper communication.
An indirect proof of the above point is that you can often see that current students in schools don’t pay attention to the teachers, watching a movie on their cell phones right in the classroom, texting friends, eating or even leaving the classroom whenever they want without asking a teacher’s permission, all of which happens when they are not intrigued by the subject or respect (read: like) the teacher. This may also happen because schools tolerate this behavior and don’t enforce the discipline (like they used to previously) but I think the real reason for that is because new generations of students are not focused on knowledge anymore, they are focused more on emotional connections and ability to build relationships rather than simply studying math or literature. The schools will need to adjust.
If there is anything I would want to change in my previous educational experience, it would be exactly this – I would put more effort into establishing connections, friendships and emotional contact with people because now I understand what will matter in the future. Managers will be able to lead not because they know more, but because they can establish this type of personal connection with their employees, and such approach will inspire people. People will follow those who they have emotional connection with, not those who just know more. Jack Ma is a wise man and I think he has a great point: we should start teaching our children soft skills more than anything else because the “hard knowledge” will be easily acquired with the help of machines and robots.