by Edward D. Hess, author of “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization“
Go to school, study, get good grades. Traditionally, this strategy has prepared children to become successful adults. But thanks to rapidly advancing technology, an increasingly connected world, and the evolving global marketplace, students will need to develop a lot more than “just” book smarts to compete for tomorrow’s jobs.
It’s high time parents, schools, and students themselves redefined what “smart” means. (Hint: It’s a lot more than straight As and 4.0+ GPAs.)
Traditionally, and the way our schools are set up, we learn by filling our brains with key facts and concepts. But today we already have instant access to all the knowledge we want, thanks to ‘companions’ like Google and Siri. The ‘new smart’ means knowing what you don’t know and knowing how to learn it, being able to ask the right questions, and being able to examine the answers critically.
That skill set is so important because it will enable youngsters to stay perpetually relevant throughout their lives. No matter how rapidly knowledge advances (or how quickly a particular skill set becomes outdated), good adaptive learners will be needed.
Here are the “new smart” qualities your children will need to be successful in a tech-driven world:
1. Get good at “not knowing.”
None of us are as smart as we think we are. And smart people know this! To continuously learn, we need to know what we don’t know and not get defensive about it. And we have to teach our children this.
In the technology-enabled world, how much you know will be irrelevant, because smart machines and the Internet will always know more than you. What will be more important is knowing what you don’t know and knowing how to use best learning processes — in other words, the smartest people will be focused on continuously learning.
And in order to learn well, young people like my grandchildren will need to understand that humans are not naturally optimal learners. Cognitively we all are naturally fast, lazy, reflexive thinkers who seek to confirm what we know. It is important that young people learn how to make their thinking more intentional and deliberate. They must develop their critical thinking and innovative thinking skills.
2. Walk away from egos and embrace open-mindedness.
Humans are naturally unwilling to listen to challenges to our thinking. But to achieve the “new smart,” young people will have to train their brains to be non-defensive. That makes it easier for them to want to test their thoughts against facts and to be willing to improve their ideas as needed.
Today’s young people must learn to stress-test their beliefs and preconceived notions, not constantly seek to confirm them. It takes courage to enter the world of the unknown and learn something new the first time. To make that process easier, young people will have to learn to separate their ideas from their self-worth. Changing a previously held belief doesn’t mean you were ‘wrong’ before and it does not mean you were stupid. It simply means you’ve learned to change your thinking based on new and better information or facts that you’ve received.
3. Find motivation through curiosity, not rewards.
In a tech-driven world, those who are able to be the most successful and fulfilled will be those who are driven by curiosity — a love of learning — not by external rewards. A desire for good grades, accolades, and rewards and the aversion to failure that come with them will not be adequate in a world driven by fast-paced constant change. What is needed is a love of learning — to want to learn because the joy of learning is your reward. Our children need to develop a learning mindset so they can be primarily intrinsically motivated to learn. Then, whenever they are learning, they are being successful.
4. Understand that IQ is not fixed.
Often, people who are driven to learn primarily by good grades and external rewards can be crushed by failure. They believe their intelligence is fixed — i.e., you’re either good at math or you aren’t. So, when they fail, it threatens their self-image. Our children need to learn that their intelligence is never fixed. It can always improve through learning.
5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Along with the fear of failure discussed above, comes a fear of making mistakes. To proceed more courageously into the future, our children need to adopt a different view of mistakes. Rather than looking at them as something they’ve done wrong, it’s important to begin looking at them as learning opportunities.
Learning is not an efficient 99 percent defect-free process. Far from it. So mistakes have to be valued as learning opportunities. In fact, as long as you aren’t making the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes can be good. The key is making sure you’re learning from them. And the faster and better your children are at turning mistakes into learning, the less likely it is that some smart machine can replace them. Learning from mistakes, understanding and working around your weaknesses, and proactively stress-testing assumptions and beliefs are a powerful strategy for long-term success.
6. Be confident in your abilities to handle whatever.
Smart people are confident in their own ability to meet a challenge or take on the unknown (within reason), so they are more likely to try new things. They believe they can manage threats and are less likely to be distressed by them.
This confidence is called ‘self-efficacy. To put it most simply, if we believe we can do something, we are more likely to try it. Young people can build self-efficacy by putting themselves in challenging situations that they have the ability to handle well. As their confidence grows, they’ll be more willing and capable of taking on even more challenging tasks. Not only does this willingness and ability to take on new challenges make them smarter, it also makes them more comfortable with uncertainty, a factor that will be very beneficial as they grow older.
7. Develop emotional intelligence (EI) to become a great teammate.
Emotional intelligence, generally understood, is the ability to be aware of and manage one’s emotion. It plays an important role in your ability to recognize and appraise verbal and nonverbal information, to access emotions in order to aid in creativity and problem solving, to process your own feelings and assess those of others, and to regulate your own emotions and manage those of others.
Why is developing your EI so important? Because whether you’re working with human customers or as part of a team inside a company, the ability to collaborate effectively will be an essential skill in years to come. The powerful work connections that will be needed to build successful organizations will derive from relationships that are built by authentically relating to another person, recognizing their uniqueness, and doing so in a respectful way that builds trust. If you can’t manage your own emotions, read those of others, or connect with the people around you on more than a superficial level, then you won’t be a successful collaborator.
So our children need to learn how to be aware of their emotions and that their emotions don’t have to result in behaviors. Our emotions are just passing feelings — they do not have to define us or be acted upon. Secondly our children need to learn to sense how other people are reacting and to modify their behaviors accordingly. Learning to manage one’s emotions is critical to being a good learner in the 21st century.
8. Listen to and learn from feedback.
In my book, I wrote about “Mr. Feedback,” one of my early mentors. Mr. Feedback taught me how essential negative feedback is if you want to become the best in your field and the importance of pausing and reflecting rather than automatically defending, deflecting, or denying when you receive it. As I moved forward in my career, I realized how difficult it can be to get this kind of constructive feedback.
It is mission critical that young people learn about feedback loops and how important they are to continual learning and the ‘new smart.’ Feedback in all its forms is new information about how we have performed. Listening and thinking about whether the feedback is helpful is the first step young people need to learn. The second step is learning how to transform feedback words into behavior changes.
We’re entering a world in which companies can no longer rely on traditional competitive advantages like location, capital, lack of choices for customers, and lack of market transparency. They’ll have to rely on their ability to learn and innovate in order to compete.
Similarly, young people should no longer look to their grades, class rank, or GPAs to give them the competitive advantage. Those are old definitions of what smart is. Today, the ‘new smart’ requires continual learning, being good at critical and innovative thinking, listening, and collaborating well with others — all of which require emotional intelligence. These are the skills young people need to develop to have the best chance of living a productive and meaningful life in a technology-dominated world.
Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of 11 books, including “The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes“ and “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization“.