What should our children be learning?

The job market changes, but some things don't.

Centuries ago, a man in Renaissance Italy pressured his son to become a musician. By learning music, the young lad would be able to secure a reliable income, and reach financial success.

But Benvenuto Cellini had other ambitions. He wanted to be an artist. Eventually he ran away from home, began learning the goldsmith trade, and went on to become rich and famous beyond his father's wildest dreams.

I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Medallion by Cellini. I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
You just never know.

Fifteen years ago, you wouldn't have recognized my friend Chris. He was living in a rat-infested trailer with two roommates. His college major was Music, and he was trying to pay off his student loans by waiting tables at a nearby restaurant.

But he was learning something very valuable at the restaurant, which would pay off in a few years. Through some scouting and connections, he was offered a job at a railroad. It quickly became apparent that he had a knack for solving and preventing millions of small crisis that came up.

A certain train had to be out of the yard at a certain time. But the crew needed their legally mandated break. The train was blocked by a string of cars that had to be moved to another track. The workmen authorized to move the other cars were only available at certain times of the day. Meanwhile, there were strict limitations on when and where a train could be moved, based on endless local, state, and federal laws based on traffic and safety.

Chris was a natural-born problem solver, and the chaos of the railroad was similar, in his mind, to learning how to keep things running smoothly in the restaurant. He was promoted to Yard Master because he was able to find solutions to these daily railroad Sudoku puzzles. And his skill soon led him to another great career move.

When the real estate market hit rock bottom, Chris invested some of his railroad salary into buying homes. He was able to resolve a lot of convoluted legal and logistical problems to fix these units and rent them out. Now he owns a small real estate empire and has rental income on top of his railroad salary.

Had he gone into a "practical" field such as business or programming, he might still be living near poverty today. Instead, he has business graduates managing his property and preparing his tax returns. He hired a programmer in Pakistan to build his website for four dollars an hour.

There's a critical lesson here. Practical skills, which can be easily taught, are cheap to hire. There are smart, educated people all over the world who will work hard for low wages. Thanks to the Internet, a company can easily hire these people, instead of hiring you.

But there are some valuable skills that never go out of style, and these are what our children need to learn.

Benvenuto Cellini followed his passion and creativity, and it paid off. If your child has an unusual abundance of these two things, he should develop them and place this as a higher priority than anything else.

Chris knows how to solve problems.

And there's another important thing that both Chris and Cellini could do: They both knew how to gather a group of people and put them to work on a task. Cellini describes many instances of this in his autobiography, leading artist working under him in his shop. Chris routinely lays out jobs for engineers and switch operators in his day job, and in real estate he has to coordinate the efforts of lawyers, accountants, contractors and agents.

Three critical skills for the jobs of the future. Creativity. Problem-solving. Leadership.

How do we teach these to our children? Schools don't teach these. Schools teach obedience, how to work hard, and how to master many bits of "practical" knowledge. That isn't likely to work as well in the future.

Up to a point, school is critical. Anyone who doesn't know how to read and write and understand basic arithmetic will have trouble getting anywhere in life. But that's just the starting point.

We'll probably always need people to build houses and pave the roads. But if your child is going to have a shot at a more lucrative or prestigious career, then leadership and problem-solving are essential.

I occasionally try to recruit students and tutors from this site to enter science competitions. This is a simulation of both problem solving and the process of leading teams. It's the one way I know of to impart these skills. They only seem to come from experience, not from any textbook.

I talk to my fellow tutors and teachers about this a lot. If you have any ideas, let me know. We're all learning how to impart new skills.

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