As a young professional, I find myself asking some crucial questions every day: How do I develop the leadership qualities to succeed in our modern society, economy and polity? How do I excel in a world of constant change, and what does success mean in this world? How do I accommodate concern for the well-being of others within our profit-oriented society?
Our current education system is designed to develop analytical skills and acquire knowledge. However, what’s lost is the development of a more holistic talent, which includes analytical skills but adds soft(er) skills such as empathy and courage. While analytical skills enable us to fulfill our technical roles, a deeper approach to talent allows us to exceed the responsibilities we are given — to, in turn, give more. Ignoring that is a huge opportunity cost. We have to radically rethink our approach to education. After all, education is not about learning for the sake of a degree, it is about understanding for the sake of contribution.
I regained hope when I met Roshan Paul, the founder of an innovative educational institute in a place where I least expected it: Nairobi, Kenya. The Amani Institute represents a new type of training organization. Through its flagship Certificate in Social Innovation Management program, it aims to provide both skill-building and whole-person development. It aspires to create a new model for higher education, building on the strengths of the current system but bringing it closer to how adults actually learn: by hands-on doing, constant reflection, mentorship, interactions with role models, learning at the edge of your comfort zone, and so on. These are core principles of adult learning that any school of education would agree with, but which the traditional university does not excel at providing.
As Paul told me, “Working in the social sector requires the same stamina, ambition, discipline and passion as being an Olympic athlete or a world-class doctor. You have to be whole-heartedly committed to what you are doing as the work is deeply personal, so we need to address the whole person and not just the mind. Universities can’t (or don’t) do that … yet.”
The concept of the Amani Institute strongly resonates with the shifting motivations of today’s young professionals. More and more of us are reconsidering our career aspirations, something The Economist reported on in “My Big Fat Career,” where they noted that “Surveys consistently find that many of today’s under-30s in rich countries want to spend their working day trying to make the world a better place as well as being properly paid, and turn down jobs that do not offer such satisfaction. Employers have cottoned on to this and now often mention a “social purpose” in their recruitment advertisements.”
In other words, there have never been more people seeking careers of meaning as much as money. We have accepted that there is more to our futures than personal interest, that creating value for society inspires and motivates us across all sectors of the economy. As The Economist article implies, companies that ignore these aspirations are endangering their own futures.
However, to make this last, we need to reconsider our approach to education. As many have noted, including this year’s TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, our current system served us well when the world was still industrializing, when execution and repetition were the building blocks of work and people trained and remained in one profession until retirement. Today, things are more complex: Financial markets are unpredictable, overwhelming our political system’s ability to handle them. Technology is moving at a breakneck pace, far faster than most of us can begin to understand. Simply put, the world our parents thought they were bringing us up in, the world for which our education system was designed, does not exist anymore.
To face this brave new world, we’ll need to learn how to guide our thoughts, decisions and actions not only by considerations derived from analytical thinking and knowledge acquisition, but also by emotional and social intelligence. To achieve this, we’ll need fundamentally different educational institutions, unconventional ones based on invention, change and recreation. I hope that educational ventures such as the Amani Institute will pioneer a learning revolution that lays out the path for leaders of tomorrow, those who like me are emerging into the new world, blinking in its unfamiliar glare and wondering where to go from here.