A stint at a technologies think-tank shows that children need to develop the 'soft' skills of being human, to counter the robotic revolution
I was always talkative in class. This irritated my teachers who always made me stand outside the class.
Standing outside meant I didn't know what was happening inside.
I failed my O levels.
I enrolled to do my A levels at a private school, Our Lady of Lourdes, in Ophir Road. Teacher and staff turnover were high and often there were no teachers in class. (The school closed after some years.)
I failed my A levels, as did nearly all my 40 classmates.
But despite having no university education, many of these "failures" ended up doing well later on, and include a mining tycoon, a top forex dealer, a bond trader, TV broadcaster, top fashion designer, top deejay, Talentime winners (equivalent to Singapore Idol), and many businessmen - plus myself, Toilet Man (I am founder of the World Toilet Organisation).
These "misfits" are talented in ways not recognised by our education system, because we measure them by the same one-dimensional ruler.
After failing my A levels, I went to the hotel and catering school at what is now the Institute of Technical Education, where I studied accommodation operations. However, I ended up working as a building material salesman instead.
A large number of people don't follow the path of their original studies. Such people develop a resilience built on a foundation of their particular soft skills and way of thinking. We need to have more emphasis on these non-academic skills.
Despite being the top salesman in the Swiss company that I worked for, having no degree meant no chance to be promoted to manager.
I was shocked to learn that every top-level technology is going to replace human resources at a very rapid pace and they are anti-jobs technologies... These technological meteorites are going to strike the planet in an unprecedented blast of joblessness.
So I started a business at age 24.
I created a series of 16 successful businesses in 16 years and reached financial independence. I retired at 40 to devote myself fully to social work.
LESSONS FROM MY PATHWAY
Bad things can turn into good.
If I had a degree, I would never have started my businesses, because the comfort zone might have trapped me.
Every child has different gifts. We need to help them discover what they are.
Failing in school does not mean failing in real life. But the key is to maintain resilience so that one's self-esteem stays intact. Conversely, having good grades cannot promise a good career if you lack soft skills and cannot get along with other people.
Too many students are told that they are failures. Once they believe this, they behave in ways that block them from success.
One example is art teachers who judge a child's ability to get higher scores in the subject on just finger dexterity and accuracy of drawing. These teachers often discourage those without dexterity and control from taking art as an elective. Those who are told, "You're not good in art", believe this message for life. And the damage done by a teacher's simple comment can ruin a child forever.
In reality, there is no one who is no good in art or the arts. The arts involve every child's imagination. Imagination is useful in anything from running a business to product design, where you create a logo that projects the company's image.
The arts also help children learn communication, philosophy, empathy, balance, aesthetics, fun, pleasure, and so many more attributes needed for survival in today's world. Case in point: Steve Jobs' love of fonts brought him to create Apple.
My mother often lamented that none of her three kids made it to university. So at 52, I went to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and studied part-time for four years. I graduated with a Master in Public Administration at the age of 56, and am now an adjunct associate professor at the same school.
Last month, at 59, I graduated from a Silicon Valley think-tank - Singularity University - at the Nasa campus in Mountain View, San Francisco.
The university admits 80 students a year on scholarships and taught us about the highest-level technologies, including biotechnology, 3D printing, med-tech, sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence, machine learning, bio-mimicry, genetic engineering, cellular farming, nanobots, hyperspectra imaging, virtual reality, renewable energy, cyber security - the list goes on.
I was shocked to learn that every one of these technologies is going to replace human resources at a very rapid pace and they are anti-jobs technologies.
Whether it's airport self-check-in or McDonald's self-order or self-driving cars or chatbots replacing millions of call centre operators, these technological meteorites are going to strike the planet in an unprecedented blast of joblessness.
THE FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
If I had not gone there, I would still be complacent and unaware of the issues to do with this technological growth.
So, how do we prepare ourselves and our children for this anti-jobs future that is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Every sector of society is due for disruption. Hotels are challenged by Airbnb. Taxis are challenged by Uber. If employers can use robots, they would prefer not to employ humans. If machine learning can make things cheaper, faster, better and easier, who needs humans?
As I sat through the 10-week course at Singularity, it dawned on me that it is not the technologies I should be worried about.
These technologies are transient; they, too, will become obsolete and be replaced with newer ones . And new technologies appear because someone has the imagination to create them.
What is constant is my ability to mobilise them as they emerge.
This means that beyond hard skills, what we need to teach in schools are soft skills such as:
Curiosity to question;
Courage to imagine and implement;
Commitment to complete challenging and tedious tasks;
Compassion to empathise with all people: customers, colleagues, bosses, and the world at large. The power of love is infectious to boosting teamwork;
Collaboration. The ability to mobilise others into win-win alignments;
Community circumspection so as to be able to use an "ecosystem approach" to solutions, instead of thinking only in fragmented silo views; and
Communication skills to inform, equip and motivate actions by others.
Every child needs this list of 7Cs to survive the future. Because these are the seeds of genius that can create leaders in every field.
Rote-learning and memory tests are the domains of the robot. We should depart from a tendency to emphasise these in the education system and move towards unleashing the untapped gifts in every child.
Humans have spirituality, morals, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy and love. Our future competitiveness against robots lies in these human virtues. Our ability to care, love and imagine will allow us to continue to be masters of robots, and not their servants.
The writer is the founder of the World Toilet Organisation.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline '7Cs to survive an anti-jobs future'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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