Knowing yourself is key in new economy

To succeed, workers have to work harder to know what they are good at


In his TED talk, British education expert Ken Robinson tells a story about a little girl who got into trouble because she was always restless in class, so restless her teacher called her mother in and told her there was something wrong with her daughter.

The mother took the girl to a doctor who turned out to be unusually perceptive. During the consultation, he asked to speak to the mother privately, then he turned on the radio as they left the room. They watched as the little girl got up and danced.

The doctor turned to the mother and said: "There is nothing wrong with your daughter. She is a dancer."

Later, when the mother enrolled her daughter in a dance school, the little girl exclaimed: "Finally, people like me! They have to move to think."

The girl grew up to become Dame Gillian Lynne, a British ballerina, theatre director and choreographer of blockbuster musicals Cats and The Phantom Of The Opera.

Sir Ken Robinson uses her story to critique conventional education systems, but there is another important lesson. Imagine if Dame Gillian Lynne had not met the doctor who helped her discover something fundamental about herself - that what brought her to life and gave her joy was her body, and movement. She might have spent years feeling inadequate. Instead, she flourished in the world of dance and theatre.

Born in 1926 - she is 89 this year - the world she grew up in was very different from today's. But the link between self-discovery and success may well be more important now, and for more people, than during those pre-war years.

For work - whether in the home or outside it - has become for many people in the developed world much more than a source of income. It is also a way for them to express themselves, use their gifts and skills, and contribute to the communities they live in. People long for work that will engage and energise them, and give their lives meaning.

But even as expectations of work rise, employment security and predictability plummet.

Technology is transforming how people make, supply, buy and sell goods and services in ways that few could have predicted just a decade ago, and thereby reshaping economic structures. In a recent report on The Future of Work, The Economist observed that "the idea that having a good job means being an employee of a particular company is a legacy of a period that stretched from about 1880 to 1980".

Computerisation and improved communications have paved the way for outsourcing, automation and the rise of a new economy variously described as "sharing", "frugal" or "on-demand". That economy, in turn, generates savings for consumers and, yes, jobs - but jobs that are, more likely than not, short-term, freelance in nature and done by independent contractors.

That spells far-reaching change for workers and governments, which must rethink pensions, health care and other benefits tied to employers.

But the biggest challenge by far may be in education, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to prepare students for the world of work. The speed at which knowledge becomes outdated and economic volatility, which makes it difficult to predict what jobs will look like when students graduate, combine to make education an exercise fraught with risk.

In an attempt to meet these challenges, the Singapore Government has set in motion new approaches. Two campaigns have been in the spotlight lately: Aspire and SkillsFuture.

Both centre on the aim to develop a quality system of education and training responsive to evolving industry needs, and promoting employer recognition and career development based on the mastery of skills.

But another paradigm shift which has to take place, to quote The Economist, is for schools to "produce self-reliant citizens instead of loyal employees". Perhaps in the recent past, a majority of workers could afford to rely on the firm and the state to provide them with secure employment that supported a decent standard of living for most of their lives. Not any more.

Disruption is the new normal. In the face of uncertainty and risk, ignorance is less of an option than it used to be. To succeed, people have to be more prepared than previously, and arm themselves with information, skills and self-knowledge.

They have to work harder to understand the employment landscape and keep up with change, so they have a handle on where opportunities lie and what their options are. They also need to understand themselves better.

They need to work harder to discover what drives them, what would push them to invest the time and effort needed to master a new skill and persevere in a field of work, so as to excel, create and innovate. Each person is unique and what animates one may deaden another.

On the plus side, the workers of the future will be better equipped to do all of the above as a majority will have tertiary education. Those who do not will need help to navigate the new job landscape, and they will stand a better chance of getting that help if the ones who can are generating the resources needed to provide it.

Guess what Dame Gillian Lynne is up to now that she is in her 80s?

Well, last year, despite two metal hips and an ankle held together by screws, she released on DVD a fitness regime for seniors entitled Longevity Through Exercise. She still directs and choreographs.

Asked to sum up her philosophy of life and career, she said: "I don't think I could stand the boredom if I hadn't had the discipline of being a dancer, a director and a choreographer. I love any regime that recognises that health is part physical, a lot mental, and does not depend on heavy use of drugs. My life is one big battle. Perhaps that's what keeps me young."