This Life, Do Something Incredible!

My son recently got a document from his school that lists the subjects he has to choose from for his GCSE exams. We were discussing his options and I asked him what are his parameters for choosing a subject? Right off the bat he said, “My interest in the subject and how good I am in it.”

I agreed but suggested that he also consider a third parameter to guide his subject selection decision. This third parameter stretches out in time.

In the short-term there is the question of what degree would he like to pursue at University? Then, being pragmatic, he should work backwards to figure out what subjects he must definitely choose to remain eligible for pursuing that degree

(Options are emerging that permit students to ‘hack their degree’ to get the necessary knowledge, disciplinary skills and certification without going to a University thus avoiding the huge burden of a student loan, but more on this in another post)

Choice of a degree should foremost be guided by his interest in a discipline but he should also have a medium-term perspective of the discipline itself, to get a sense of what opportunities pursuit of that discipline will unfold in the coming decades. To appreciate how current possibilities of a discipline will get impacted (or should I say disrupted) over the next couple of decades current trend of automation, computerisation, Artificial Intelligence etc need to be extrapolated.

The document provided by my son’s school had an indicative list of University degrees in different disciplines. We looked at each degree and I gave him a feel of possible professions these degrees could lead to. I cautioned him that given the rate of change not only will some of these professions become obsolete, many new avenues will open up that will be, to quote Sir Arthur Eddington, “Stranger than we can imagine”.

The long-term perspective of the third decision parameter is, ‘do something remarkable with your life, to the best of your abilities’. Go beyond ‘learning just to earn’. Don’t become unduly hung up on social success. Instead think of a complex problem that vexes our world today that you would love to solve. This complex problem could be one in outer space (like finding life on another planet), on planet Earth (environment, ecology or a socio-economic issue), or specific to us humans (consciousness, wellbeing and joyful living).

Author Jim Collins postulates companies go from ‘Good to Great’ (in a book with the same title) when they find the sweet spot at the intersection of three circles, “What they are passionate about?” “What can they be the best in the world at?” “What drives their economic engine?” In other words, great companies figure out how they can make money by doing something they are passionate about and good at. What applies to companies holds true for individuals too.

My son, in making his subject choice, has already figured out the ‘passionate about’ and ‘good at’ part. When I tell him ‘don’t learn only to earn’ I am not at all suggesting that he should not make money. I am simply saying that this should be one minor goal of his life pursuit.

Whether he chooses employment or entrepreneurship ‘making money’ part can get addressed by having a pulse of how trends will play out in the coming decades and influence ‘value creation’ possibilities. To paraphrase a famous quote, to make money you need to ‘have a sense of where the puck is going to be, not where it has been’.

But far more importantly I hope he puts the three circles of ‘passion’, ‘good at’ and ‘make money’ inside a bigger circle of ‘strive to do something incredible with his life, to the best of his potential’ and derives the three inner circles from this larger pursuit.

Over the years as my son figures out what his ‘incredible’ is, as my best wishes I can quote to him the lines from an Indian scripture my father had quoted to me when I was his age, ‘Uthishtatha Jagratha Prapya Varaan Nibodhatha’ – Arise, Awake and Stop Not till the Goal is Achieved.