The education system: Please reboot

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Whilst assessing the year ahead and weighing up a possible move back to the UK, a surprising realisation hit me; that as a recent graduate it seemed easier to get a job by starting an organisation rather than joining an existing one.

On an individual level, this is in part down to my having spent the last few years embarking on similar endeavours, but the increasing number of graduates who I’ve seen reaching a similar conclusion suggests there are systemic issues too. Basically, unless you have experience, contacts or in-demand specific skillsets it’s very hard to find work in the current economic climate – and young graduates fresh in to the world of work are the ones who suffer the most because of this. Unfortunately, the current educational system is doing a woefully inadequate job of fulfilling its primary role; to prepare young people for the world of work. Degrees don’t count for much to employers given that nearly everyone seems to have one, and a degree simply teaches you how to write about stuff, not actually do stuff.

It does seem somewhat farcical that we spend 3 years and £30,000 learning mostly how to write essays or exams about our field of interest, rather than actually practice in it. If you were to design a new education system from scratch, it would little resemble the current one. These faults are hardly surprising, given that the free, compulsory system of education was designed originally for the industrial age in the 19th century. Governments are notoriously slow at updating existing systems, and are far more inclined towards minor incremental changes over large whole-scale change, even though the latter is sometimes needed. For example, the curriculum in Australia recently went through a considerable review and re-design, and the very conservative outcome was largely seen as an enormous missed opportunity to bring it up to date by those within the sector.

I know that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around at the moment due to the world’s faltering economic system, but it doesn’t feel right that graduates are unfairly penalised by the existing systems. I grew up with so many outstanding young people who would bring value to any organisation, but now can’t find paid work having had their creativity and open-mindedness beaten out of them by an education system that values sitting in the library over getting out in to the working world. Personally, I’d have found a 3 year internship in various working environments a more valuable use of my student debt and time than my degree was. Heck, the world, and consequently the job market, are changing so fast that many of us will end up working jobs that don’t even exist yet (think about the impact of the computer revolution). Surely time spent learning a broad range of real-world skills would be better suited to that future than time spent on one narrow discipline.

And this is, after all, the generation who is about to inherit a world buried under a mountain of debt, waste, and facing a plethora of considerable environmental issues. It’s a generation we need to invest heavily in; let’s actually make the most of the tremendous potential locked within our youngest and brightest. An education system that fosters real-world skills and knowledge would be a good start.

 

 

The genius that is Sir Ken Robinson vocalises this debate far better and more elaborately than I ever could here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=player_embedded

If you’ve never watched an RSA video before then you’re in for a treat!

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Social entrepreneurship: Breaking down the myths

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I enjoyed reading this article. The Guardian have been pretty active over the last few years with the growth of social enterprise, so it’s little surprise to see that articles like this have found a home with them. I strongly agree with that David Floyd says about the ‘cult’ of the social entrepreneur (and it being potentially harmful), although the article loses its way a bit towards the end and unfortunately doesn’t explore the suggestions that different personalities and characters are required to initiate and sustain social change.

My agreement with what the author says about the concept of the ‘heroic social entrepreneur’ partly stems from the fact that I myself got caught up in the hype of it, and have only recently started to gain perspective.

For me, and I think many others who go down this route, the interest stems from how you could have a positive social impact on a bigger scale. I had already learned how to do so on a local community level, but spreading this wider required a different set of tools. I was already aware of the charity model, but had seen how poor organisational skills and sustainability thinking had led many of these to spend a great deal of time chasing up funding to survive, rather than having impact.

And so the term ‘social enterprise’ kept cropping up everywhere – the idea of an organisation with a social mission that if well-run is as efficient and effective as a successful corporate business. And guess what, there were plenty of organisations out there proving that this works. “Well”, I thought, “that sound ruddy marvelous!” (exact thought process may have sounded less like a 1930s Briton).

So If I’m going to set up one of these ‘social enterprise’-y things, what does that make me exactly? This wasn’t really a career path I had read about in school. And then I began to encounter the term ‘social entrepreneur’. This did not mean entrepreneurs who happen to be sociable people, but rather people building/running organisations with a social mission. There were evidently a lot of these people about, and there also seemed to be a lot of hype around them.

At times it’s presented as though these people hold the key to solving all the world’s problems. Sadly, the hype goes to the head of some of those people doing great things in the world. An easy thing to happen. I’ve not yet grown comfortable with the way that some people will lavish praise upon you when you tell them you’re setting up a not-for-profit (any tips?). And yet most of us who choose this route do so because we find it incredibly rewarding and are passionate about our work.

What turns me off is the way some ‘social entrepreneurs’ see being a social entrepreneur as an end itself. I’ve been guilty of this too at times. But it’s not; it’s a set of tools and mindset that enables you to create change, and that change is the bottom line. For some people that change is in isolated communities, for others it’s in poverty-stricken areas, for someone else it’s about youth development. For me it’s about student mental health. I chose ‘social entrepreneurship’ because it stood out to me as the best path through which I could really impact that area. It’s been very refreshing to regain perspective on that.

To go back to the first paragraph, creating and sustaining change does require a range of characters. The social entrepreneur plays a key role, especially in providing the initial drive to get an organisation off the ground. But there are other pieces of the puzzle – one person can’t do and know everything. A good accountant, an investor, advisors, techy…The development of an organisation requires the talents and efforts of a whole team, and the acclaim should be shared out equally – not just centred around one person.

What I’m also learning is that building and maintaining require quite different characters and skillsets. Some people are more suited to the former, others the latter. The visionary can help provide the initial spark to give a new project life, but may not be suited to running its day to day operations once things have calmed down.

I’ll round off by saying that I believe anybody can create change. I’ve seen hundreds of student volunteers amaze themselves by having an impact upon the mental health and wellbeing of their fellow students. Motivation and attitude are most important, you can pick up the skills as you go along.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a social entrepreneur, writer, politician. These are all just enablers. The bottom line is simple: what impact are you having?

The entrepreneurial craze: Driving a new-look modern life?

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Since I started spending more time with these somewhat eccentric, entrepreneurial types, a certain trend became very apparent. Irrespective of how well their companies are going, or what stage they’re at, they’re buzzing with life and energy. They apply the same passion and enthusiasm to other areas outside of their work, giving you the feeling that they’re incredibly engaged with their life – every day of the week. It’s infectious.

More and more people seem to be taking up this new way of life (graduate entrepreneurship in the UK is on the rise). But why? It’s high-risk, goes against nearly everything we’re taught growing up, you work crazy hours and offers seemingly little stability (who would try to start a company during a recession!?). Not a great career choice, huh?

Let’s have a look at the typical route through modern life first. It goes a little like this:

  1. Go to school, work hard and develop a good work ethic. Earn good grades to get in to a better university.
  2. Work hard at university, get a good degree, get on the career ladder in a field you want to work in.
  3. Spend the rest of your life working up the career leader to get a bigger paycheck so you can buy a bigger a house, a shinier car and have a fancier wedding.
  4. Teach your kids how to repeat.

Is it just me, or does that sound a bit dull? Not only does it sound like less fun than a Justin Bieber concert, but it also doesn’t really work anymore. My generation is struggling to complete step 2. There are far more graduates than there are jobs available, and most employers will pick experience over youthful enthusiasm.

Increasingly, I’m seeing people fruitlessly searching for jobs or getting unexpectedly laid off. This reality of the stable, settled life is being shaken up. Cracks are appearing and spreading in its foundations, slowly but inevitably. I’d argue that stability and security nowadays is more dependent on our own adaptability than it ever has been before. There are so many changes taking place, and the global financial crisis has truly shaken things up. I can’t see the 21st century becoming much more settled either, the world faces a great challenge and uncertainty.

This modern life hardly inspires passion either. I’ve always felt depressed when I’ve looked at that route, partly because I can’t bear the thought that I already know what the rest of my life looks like. I’m not the only one. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the purpose? The challenge? The surprises? You will be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t like more of these things in their life. It’s hard to put my finger in, but in the UK I gradually picked up on a growing feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration people had with their lives.

A friend of mine, Avis Mulhall, recently appeared in the Irish times to share her story. Particularly poignant for me was this quote from her interview: “I was earning between €120,000 and €130,000, I was in a long-term relationship, we had two houses and two cars, and I thought: ‘Is this it?’” That sounds pretty impressive for someone yet to hit 30, but Avis was far alone in experiencing that ‘Is this it?’ feeling.

It’s created a huge demand and market for these magic quick-fix solutions. Because that’s we’ve learned to look for in our hurried lives.  I see so many ads along the lines of ‘Find your life purpose in THIRTY SECONDS!’ Wow, perfect! I can squeeze that in during the X-Factor advert break AND boil the kettle. Splendid.

But it’s a little harder than that to build a life that you live with purpose and that gives you fulfillment. It takes months or even years, depending on how settled you already are. It requires a full-on change of attitude and way of thinking, not just small tweaks.

What I’ve seen in entrepreneurs, particularly those that are driven by good causes, is that they’ve managed to crack this. They’ve found a life in which they feel engaged and in the moment every day of every week. They love their work, and it makes everything else – travel, relationships, music…all taste a little sweeter. They’re a little more tuned in to all that life offers – whether it be joy or sadness. There’s no such thing as a weekend off and it’s hard to make ends meet (you manage, though), but it’s completely worth it, and you get to take complete charge of your own life. It’s awesome.

Compared to your average employee, these individuals seem so much more excited about their lives. Hardly surprising when you’re allowed to be creative, to contribute to something bigger than yourself and make the seemingly impossible a reality.

I don’t know whether this increase in entrepreneurship will continue, but more awareness of it as viable life choice will hardly do any harm. I really hope we’ll see more people rejecting the notion of spending 5 days a week for the rest of their lives doing an activity they don’t enjoy or believe in (sounds exhausting to me), and doing this to pursue aspirations of consumerism that bring little more than temporary fulfillment. Whilst I wouldn’t proclaim everyone go out, leave their jobs and try to start up a business, I do think a bit more of an entrepreneurial attitude could go a long way.

I hope we’ll see more people rejecting the status quo, the fear of judgement, of failure and chase whole-heartedly after their dream.

Because we all have one, don’t we?

“Once a man crosses the abyss that separates him from his dream, there is no going back.”

– Unknown