Dear S'pore students, there's no need to specialise too quickly. Career switchers are winners.

In this day and age, it's actually a good thing to be a Jack-of-all-trades.

Abel Ang | April 04, 2021, 08:51 AM

COMMENTARY: "Success in the future will not be on how well someone can remember dates, facts or scientific formulae."

Writing for Lessons on Leadership, a new series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, Abel Ang writes about our vulnerability to disruption:

He explains how it can be beneficial for students to delay academic specialisation, find out what fits them best, and try out many jobs to figure out which 'wicked problems' they can best solve in their careers.

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.

Imagine taking that all-important exam that you have been slogging long and hard for. You spent your whole life preparing for it. You get an A-grade on the exam, but suddenly the examiner tells you that you have aced the wrong exam. You wake up in cold sweat.

This is not a repeating nightmare that revisits every few years. It is the reality that many are preparing themselves, and possibly their children for.

Our vulnerability to disruption

Success in the future will not be on how well someone can remember dates, facts or scientific formulas.

It will not be based on how well we solve math problems. It will not even be based on how many languages we speak, or how well we play a game like chess. We will have computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for such tasks, and the bad news is, they will be significantly better than us.

In a speech given in 2018, former Education Minister Ong Ye Kung worried that

“Over-specialisation will make students vulnerable to technological disruption…[and] traditional emphasis on academic excellence has inadvertently made our students too ‘book smart’, and lacking the innovative spirit, entrepreneurial zest and survival instinct needed in the real world.”

He opened his speech at an international education congress in Switzerland saying: “The world we are preparing our young for is very different from the times when we designed our education systems.”

“Kind” vs “wicked” problems

On that point, much of the training that our children are receiving in our local schools continues to be focused on solving “kind” problems. Kind problems are problems that AI can solve easily. Eg. remembering facts, doing calculations, learning languages …

For the time being, humans are still able to differentiate themselves from AI by being able to solve “wicked” problems in a more volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Wicked problems are problems that are difficult to solve due to incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the diverse number of people and opinions involved, and the interconnected nature of these problems, with other difficult to solve problems.

Preparing our kids and ourselves to solve wicked problems is one of the areas that we want to get an A-grade in, if humans are to differentiate themselves against machines.

So how do we better prepare to solve wicked problems?

Exploration is a central benefit of education, not a whimsical luxury

For answers, I recently turned to the best-seller by David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I found the book very readable, offering many relevant insights on the topic of over-specialisation.

Epstein advocates that the role of education is to allow individuals to “delay specialisation while sampling and finding out who they are and where they fit.” He believes that: “Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”

Bad idea to pick a specialised career path based on one's chosen secondary school subjects

For students, the main advice is to delay academic specialisation. He is not fond of the approach that we practice in Singapore, where students decide their fields of study prior to entering university, due to the subject combinations that they take, at the expense of subjects that they might need for switching later.

He describes the picking of a specialised career path based on the limited options available in secondary school as “being forced to choose at 16 whether you want to marry your high school sweetheart. At the time it might seem like a great idea, but the more you experience, the less great the idea looks in hindsight.”

Try many jobs to find out what fits best — career switchers are winners

Besides specialising later, he recommends that young people try many jobs to seek out what fits them best. He believes that each job has informational value and will allow the young to figure out which wicked problems they can best solve in their careers. In his mind, if people treated “careers more like dating, nobody would settle down so quickly.”

Economist have a term called match quality which describes the degree of fit between the work someone does and the abilities and proclivities that each person has. In the selected field of study and particularly in one’s career, Epstein advocates that individuals should optimise for match quality.

Epstein believes that winners “quit fast and often when they detect that a plan is not the best fit, and do not feel bad about it.” He believes that switchers are winners because they are optimising for match quality, and the alignment of match quality helps them to overcome any lack of skills that they might have, due to starting later in a field, compared with others that might not have switched.

In the book Epstein lists out switchers that have gone on to achieve great things: Van Gogh, Thomas Edison, and Charles Darwin. Each of these individuals was able to pivot and not be paralysed by sunk cost of prior choices that they each had made – going on to achieve greatness in their respective fields.

Epstein’s advice seems broadly consistent with what the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) outlined in their report to government:

“Since technologies and jobs are likely to change throughout our lifetimes, we need to go beyond the pursuit of the highest possible academic qualifications early in life to focus on acquiring and using knowledge and skills throughout our lives.”

Doing a bunch of different things helped me realise what I didn’t want in my life

In retrospect, my own career has been one of optimising match-quality. I took a gap year before university where I worked with youths in a nonprofit for eight months and spent the remaining time working as a waiter at Regent Hotel. There was no glamour in my gap year, but it helped me to realise that I did not want to spend my life doing either of those things.

During university, I worked as a home math tutor during the four years to pay my way through school. In addition to tutoring kids, I managed to work in three startups: a PR agency, an Internet café, and a digital media company. Before I took my first job after university, I had been involved with two startups that failed.

I joined the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) after graduating with a general degree in Communications, focusing on developing the technology industry in Singapore, long before it became sexy to be in tech.

During my time at the EDB, I was exposed to many industries and found out that healthcare was where my passion and purpose lay. I was fortunate that the EDB gave me a scholarship to pursue a Masters in Computational Biology, even though I had never taken a single programming class in my life.

Now almost 20 years later, I run a Singapore medical device company that has global operations of 1,000 people and sales of about US$250 million per year.

Mine has been a meandering journey of many pivots and experiments before I found my current match.

Will I stay in healthcare? Probably. Is that the only thing that I will do? Probably not.

I will continue to pivot and try new assignments. My learning will continue, as disruption lurks in every corner of every industry.

Epstein’s book is chock full of evidence that high grades and early promise do not foretell outstanding career outcomes and enhanced employability later. Given what we know about the future, that may actually be an A-grade in the wrong exam.

His one-line advice to all of us is “don’t feel behind”. He encourages us to experiment, to try, to learn and adjust as we go along in the search for what we will find passion, purpose and excellence in life.

Generalists and Jack-of-all-trades take comfort, your time is now.

Top photo via SIT.