Over the past two weeks, I got to engage with junior high school students, ages 13-15, at Satit Pattana School. Not only was this an opportunity to help out and reconnect with my former principal, Assoc. Prof Ladda Pukiat, and my former teachers from Satit Chula (my elementary school), it was also a new experience for me to work with such a young audience and learn about their career aspirations, as well as their thoughts, opinions, and attitudes on the future. My challenge was to help younger students discover their unrealized OR underutilized potential and define their own future. I did so by first helping the students explore a wide range of career possibilities and impacts. Then, I narrowed down and dove deep into each student’s personal interests and aspirations.
There is absolutely no doubt that younger generations (i.e. Millennials and Gen Z) have a wider range of career options, freedom, and flexibility than did our parents or grandparents. Being born into and living in the digital age, we see more, hear more, and know more. We have tools right at our fingertips. We can google what we don’t know, open a business or become "idols" or trendsetters on Instagram, buy and sell pretty much anything on eBay, show off our talent and create our own content on YouTube, hold teleconference meetings with people from halfway across the globe, get our names out there and build our credibility on LinkedIn, and publish our own stories on our personal blogs or websites. What’s more? We can work anywhere at any time as long as we have access to WiFi, have virtual assistants and freelancers to meet on-demand and constantly evolving business needs, and hence be able to juggle more than one “job” or one project at once.
Given the rate at which the world is changing, many jobs that exist today will no longer be relevant, in demand or even in existence in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I told the students at Satit Pattana from the get-go to think beyond "the jobs" readily available. Many of us morph ourselves to fit the mold each job or society has set for us, instead of molding "what we do" to accommodate, support, and emphasize our sense of self. In particular, many of us fall into the trap of considering or pursuing a job based on its potential to make money or the popularity, attention or respect it gets. As hard as it is to believe (even I struggle with this sometimes), money will come anyway as long as we are good at what we do and, to be good at what we do, our performance more or less relies on our passion, strong belief, and wholehearted devotion. Without such things, a high-paying job will pay the bills and probably get us the nice stuff our friends and neighbors will get jealous of, but nothing more. If we choose a job because it is popular or in demand, we must note a few things. First, popularity WILL fade with time and can only be maintained by the approval of others. Second, demand is heavily dependent on external forces we cannot really foresee, let alone control. For instance, a job at a big established bank was once and for a long time desirable, in demand, and highly respected. However, with the banking industry now reaching a turning point and succumbing to disruptive forces from all angles, the stable job is no longer as stable and promising as it used to be. Due to the fleeting nature of jobs, especially in the disruptive era in which we live, it is important to seek "where we want to go" or a sense of direction rather than a specific means or way to get there. For instance, if it’s our deep and personal purpose to help people and transform lives, it doesn’t matter whether we are a doctor, a volunteer/social entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a researcher, an inventor or mentor. We can reach our final destination and create an impact regardless of our vehicle or specific route. In fact, why not be a bit or a lot of everything! For example, a doctor on weekdays and a volunteer to take care of children or senior citizens in need on weekends OR an inventor with human needs or giving back at heart. At the end of the day, the purpose and values we live by identify us more than any specific job can or will ever do. Our purpose and personal values give us a sense of direction, just enough that we will not get lost, but not too rigid that we have no freedom or flexibility to explore, expose, experiment, and realize our fullest capacities through experience.
Of course, we all value different things. Some of us love helping people, entertaining/making people happy, educating or engaging with others or contributing to a cause. Others love imagining and inventing things, fighting their fears, working on “missions impossible,” solving problems or creating new realities. No aspiration is inferior or superior to others, as I kept telling the students. We are all heroes in our own ways. The first step is to figure out what it is that we value and care about. Then, we have to figure out ways to get there. In my opinion, we are now no longer (or at least should no longer be) fixating on jobs, but rather actively designing and creating our unique career paths, building and taking meaningful and significant steps to get to our purpose—why we set out to do all the things we do in the first place. At Satit Pattana, for example, both students and teachers are working together and actively engaging in extracurricular and career-based programs to help students realize their unique identities. When the students know their stance and the mark they want to make, everything else, especially in the short run, follows. Want to be an inventor of cool things? Take an art class to unleash your creativity, a math class to think logically and solve problems systematically, a physics class to bring ideas to life, a language class to practice speaking eloquently and persuasively (definitely a must to be able to pitch and communicate how cool your inventions are), and social science classes (e.g. history and geography) to learn about past inventions and the human needs they served, as well as to understand how people in different parts of the country or the world live their lives. Therefore, a sense of direction for what value we want to contribute in this life will guide us through our learning as well, not just the other way around. Knowing how we want to exist and grow in this world definitely makes our learning and consequently the development of our career paths more focused, fulfilling, and fruitful.
The students learned that every career path has a unique contribution to other people’s lives and our society at large. I told the students that as long as they understand the profound value of anything at all they are interested in, they are off to a great start and will be intrinsically motivated to develop their interest (no matter how big or small OR clear-cut or vague at this stage) into something bigger. In other words, when we know WHY we are doing something, HOW we can do it and WHAT we have to do will eventually come to us if our motive is strong enough. A strong motive is what drives and sustains our performance and our impact in the long run.
I assigned Satit Pattana students to their own heroes, based on different career aspirations to explore not only a wide range of career path options (what to do), but also potential impacts and contributions of each (why/what for). Some interesting examples included men or women with immense physical strength (who may typically be gym trainers or boxers) who use their advantage to help others, such as senior citizens, cross the streets or carry their belongings OR bakers who utilize their baking skills, underutilized ingredients or leftover baked goods to feed less fortunate people. Through this activity, the students learned to respect and recognize the importance of each and every career path and got to use their creativity and curiosity to identify and combine different skills that, to them, make each career successful. For example, the students realized through the activity that teachers do not just teach, but need to lead by example. Therefore, the skills of leading and being a role model are just as important as the skill of teaching. Tech-savvy people need to use their technological knowledge and expertise to detect any unusual online activity rather than misuse it to conduct unusual activities themselves. Therefore, ethics and a strong sense of social responsibility are just as important as the technical expertise.
To sum up, I asked the students to work in teams to create video content to present their career-related passions. To do so, they had to design and plan their interactive and engaging presentation and help discover each other’s interests and potential. It turned out that many students had some sort of direction for what they wanted to do, with different levels of “clarity,” ranging from “author/novelist," "chef," “something related to music,” and “something related to sports,” to “boxing.” I helped the students develop their content and interests further by asking them to identify the sources of their interests (e.g. whether it was related to classes they took in their childhood, whether it was something their parents wanted them to do, whether it was something they watched from somewhere or got inspired by other people), as well as their future plans to take their interests to the next steps. This activity definitely allowed the students to explore their personal interests further, to ask themselves questions they wouldn’t ordinarily think about (e.g. Why do I consider myself creative? Why does music make me happy?), to work as a team to help and support each other, to take the lead rather than simply sit and listen to someone else's telling them exactly what to do, and finally to push themselves to be more self-confident and self-motivated both on and off camera.
Ultimately, thinking or rethinking our sense of self, our sense of purpose, and our sense of direction is a lifelong process. It is never too late or too early to discover our unrealized or underutilized potential and define our own future, as well as how we want to exist in and contribute to this world.