As I continued with my coaching and guiding work, the conviction to help others and the sense of purpose behind that has grown. A regular reader of my writings will noticed that I often write about education as much as I pen commentary on the culture we live within. It is probably because our education forms a very significant influence in our lives and moulds a lot of our foundational thinking and approach to conducting ourselves in society and life. And all of these make their way into the challenges we encounter as we join the workforce – which is where my coaching practice comes into play.
The goal of my coaching work is ultimately to promote self-reliance. I’m not trying to coach you so that you can rely on me to deal with your problems whether it is with discovering your aspirations, charting a career or just securing a job. I run alongside you to cope with the challenges you face because ultimately, I hope that you are able to retune your internal compass to get it to point your direction again; and for you to develop that awareness and sensitivity towards yourself in order to move forward in all the situations in life. The ability to rely on oneself is going to be central to mental health and the well-being of our society as a whole over the next few decades.
Our parents or even grandparents lived through messy times. There was war, strife, riots, slums and disorganised markets. There was adversity and children mostly did not even complete schooling. In the ‘school of life’, the learnt and they grew, developing self-reliance. Today, our efforts to plan just about everything and desire to get things organised rather than allow kids to grow organically means occupying our children with structure sort of learning of all forms. In part, it is also because parents actually have more financial, mental and physical capacity to manage the children’s childhood and experience. As a consequence, we are indulging in our children, spending ever more resources to help them get a headstart in all forms of socially-recognised credentials, and also on new toys, tools and entertainment for them.
In part, as we see other parents do that for their children, we think we fall short if we do not. And when our children makes mistakes, we feel responsible. When we judge them to be inadequate, we blame ourselves. What is the easiest way then, to avoid all of these? That is to control our kids; control their time, ensure they are ‘kept occupied’ through all kinds of programmes, helicopter parenting, lining up all things in life for them. Doing your best for your children then becomes simply making them extensions of your aspirations, dreams and your life.
To a some extent, that was what quite a lot of us who are now in the early years of our career have been subjected to. And that is also what we are doing to our children. What happens thereafter is that children lose their self-reliance. They prefer to live under the direction of someone else. They learn the rules of the game, the authority that they need to comply with, the things they should do, to be elevated socially. Once they have to be truly on their own, they are lost. The consequence has huge social implications to our mental health and resilience.
Because we are so used to taking directions and hearing from the society, we become less sensitive to our inner motivations and compass, relying more on extrinsic motivations. I started my coaching practice to help young adults and youths build up that mental resilience and also to develop greater self-reliance. It helps to be more aware of how one’s internal narratives are shaping our motivation, and to develop the ability to rewrite these stories. That does mean life will get messier, more complex, ridden with what we normally think of as ‘uncertainty’. What we do not recognise is that sense of loss we feel – when we reach the career point we had been working for and realise it wasn’t what we thought it would be, or when things are turning out dramatically different from what you expected for the first couple of times in life – is exactly the reminder that the certainty we think we have had is often false.
So over the past 2-3 weeks, I’ve been pondering over our education system. It all started with that chat I had with my friends, and then the article I wrote, and then more thinking. I even thought at one point I want to start a podcast about education and go around interviewing people how they want to change it. The truth is majority of us have brushes with it and experiences with it – pleasant or not. And those were worthwhile voicing out, to augment and improve the system. You don’t need to be an educator or professional to do it. I was not just thinking about the system in Singapore but this whole industry of education, testing, whether it is about building up or just sieving out; whether it is implicitly defining merit rather than bringing up people to merit.
Now the recurring question I had in mind was whether education, which is supposed to be the great leveler, should be ‘sorting’ people with its system of testings and exams or ‘lifting’ people up to a certain level. To put it at another layer, it is also about whether education should be tuned to provide signals about a particular person or be tuned to develop a person. What underlies this difference is implicitly the ‘fixed mindset’ vis-a-vis the ‘growth mindset’ that the one tuning the system have about people, and the potential of the society at large.
Signaling Function: Separating or Pooling
Now the title of the article references this feature of systems that are set up to create signals. It assumes there are different ‘types’ in the environment and the system design can result in everyone signaling the same (ie. pooling) or signaling differently (ie. separating). In general, examinations are designed to create separating equilibria. We are taught to think that a test that results in everyone scoring A is pointless because exams are to help us differentiate the best from the rest. Or is it? Shouldn’t an exam or test be used to measure students/learners against a benchmark you want to train them up to?
So shouldn’t we be keeping the testing constant and adjusting the teaching and content to ensure we can ‘lift up’ everyone rather than ‘sort them out’. Because when we design exams to generate a ‘normal distribution’ outcome, then we are implicitly saying someone in the room deserves to be last when it is just a natural outcome of a relative system. We can no longer trace ‘culpability’ back to the students commitment and efforts because someone has got to be last in class – someone has got to be in the lower tail of that normal distribution. What a depressing way to think about education outcomes.
Therefore, this signaling function of education runs against the grain of all the effort, sense of purpose that we are imbued with as we try to develop our students into people worthy of our society, yet that is the way we design our assessment, which nowadays seem more like the end of school rather than just an instrument that the schools use to provide a means for students to check themselves against some kind of standards.
Competing with yourself
Now the way our assessments are designed also means that you are creating competition amongst students. Because results are somewhat relative, you can do better when your classmates do worse. At national level or in moderated standardised testing which is really used to perform ‘sorting’ at cohort population level, the results gives you your relative position within the society rather than your absolute standards. Well, people will say, that’s all that matters isn’t it? Life is a competition and it’s about getting ahead of others.
As I mentioned previously, this is a recipe for a society-wide mental health disaster; especially if job options are strongly correlated with academic performance subsequently. Worst, the parents and society shares the idea that only jobs requiring those qualifications are worthwhile going for. In reality, the most important competition in your life is with yourself and it is important for you to be able to track your progress, to know you’re growing. Take for example when you measure the height of a child to see he is growing; you might look at the height percentile chart at any one point to say, oh he is 40th percentile, below average for his age, but we know he used to be 136cm but now he is 140cm, he is definitely growing. You don’t get worried that he used to be 55th percentile when he was a year younger but now at 40th percentile in height.
You might say because relative height don’t matter as much as academic achievement in life. But the same principle remains that having an objective way of tracking your progress of growth helps give you the encouragement to keep going. Our school testing and exam systems does not help us achieve that. They do not allow students to compete with themselves; at every tests, they are just taking the same cohort, sorting them into grades/scores again and again with different combination of topics and subjects. How this really helps the growth and development of a single child is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t matter so much when your parents, society at large and teachers focus on your attitude, your character and values more than exam results. But I have a feeling that we naturally gravitate more towards what is measurable and allow that to become the dominant yardstick.
By ‘pooling’ students into just a few ‘prestigious subjects’ (eg. the sciences) and ‘separating’ them into grades within these disciplines, we risk funneling them further and deeper into intense competitions when we should be training them to find niches for themselves to escape competition. In business or society, when you encounter a red ocean (full of sharks, ie. competition), you run, and you try to define your own market, a blue ocean you can swim in. Yet in schools we don’t prepare students for a life that involves seeking blue oceans, we try to force everyone to swim in the bloody waters and create artificial bloodbaths.
An alternative: Sorting by strengths, Lifting up everyone
I thought long and hard about what the education system should really be separating and pooling instead of the traditional model. And I have an alternative to suggest. It will be aligned with the ideas I proposed previously. To prepare students truly for society, the system should be sorting students into various areas of strength/practice/disciplines that they are to be nurtured for rather than choosing a fixed set of disciplines and then sorting students according to their abilities in those disciplines. And be serious about nurturing them in the areas they are sorted into. Expose students to more things whilst they are young instead of specifying subjects and saying they ought to have headstart in those areas and drill them with content. Sort people horizontally across a spectrum of different areas rather than vertically along a spectrum of ‘abilities’ – help students develop their strengths and hone their craft.
A well functioning society requires a good spread of people with head, heart and hands. You may say that we are exposed to the competition of the global market but price need not be the only signals we heed, quality matters, identity as fellow citizens matters. And these are values that we can cultivate when we sort people not by their ‘abilities’ in narrow areas of human endeavour, but by sorting them in a way where they see the value they can contribute to the society.
Why this is so important is because so much of Singaporean’s students lives are squandered meandering around the system designed to not so much to genuinely develop every student but to sieve out the top academics/intellectuals. Imagine you are clueless about your strengths but you know you’re not a study-type. And each year you try hard but you’re consistently sorted into the tail end of the distribution, for every single subject where there’s a test/exam. You score A for arts and you are told you draw well but none of those are reflected or considered when you have to select which school to go into. You’re continually told you’re underperforming, ‘doing badly’ – of course you try to deal with the feelings of inadequacy and being judged harshly by ‘rebeling’ against the system. And then the system tells you that you’re doing badly precisely because you’re behaving badly.
If we had an alternative system, I believe Jerome Yap’s story would have turned out differently. Of course, if I were him now, I wouldn’t want it to be any different because the adversity I went through made me who I am. But under the different system, he would be ‘discovered’ at an earlier age, and his talents will be nurtured by his parents and teachers (who do not have to seem like they are working against the system); and he might have already started his own successful design business by the age of 28 – with degree or not. In fact, the degree won’t be what we are celebrating, it would be the fact that we have such talent from this small city state.
In a recent coaching call, I tried to share the differences between doing Economics and Finance. It was not easy; somehow pre-University students feel rather muddled between finance and economics which came as no surprise to me. The thing is, both deals with business; but economics is a much broader topic of which finance is actually a subset. What we call ‘finance’ as a topic is actually ‘financial economics’. A word of warning – I actually love economics so maybe I’d sound a little biased here but I try to be balanced.
Economics deals very broadly with questions pertaining to the functioning of the economy both at the broad level (macroeconomics) and the industry or firm level (microeconomics). It has since applied those concepts and thinking into various other areas such as decision-making (basically cost-benefit analysis), behavioural sciences (extrinsic and intrinsic incentives, cerebral resource allocation, psychological biases and mistakes – okay I made up the second one up but you do get the drift). The focal point of economics, is not money; it is the ends behind money – the goods, services, psychological satisfaction, or ‘utility’ in Jeremy Bentham’s formulation.
Finance deals with money, in all its forms – cash, credit and many of the newer, colorful ways in which promises to pay are structured and secured as well as the flow/movement of it. It is generally focused on movement across legal/geographical boundaries (exchange rates), movement across time (interest rates), how to price those rates, how to value cashflows. From an economist point of view, finance is a means, to achieve the ends which is utility. But in finance, there’s no notion of utility, everything is simply measured in terms of money, which ever currency you define as the base and within the period/time-horizon of consideration.
Now the reason for asking the difference, was really to consider what kind of career options these degree programmes open up. The truth is, finance sector takes in graduates from economics as well, and even engineering (some banks actually prefer taking engineers); but of course, the finance graduates certainly have it better in banks and might be more comfortable with the jargons and methodologies required when they first start out. They might also be more motivated by the kinds of programmes that the jobs serve up to them because the degree programmes tend to also build those areas of skills that are useful in banking (yes I’m talking about tidying up your excel models, dressing slickly, speaking well and networking).
Economics is broader, in that it gives you the flexibility to apply the set of thinking tools that you learnt in many other areas in terms of jobs – public policy roles, strategy consulting, business consulting, business development and more. But the thing is that economics is so general all these other jobs can also be filled by students from various other (albeit slightly different) disciplines. So in a sense, there’s nothing really ‘unique’ about economics graduates. If one desires to devote one’s university life towards building one’s career post-university, then the best bets are to go for professional sort of degrees: accounting, law, medicine, engineering, actuarial science, architecture, urban planning. In all of them, follow through and obtain your professional qualifications, then practice. These will be your fall-back regardless of what work you eventually branch out into. I’ve friends who were lawyers or accountants becoming entrepreneurs but at least if things fail, they are able to go back to their professions and do reasonably well.
But honestly, what good is it to devote your degree and life in university to doing something you’re planning to do for the rest of your working life anyways? To me, it’s important to draw upon that time as one that challenges your mind in the manner you deem appropriate, so as to discover how you can use it to contribute to the world. Pick subjects asking the kind of questions you feel excited about and that you want to answer them but don’t know the answers to (yet). Pick subjects that allows you to fail in a way that you have courage to, and feel proud of, and can share your wild experiences with your grandchildren. Be practical, but use the time wisely and well – don’t allow yourself to be enslaved to the expectations of the society or the world.
As I stepped into the working world, I became fascinated by micro-cultures within workplaces, organisations and groups of people working together within a department or division. This micro-cultures had a huge impact on the productivity of teams, the behaviours of its members, the output, the way results are articulated and above all, the well being of the members. Then I came across this old article from Havard Business Review.
I never quite knew about Carol Dweck or her book but I do recognize the term Growth Mindset and this is perhaps something I was directly or indirectly exposed to some point through my teenage when I was growing up. This idea was appealing to me then because I was never taught to think too highly of myself. I’m often kept in check by my parents who reminded me that my sister was more intelligent than me even when I did better in school and so on. I was praised, however, for my hard work and the desire to learn and improve myself. That constant feedback on my effort and the small wins that I secure encouraged me and allowed me to go farther in stretching myself.
I was surprised that the writer used Jack Welch as an example of a leader who fosters growth mindset in the organisation and encourages employees to grow. Because I imagined General Electric to be the sort of survival of the fittest organisation where the top quintile was richly rewarded and the bottom quintile was fired and replaced. That bell curve GE approach to performance appraisal stuck in my head because like probably many other workers of big bureaucratic organisations, that was pretty much the approach towards talent management. And to me, that is what a fixed mindset, ‘star’ organisation was like – they name and crown winners and allow them to keep on winning. When one stays in such organisation for too long, one takes on the fixed mindset and that necessarily affects his productivity, and willingness to work hard.
For instance, employees at companies with a fixed mindset often said that just a small handful of “star” workers were highly valued. The employees who reported this were less committed than employees at growth-mindset companies and didn’t think the company had their back. They worried about failing and so pursued fewer innovative projects. They regularly kept secrets, cut corners, and cheated to try to get ahead.
The Right Combination
Keeping secrets, cheating to get ahead, cutting corners all sound pretty nasty and value-destroying. And of course, the employees themselves are as culpable as the culture they reside in but isn’t it amazing that we continue to perpetuate micro-cultures in organisation that do this. Yet why was Jack Welch heralded for the growth mindset? It was the other practices he brought in to encourage growth and give opportunities for mobility within this whole bell curve exercise.
He hired according to “runway,” not pedigree, preferring Big 10 graduates and military veterans to Ivy Leaguers, and spent thousands of hours grooming and coaching employees on his executive team—activities that demonstrate a recognition of people’s capacity for growth.
In that sense, the bell curve appraisal approach must be combined with proper hiring practices in place that would actually encourage overall organisation growth. By adopting just the tool to encourage competition amongst employees without encouraging the culture of sharing and passion for learning, the organisation exacerbates the ills of a fixed-mindset organisation.
Growth-mindset organizations are likely to hire from within their ranks, while fixed-mindset organizations reflexively look for outsiders. And whereas fixed-mindset organizations typically emphasize applicants’ credentials and past accomplishments, growth-mindset firms value potential, capacity, and a passion for learning.
Singapore organisations suffer this way disproportionately; being a society transfixed with past credentials, accomplishments, rather than potential and capacity, we are allowing our genuine potential suffer when we don’t pay attention to our micro-cultures or hold our CEOs accountable for these aspects of organisation performance. To make matters worse, culture is a long-term matter while organisations are typically organised to deliver results year on year. CEOs with short (planned or unplanned) tenure aiming for quick results pays little attention to creating a good culture or designing a growth-oriented organisation.
As a director interviewing CEOs, ask them questions about people and their perspective on manpower. Whether they are theory X or theory Y is an important hint to the kind of cultures they will foster. As middle management, focus on caring for your people and creating the friendly, growth-oriented micro-culture within your sphere of influence in order to provide a divisional best-practice that the entire organisation can imitate or learn from. As an employee, provide formal and informal feedback relentlessly about culture, about the signal that management sends to employees through their actions, policies, and practices. Don’t allow management to dominate feedback conversations (they have sufficient opportunities at appraisals already).
Finally, as a CEO, ask yourself if you care more about your paycheck or leaving a genuine legacy in where you’ll be. Do you have that stillness of mind and firmness of principle when you take on the role and promise to deliver? As visible as the evidence of hard output and results may be a reflection of the CEO’s competence, they are short-lived compared to the lasting legacy and wonderful memories of a leader who cared and changed their lives and mindsets.