When it comes to career planning and advice, we need to replace the passion paradigm with a cultural and academic emphasis on problem solving and value creation. In this post, I propose a 14-week syllabus for doing just that.

Our current education system forces us to leave a lot of value on the table. When people perform below their potential because they don’t have the necessary skills, society is worse off for it. A lot of critiques of the education system are leveled at inadequate instruction in core subjects like math and science — and rightly so. My concern, however, is with subjects that do not even exist in the curriculum, but should.

You don’t plant a garden in desert soil and expect it to flourish — but this is what we do with students all the time. We hit them with vast amounts of information over the course of 18 years. The endgame, presumably, is for students to become productive members of society. Meanwhile, we pay little attention to the soil in which we’re planting all this academic knowledge. Students are supposed to take the subjects they’re taught and turn them into value — that is, a career. How they go about that is not the concern of the education system — it’s on the individual to figure out.

Education Should Focus Less on Knowledge, More on Mental Conditioning

This model worked for a long time because well-defined knowledge professions offered lifelong security. You could study to be a lawyer, accountant, or doctor, and you’d remain in that profession for the rest of your life. But the job market long ago became too dynamic to offer lifelong security to a sufficient number of people.

The prevailing approach to secondary and undergraduate education will fail more students and force society to leave ever larger amounts of value on the table. This is because technology continues to raise the professional bar for everyone. The democratization of information via the Internet, plus automation and artificial intelligence, will threaten both white and blue collar jobs — including professions thought to be insusceptible to technological intrusion just ten years ago. In the future, the most secure jobs will rely not just on neurological processing power but the uniquely human traits of imagination, insight, and innovation as well. In other words, the most valuable jobs will be those that robots cannot do.

And so it is urgent that students acquire something more than raw knowledge over the course of their education. In the age of Google, we need to worry less about imparting information and more about cultivating the cerebral soil in which it’s planted. Students’ minds don’t need to be crammed with content; they need to be primed and wired to create value from the copious amounts of information available to them. It is time that value creation be taught more explicitly in school.

The Advice to “Follow Your Passion” is Bankrupt

There are a variety of cultural forces at work that prevent students from creating value on their own. The most common career advice over the past five or 10 years — dispensed with alarming regularity in graduation speeches — has been to “follow your passion”. But this advice doesn’t work for the majority of students. Unlike Bill Gates or Beyoncé, most people do not discover an innate passion and master the corresponding skill (programming for Gates, singing for Beyoncé) before reaching adulthood. Most 18-year-olds, while brimming with interests, hobbies and enthusiasms, are passionless. 

Therefore, telling the average kid to pursue her passion is basically cruel. Those of us lucky enough to have a true passion don’t need to be told to pursue it. That’s why it’s a passion!

When it comes to career advice, we need to replace the “passion paradigm” with a cultural emphasis on problem solving and value creation. Imagine if you went to college to study a problem instead of a major — the goal of your education would be to create a solution and turn it into a profitable career or enterprise.

Absent that model, the point is this: Rather than searching fruitlessly inward for a passion, people should look outward for problems to solve. The question, “What do you want to do with your life?” becomes “What problem do you want to solve?” And the advice to “follow your passion” becomes “pursue a problem”.

Innovation Can Be Taught

Here’s the rub: We have to teach young people to think this way. You can’t just tell a kid to go find a problem worth solving and expect them to turn into Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. You have to prime their minds for innovative thinking. You have to change the way they think about career. You have to let them practice value creation in the classroom.

With these arguments in mind, I’ve created a syllabus for a course that is part innovation seminar, part career design workshop. The ultimate goal of the course is to empower students to pursue careers that produce things, ideas and products of value. A student entering the course might be motivated by visions of fame and fortune, because those are the only contexts she knows for imagining a career. By the end of the course, however, she should be able to think about her career in terms of value creation and problem solving. And that’s something to be passionate about.