Fearless polymaths: irrelevance and creativity

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In an interview with the Guardian, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, talked about a few things – Hillary Clinton in particular. But she also said something that piqued my interest:

“The young people we hire today at Condé Nast are fearless polymaths”

That’s about the fifth time I’ve heard that word in the past week. Admittedly the other four were because I used it. But I’ve had a few conversations recently, with both students and colleagues about the need, as one of my graduates advised current students before Christmas, to ‘be interesting’.

A colleague told me recently that more than one professional illustrator had advised students not to specialise, and to remain flexible, taking an interest in as much as possible and to express themselves creatively in as many ways as possible.

Wintour said the same thing in her Guardian interview:

Wintour used the opportunity to appeal to the younger generation to “not become too specialised” and instead “be intellectually free”

And

“I urge you instead to seek to be relevant, to be agile and educated.”

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‘Motivated, creative and passionate’ – the words that kill your CV

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How can we break out of the business “buzzword bingo” trap? When in doubt, some of George Orwell’s rules on clarity and simplicity in writing are worth remembering: never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. But more importantly, it ought to be possible to apply for a job without pretending to be something we are not. It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat a list of hackneyed workplace virtues. We should tell a potential employer who we are, in plain terms. If they are looking for someone like us, good. If not we will have avoided the unpleasant experience of getting stuck in a job that didn’t really suit us.

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Employability v employment

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Johnny Rich writing in Times Higher Education (my emphasis):

Having failed to introduce differential tuition fees in 2012, the government’s plan B is to allow fee rises for universities that offer “excellent” teaching, as assessed in the teaching excellence framework. This will be judged using “common metrics”, but none of the three proposed so far relates to employability. Sure, there is the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which records the proportion of graduates in employment six months after graduation, but this is a measure of employment, not employability.

The words must not be confused. In a recession, for example, employment can crash, but employability may rise as people need to compete harder for available work. Employability is that set of attributes that makes a graduate worth employing: how well a student’s learning matches with what the labour market needs.

It is the number one outcome that, in increasing proportions, prospective students expect to get from higher education. It is also integral to the cost to the public purse of student loans that are never repaid.

There is an important distinction to make between employability and employment and for the most part I agree with Johnny. However “what the labour market needs” is constantly changing so employability shouldn’t be defined in such narrow terms because it will always fail to meet those needs. Discussion of skills often focuses on the low level rather than high level and, sadly, this is often where students tend to focus as well – things you can tick off (“I know how to use Photoshop” is always more concrete than “I can analyse problems and come up with ideas with a team”).

This is the “employability” that students worry about: do they tick the boxes on the job ad? But job ads often don’t capture what it is employers are really looking for: creative thinking, leadership potential, team working, a decent personality. It’s right to distinguish between employability and employment, but even the term employability is open to interpretation.

Employability, to me, revolves around not only knowing what you can do but also what you can’t yet do, and the ability to do something about that. As Charles Handy put it, a degree is not a qualification to practice but “a licence to learn”.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s only fairly recently that we’ve started offering degrees that seem tied to specific careers. Time was that a degree equipped you for graduate-level employment (which is Charles Handy’s point) and any degree that is so narrowly focused that its graduates are viewed as only being capable of working in one area is failing on the employability front. It’s skilling people up, but it’s not making them employable beyond one field. That’s potentially disastrous for all concerned.

I don’t think education is about serving the needs of the labour market, but of the individual and society as a whole. The labour market serves them, not the other way around.

My hope for all my graduates is that they will shape the world they live in, not fit in to the shape someone else has made for them.

I realise that’s an unfashionably idealist position.

It’s education, stupid. Or, how the UK risks losing its global creative advantage | Design Council

According to the study, “While Brighton’s creative, design and IT firms grew faster than the local economy and more than 10 times faster than the British economy as a whole, ‘fused’ business grew at more than twice that speed and ‘superfused’ firms grew faster still.” One of the enabling factors that make this sort of growth possible is people with skills that can work across traditional silos. The Design Council’s recent research into automotive manufacturing highlighted that the automotive sector, like other industries, is requiring designers with a larger skillset (particularly in user experience and interaction design) and seeking T-shaped people: those who have deep technical and creative skills but are also able to work across fields and collaborate with various suppliers and functions – from engineering and marketing to end users.

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