Education, Assumptions, and Life

This is an atypical post for me, but I’ve been thinking a lot about education recently. The assumptions we make when we’re young ultimately shape our careers and lives. With the benefit of hindsight, I want my kids to be better prepared to make thoughtful decisions about their futures.

Today I was reminded today of the T-shaped skillset. A T-shaped skillset, as it is generally referenced, is specific to a career—a set of general skills and then one especially deep skill—but it occurred to me that it can be a broader framework for education as a whole.

We go through a T-shaped path throughout our education and then in choosing our careers… a meta T-shape, if you will.

Grade school basically provides a general, horizontal education (science, math, English, etc.), which forms the top of the T. Along the way, we develop interests and may start to “go vertical.” However, we do so based on a limited worldview (a short top bar) full of knowledge gaps and assumptions:

  1. There are many issues with what school does or doesn’t teach. One of the most egregious is the prioritization of grades over curiosity, which incentivizes kids to follow the path(s) of least resistance rather than those which may be more interesting and/or ultimately more fulfilling.
  2. There’s a limited or warped understanding of careers, too. (E.g, did you know what a marketer, lawyer, consultant, banker, etc. actually did in school?)
  3. Many people set aside their passions because they see no relevant careers options, yet new industries and career options often emerge around the passions of young people (new games, topics, mediums).

So the problem is that we choose majors and careers (our deepest vertical paths) based on limited and skewed perceptions of the world (incomplete horizontal background). For example, almost every user experience researcher (UXR) I’ve talked to about recently has been a psychology or sociology PhD, who never intended to get into tech and had never heard of UXR before… because it didn’t exist when they started their studies!

To be honest, I’m surprised more people don’t change careers more often as they learn more about themselves and what truly interests them most.

Of course, we’ll always be making decisions based on incomplete data, to a degree. But I think kids need 1. a broader generalist education and 2. investigatory, critical thinking, and even predictive skills. I think that coding should be a foundational skill, as code is now foundational to nearly all industry now (software having eaten the world). And kids should have greater opportunities to pursue topics they’re passionate about, not be limited to a specific curriculum.

I plan to be more intentional about this with my own kids but I also appreciate that new formats of education are being developed for kids growing up today (e.g., Outschool) as well as for people who didn’t get exposure, encouragement, or opportunities earlier—yet have the desire to change directions (e.g., Lambda School).