Five Things I Wish I Knew In Fifth Grade

The future is in your hands

by Pete Blazek & Dennis Stevens


When I was in the fifth grade, I didn’t think much about my future. I was focused on hanging out with my friends, playing baseball and swimming, getting my school work done, avoiding bullies, and trying to get girls to talk to me. School was more of a chore or social event than the main event. Many of the lessons I learned in school have never proved valuable to me in my career. What I didn’t know was that over the next four years I would form habits that would shape everything I would become as an adult. These habits shaped how well prepared I was for the world when I got out of high school.

When you are taught something, what you already know affects what you learn. If you don’t know what you are looking for you may miss the opportunity to learn something important. When you learn something and put it into practice, it becomes a habit. Habits are built into your brain and they become part of who you are. Habits happen without much thinking and they will influence everything you will become as you apply them in other life situations. Whether you do it thoughtfully or not, you develop habits in all areas of your life when you are young and the habits you form shape how you participate in the world when you grow up. If you develop bad habits when you are young, you will only be able to change them with great effort and strain when you get older.

For most of what you are being taught in school, the content matters. The core skills of reading, writing and math are important. But these are not the most important lessons you learn in school. The most important lessons are the ones you will learn about people, time management, and teamwork, since these will have the greatest impact on your success. The world is changing so fast, we don’t know what content will be most important to you. The issues we face are changing and that rate of change is growing faster. The growth of consumption and movement of jobs and wealth around the world are altering the work place into something different from our parents’ work place. The good news? You can learn to focus on forming the right habits to help you succeed in this changing world.

In 1900, the major concerns in cities involved the environment, disease, energy, communication, and economy. The environment in our cities was harmed by pollution from the horse manure in the streets. Infectious disease was killing large numbers of children as people flocked to the cities for jobs. The primary source of energy was coal, which poured soot into the air. It took 15 weeks to get a message to India from the United States. The industrial revolution was well under way and the movement of a largely unskilled labor force from farming to an industrial economy was a big concern.

In 2000, the major concerns were still the environment, disease, energy, communication, and the economy. The environment was being polluted by smog and acid rain from fossil fuel burning cars that were not invented in 1900. Infection had been largely wiped out by antibiotics, but heart disease, viruses and cancer are the major killers. The primary source of energy is oil, although France gets 80% of its electric power from nuclear energy, a power source not even thought of in 1900. With email, a message gets to India in seconds and the internet has opened communication up around the world in spectacular ways. The knowledge revolution is well under way and the training of a largely unskilled labor force from an industrial to a service and knowledge based economy is a big concern.

The future concerns for the environment, disease, energy, communication, and the economy are impossible to predict. None of the issues that exist today were predicted in 1900.

The rate of change is getting faster

There are more scientists alive today than in the entire history of the world combined. These scientists have access to powerful computers and can access all the information ever researched before them, Entire industries are being reinvented. For example, the printing technology didn’t change between 1500 and 1750. For 250 years it was the same. In the last 15 years, the publishing industry has changed twice and it is about to change again.

The impact of technology is amazing:

  • Pagers – It took 41 years to have 10 million pagers in use
  • Fax Machine – 22 years
  • VCR – 9 years
  • CD Player – 7 years
  • Personal Computer – 6 years
  • Internet Web Browser (Internet Explorer) – 10 months
  • MySpace – 4 months. 11 months after launch a concept that didn’t even exist and a business model that wasn’t possible two years before had a market value of $1.8 billion.

We are in our forties. We use a laptop computer (which didn’t exist when we were born), to connect to a cell phone network (which didn’t exist when we were born), to connect to the Internet (which didn’t exist when we were born), to connect to Amazon (a business model which didn’t exist when we were born). We may be old, but the fifth grader from today couldn’t do this when they were born either. Oh, and by the way, the cell phone infrastructure built in the 1980′s and 1990′s in the US that enables all this is out dated and needs an overhaul.

The global business world is changing

And that change is not just from new technologies. There will be 2 billion educated workers entering the work force from China and India over the next 10 years. There will be more use of goods and services in the next 25 years then the cumulative use of the world in history. As jobs and the use of goods and services spread around the world, the spread of wealth will change. Today, the spread of wealth is unequal. We are in the high wealth nations. My generation benefited from a birth right of wealth. The next generation won’t benefit from that same birth right. You will have to earn it. The world where you will earn a living and feed your family will not look like today’s world. Does the world of 1900 look like 2006? The change will be major. Like 1900, the changes will occur in ways that will boggle our minds.

So here are five things I wish I knew were important in the fifth grade. Because if I knew they were important, I would have paid attention and focused on developing good habits. I had plenty of opportunity to learn them; I just didn’t know they were important. These are far more important to you than they were to me. As the rate of change gets faster and the business models change, don’t ignore how important paying attention to these five things and developing strong habits around them.

1. Be a Leader

A definition of leadership is “the ability to guide in direction, course, or action.” Being a leader doesn’t mean telling others what to do. Leadership comes from the inside – from knowing what you want and why it matters. Leadership means developing the habits that will help you be successful in life. The schools are about testing scores, they are not going to teach you leadership. Your teachers want you to know this stuff, but they aren’t paid or supported in doing it. Although you may find a great teacher that points you in this direction, it is up to you to decide to learn and develop the habits you need to be successful. It is time to form those habits, not for mom or dad, or some test, or for your friends. The kids that develop these habits today will have an advantage in the new world of work. You have to develop these skills and habits today to lead you into the future. That habit of leadership is what will set you apart from others.

2. Think and communicate clearly and creatively

The International Association for Human Resource Information Management says the number one skill needed for new workers is creativity. The number two skill is communication. Look for chances to think, read and write creatively. Learn to develop and discuss your opinions. Learn to form original thoughts from what you read or see in the world around you. Learn to take your writing seriously. Communicating change and new ideas so many diverse people can participate is an important skill. Be creative. The ability to face your fears to perform great work is critical. Learn to communicate in writing from the heart with passion, vision, and emotion. With a shrinking world, much of how you are measured will be your ability to communicate a great idea to people who may never speak to you. Learn to be a great writer. Reading great writers is one way to do this. Develop a writing style of your own. The people who succeed in the future will have formed the habits of communicating clearly and creatively, both in writing and in speaking.

3. Network and Interact with others

You will face more diversity in your lifetime than the generations before you. You can’t know everything, you will have to work with people from many cultures, and jobs will have a short time span. So who you know will become critical – because you will need to use that network to be successful in your work, find the right know-how, and find your next job. Already I work on project teams that contain Indian, Chinese, Arab, American, and European people working together on the project. The ability to build relationships, not just with people like you, but with people different from yourself, is a critical skill. Learn to keep track of people. Stay in touch with the smartest kid, the nicest kid, the best athlete, and the interesting people. They will help you find the next job or the expert you need to be successful. Challenge yourself to network well with kids different from you. The people that succeed will have developed a strong habit of communicating with diverse people and managing personal networks.

4. Develop project skills.

In the future, most work will be short term work. This means teams will form, solve a problem, and break up. It will happen not only inside big companies, but over half the work force will be independent specialists who join project teams as their job. So project skills are important to develop. Project skills include knowing what finished means, planning your time, doing the tasks well, and finishing projects with a high level of excellence. You have the ability to practice these skills almost everyday with your homework. If you develop great habits here, homework won’t call for great effort, it will be easy. Learn to get A’s. Not because you are interested in the work, but because good jobs will be competitive. Being able to identify what is expected, and giving it consistently, is an important skill. Do it today, you can’t afford to wait to learn it later. The people who succeed will have formed the habits needed to define a project, plan and do the work, and deliver excellence.

5. Have passion and always improve

People will have to continually develop and improve their skills. You can’t do this if you don’t have passion about what you are doing. Learn what you are passionate about. Then go for it. Don’t suppress it because someone might think it is lame. Learn to be passionate about something. If you change your mind, and you likely will, you will be better prepared to be passionate about something else. Don’t learn to be mediocre. Learn to be passionate. Don’t strive to follow the pack. Strive to have passion and improve something that matters to you. The people that are successful will have developed the habits of commitment and improvement that comes from pursuing things they are passionate about.

Habits for success

You will form habits in all these areas. It’s up to you to decide if you want to develop skills and form habits that will help you be successful. Just remember, bad habits are hard to break. With these skills practiced and polished in my youth, I would have been able to reach success with much less effort and pain. I would have been better prepared for the world and far ahead of where I am today. You can’t wait for someone to show you how to do this. We may not know what jobs will be available to today’s fifth graders in ten years. We can make sure that teenagers have developed habits of leadership, creative communication, networking, project skills, and passionate pursuit. This will dictate the success these people have.


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Pete Blazek and Dennis Stevens lead Synaptus, a consulting firm that helps executives improve business performance by connecting strategy to execution. For more information, please visit www.synaptus.com.


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