Empowering our future generation of professionals

This is a transcript of my presentation given at the second edition of Les Rendez-Vous de Vientiane conference in Vientiane, Laos, January 27, 2017.


For eight years I’ve been teaching courses on sustainability at Capilano University in Vancouver, Canada. Put simply, I help students to understand and take action on environmental and social issues.

I consider myself to be an environmentally concerned person. As much as possible, I try to act in ways that respect the planet. So I was disappointed in myself when I realized a few years ago that I wasn’t living up to my own values.

My Aha moment came while waiting for the elevator to take me up to my third-floor office. I had always cursed low-floor elevator users in the past. Now, despite my values, I had become one of them.

Given my self-professed concern for the environment, I found it troubling that I had failed the simple task of choosing the stairs. It might not sound like much, but it was significant to me. How could I authentically convey the importance of sustainability to my students, if I couldn’t even take a few flights of stairs to get to my office?

My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom. My past courses on sustainability had focused on cognitive learning, what I call the domain of the head. This isn’t all bad. Cognitive learning lets you expand your knowledge base and enhance your critical thinking skills. In a nutshell, it helps you build book smarts.

While important, book smarts alone are not sufficient for creating positive change in the world – whether it’s a change in your personal life, in an organization, or in society at large.

If you want to make change happen, you also have to develop the skills needed to practice your discipline and, ideally, nurture a passion for your field. All three domains of learning – the head, heart, and hand – should be developed to make a real contribution in the world.

And so I decided to overhaul my course to try to strike a balance between these three domains of learning. The new course is called Project Change. Through an experiential learning process, the course is designed to enable students to become leaders and agents for change. Students still work on building book smarts, but they also develop the mindset and skills to think and act like a change-maker. Let’s have a look at how we cultivate these three learning domains in the course.

The Heart

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

In most traditional educational settings, students focus on developing knowledge and skills in their field of study. Both are important for developing proficiency in a subject. However, there’s a third learning domain that’s often ignored – the domain of the heart. Educating the heart means nurturing a passion for a subject.

The importance of nurturing your passion cannot be overstated. By focusing your efforts on something you care deeply about, you will naturally strive to go higher and further in taking action. To quote Steve Jobs, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

The first assignment in the course is designed for students to explore the domain of the heart first-hand. In this assignment, students use their camera to create a photo essay that tells a story about an environmental or social issue happening in their world. One of the main requirements is that they choose a topic that interests them. In doing so, the students are encouraged to nurture a deeper passion for their chosen topic.

In the photo essay, students are encouraged to express their creativity about a topic they care about. Here, a student explored the impacts of mountain biking on trails and mountains around Vancouver (Photo by Thomas Smith).
In the photo essay, students are encouraged to express their creativity about a topic they care about. Here, a student explored the impacts of mountain biking on trails and mountains around Vancouver (Photo by Thomas Smith).


One thing I tell students is not to pursue a topic just because other people are doing it. Everyone’s passions are different. In the words of Nick Woodman, founder of GoPro, “Your passions are a bit like your fingerprints. Everybody has them; everybody’s are different.” As I tell my students: focus on whatever lights you up, and if you’re not sure what that is yet try something new for the fun of it.

By the way, there is a reason I use the phrase “nurture your passions” rather than the more common phrase “follow your passions.” Following your passions suggests that your passions somehow pre-exist, and it’s your job to uncover your hidden passions.

I don’t believe this. You aren’t born with passions somehow part of your DNA. Passions don’t pre-exist; you nurture them over time. As you spend time pursuing something new, your interest for it grows. Over time, passion blooms.

The Head

“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins” – Benjamin Franklin

Cultivating passion is important, but passion alone doesn’t make an education. I may be passionate about music, but that doesn’t mean I can play an instrument. To translate your passion into a real-world contribution, you also need to build up a solid foundation of knowledge. This is the learning domain of the head.

One thing I tell students in the very first class is that the course is not about memorizing and regurgitating information. In my opinion, it’s a waste of energy to memorize a bunch of information, since it is readily accessible and always changing. It’s better to know how to obtain information and how to use it to form your own arguments and ideas. That’s why, I believe it’s more important to practice critical thinking. So in the course, we discuss and evaluate ideas and issues, not memorize facts.

Critical thinking is a highly desirable asset in today’s workplace. According to one survey of business leaders conducted in the United States, 93% of employers stated that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than a student’s major when evaluating new hires (AAC&U, 2013).

The implications for universities are profound. If universities are to add value and thrive in the future, they will need to move beyond the outdated model of rote learning. Since content can be accessed much more efficiently and cheaply online, universities need to look for other ways to position themselves.

To remain relevant in the Internet age, universities should help students develop the skills needed to make sense of all this information. The role of universities should be to develop students as critical thinkers, innovators, effective communicators, and problem solvers.

Not only do businesses value employees who can think critically and solve problems, but students also prefer to learn this way. I like to show my students this quote from Natalie Portman, an Academy Award winning actress and Harvard University graduate: “I don’t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.” Most students agree. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and stressed by exams that assess rote learning skills, they feel engaged and empowered by solving practical problems in real-world settings. This enables students to learn and grow as independent, creative thinkers – which better positions them in the job market too.

The Hand

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” – Confucius

As my elevator moment taught me, book smarts alone don’t create change in the world. You also need to acquire all the skills necessary to convert your knowledge into practical accomplishments. This is the third domain of learning: the hand.

This domain includes all the hands-on skills needed to practice a discipline in the real world. Just as a musician needs to be proficient with her instrument, so does a carpenter, lawyer or accountant with the tools of their trades.

Remember that it takes time to develop skills. When it comes to learning and eventually mastering a new skill, your mindset matters a lot. People who achieve highly usually have a growth mindset: they are willing to continually practice in order to get better at what they do.

Even if you’re already good at a skill, there is always room for improvement. That means making time for learning and for deliberate practice. The more you consciously develop your skills, the better you will get – and you’ll realize that you can achieve far more than you once thought possible.

I tell my students to think of the classroom as a gym. Let’s say you wanted to get in better shape, so you read a book on fitness. Now, it would be ludicrous to think you could achieve your health goal by only reading that book. And yet, that’s exactly how many classrooms operate. Now, you and I both know you have to get in the gym and put in the work to get in shape. The information from the book is valuable, but nothing will happen unless you get in the gym!

The same thing goes with my course. If students are to acquire the skills of a change-maker, they have to get out there and put the work in. Reading books alone won’t cut it. This is where the course comes in. It is like a real-life gym to help students develop the skills needed to become an agent for change.

To practice their skills in a real-world setting, the students work on a group project during the semester. This assignment gets students out of the classroom and into their communities to create positive and measurable social or environmental change.

There are only three requirements in this assignment. First, students are asked to link their project to something they care about. This encourages them to nurture their passions. Whether their interests are in fashion or mountain biking doesn’t really matter. Nurturing passion for an issue is much easier if you link it to something you already care about.

Second, students are expected to get out of the classroom to create positive change in a broader community. This is done so they are able to develop the skills needed to make a contribution in the real-world, not just in the classroom.

Third, students are required to measure and report the impacts of their project. The key word here is measurable. By tracking specific metrics, students are able to see the real contribution they make in the world.

One thing I always hear from students early in the semester is “We’re just students. What difference can we really make?” If you look at some of the most important change agents throughout history, one of the key differences between these people is not all were in traditional positions of power when they made their biggest contributions. The moral of the story is this: you do not need authority to move mountains! These people did it and so can you.

To demonstrate this, in the final class of the term, I have the students list all their project impacts and then we aggregate them on the board at the front of the classroom. Since the students have all tracked their impacts using specific metrics, this turns out to be an easy task. But it’s a powerful and gratifying moment to recognize the incredible impacts the students have made and to clearly show they are indeed agents of change.

Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders

So what can the classroom teach us about empowering our next generation of leaders?

First, it’s important for young professionals to nurture passion and an attitude of curiosity for their discipline. By doing so, they will naturally strive to go higher and further in their field. The importance of nurturing passion cannot be overstated – it is the fuel that powers you forward.

If passion fuels your interest in a subject, then knowledge provides the bedrock to create and contribute your own ideas to your field. Young professionals should work on developing strong critical and creative thinking skills to be able to process information, innovate new ideas, and create solutions to applied problems.

Finally, it’s important for emerging professionals to develop all the skills needed to make a contribution in the real world. This includes skills related to: leadership, team work, problem solving, communication, and creativity. These skills will help them to convert their ideas into reality.

One thing I tell my students is that there is a big payoff from learning to think and act like a change-maker. Not only will they make the world a better place for all, but living this way can bring real benefits to their own life too:

  • Nurturing your passions means you will like what you do. This will give your life joy.
  • Building up your knowledge means you will know why the work you do is important. This will give your life meaning.
  • Honing your skills and putting them to work means you will be good at what you do. This will give you a feeling of excellence.
  • Contributing to the world means you will do things that make a difference. This will make your life worthwhile.

Understanding these principles, and incorporating them into your life, is one of the most powerful ways to create positive change in the world and to create a sense of purpose in your life. This is what it means to live like a change-maker.

But what about money? Students always ask me: Is it possible to live a life of purpose and also get paid well?

Yes. You can apply these principles to your professional career. This is what I tell them: If you can develop your career in line with these principles, I guarantee you will have more than a job; you will have found your calling.

Lessons for Industry

“Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.” – Daniel Pink, from his book, Drive

So far, I’ve talked about how educators like me can cultivate these three domains of learning to help students develop as leaders and change-makers. Of course, learning does not stop when students receive their degree and enter the workforce. It’s important for professionals to continue to learn and develop their knowledge, skills and attitudes throughout their career.

Businesses play an important role in providing the right culture for this to happen. Doing so helps a business to develop its human capital to its full potential. Not only is this good for the bottom line, it also ensures employees are engaged and fulfilled.

Increasingly, today’s workers are motivated by more than just a paycheck. They are looking for autonomy, opportunities for growth, and a sense of higher purpose with their work. Let’s briefly look at these three motivators.

Autonomy isn’t about letting your employees do whatever they want on the job. It’s about setting clear goals, and then giving them space to achieve those goals in effective and creative ways. Autonomy means being self-directed, not separated from others. Millennials want to feel connected and be part of a team. Being socially active is important to them. When your employees are given the freedom to direct themselves, and they are supported by clear goals and a great team, they will feel more engaged and ultimately be more productive on the job.

Growth and development is a key source of internal motivation for most workers. People want to feel that they are good at what they do and improving their skills over time. Give your employees lots of opportunities for training and development, so they can develop their skills and reach their full potential. It’s important for businesses to promote a growth-mindset within their organization, where deliberate practice is encouraged and failure is not considered a bad word.

Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees. In one recent survey, six out of 10 millennial workers identified “sense of purpose” as the part of the reason they chose their current employer (Deloitte Millennial Survey, 2015). To attract and retain the best talent, businesses must clearly communicate their core values and purpose – and make sure that their employees understand how their work is contributing to this greater cause.

Head Fake

Before I end my presentation, I’d like to share just one more thing. Some of you may have watched Randy Pausch’s presentation called the Last Lecture. The talk is about achieving your childhood dreams. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it. Pausch uses the analogy of a “head fake” to end his talk. I’m going to borrow this analogy.

In football, the best teams often win by using deception. They will fake a run in one direction, and then hand off the football to a player going the other way. Or, they will fake a pass to one side of the field, and then throw the ball in the other direction. Deception is effective because it keeps the defense guessing. In football language, this is called a “head fake.”

Well, just like a good football team, I have to confess that I used a head fake in my presentation. Did you notice it? I told you at the start that my presentation was about how to empower our future generation of professionals. I hate to tell you, but that was a head fake.

My presentation wasn’t about empowering others. It was about empowering you. Following these principles will help empower you to live a good life. A life that you enjoy. A life that you can be proud of. A life that gives you lasting happiness and fulfillment. That was my true intent.

I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to connect with me and, if you’re interested in reading more, I invite you to follow my blog at www.joe-kelly.com.

Khàwp jai!