Timeless training

Go deeper than today’s “hot skills” and you won’t go hungry

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.

That Chinese proverb has resonated with each generation for over 800 years. And I can see why. It’s quite astute. Here’s something else, almost just as ancient: FORTRAN.

FORTRAN is the computer programming language that once made almost every computer tick. While it’s still used in some research applications, it’s rarely used at all in the industry anymore. Once dominant, today it ranks behind 29 other, more common, programming languages.

Hot skills

So here I am, many years later, the CEO of a company with a number of products that rely heavily on sophisticated software and firmware. You might think I’m kicking myself for choosing to learn FORTRAN over another programming language like Java or C#. Nope. Guess again.

Reflecting on my career thus far and its somewhat unexpected transition over time from physicist to CEO, I’ve realized that logical reasoning, higher-level thinking and the ability to solve complex problems have been essential to that success. While my training in FORTRAN was a vehicle to help me with those rich, deep-thinking skills I was being educated in, I had no idea at the time that those less-tangible skills would prove to be far more valuable and timeless than my FORTRAN training. That’s a lesson in itself that one should proceed with caution to be sure that one is not getting too caught up in trendy “hot skills” of the moment.

Feed the world

So why has our society put such an emphasis on workforce training? I am fully aware that there are vast labor shortages in some critical areas, but something has got to be said about how far the pendulum has swung in the training direction.

However, in an era where industry faces constant disruption, it seems counterintuitive to focus solely on training for the jobs of today. And because it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly how any particular field might be disrupted tomorrow, it seems that it might make the most sense that we educate critical thinkers, some of whom become the trainers of the trainers.
Critical thinkers are not only the best prepared for unforeseen disruption (like in my case, the extinction of FORTRAN), but they’re also almost always the disruptors themselves.

So if I may be so bold, I’d like to propose a long-overdue update to that ancient proverb:

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.
Enlighten him (or her) to think like an environmental scientist and you’ll feed the world.

Albert Green, Ph.D. is CEO of Kent Displays, Inc., Makers of Boogie Board. He is a corporate thought leader who demonstrates an incredible tenacity to transform companies, industries and communities as a whole.