Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Attitude Rather Than Grades

Until Pakistan’s institutes of higher learning acknowledge the critical need to take an entirely new approach to the education they are imparting, graduates will have to learn to unlearn to succeed in their chosen career paths, argues Atiya Zaidi.
Published 01 Mar, 2024 11:17am

I am a creative who became a CEO. Apart from being in the right place at the right time and gaining the trust of my management to take a chance on me, I was aware that there was an aspect of my job I did not know enough about. My degree is in design for communication, but I do not do design for a living. I also have a Bachelor’s in Mass Communication, yet my day is spent in one-to-one communication and exchanging my creative hat for a business one. My responsibilities demand that I be adaptable, agile and open to being proved wrong. I have no formal degree in any of these things.

The psychology behind the need for a degree is best understood with this excerpt from Harvard Business Review: “Students want jobs, not knowledge or titles. The number one reason students have for investing so much time and money into a college education is to get a good job, with two-thirds of them seeing ‘financial stability’ as the primary goal. It is also unlikely that students value the actual process of learning or absorbing knowledge as much as the actual diploma they receive at the end. For example, would most people rather have an Ivy League education without the diploma, or an Ivy League diploma without the Ivy League education?”

Matters become further convoluted when we think about the jobs of the future. Who can predict what kind of training and skill sets these jobs will require and whether current diplomas will still be relevant in 10 years time – and although the MBA may be one degree that has found alternatives (there is an entire genre of books called ‘Alternatives to an MBA’), the alternatives for standardised degrees and higher education are still up for grabs.

When I studied design, it was all about understanding the problem and then using design as a tool to come up with the solution. It was painstaking work that needed revisions, rejections, and re-creation. It taught resilience, commitment and rethinking solutions from scratch. Today with AI and DIY design platforms, design has become a commodity. Copywriting was a craft involving editing and brain mapping. It taught one to approach a problem from as many routes as possible, sharpening the words, looking for alternatives and saying more with less words. Today, it is about typing the right prompts for Chat GPT and editing the results accordingly. In this unpredictable, unstable and unwelcoming world, what should students in service industries, like marketing and advertising, be learning?

The answer is learning itself.

The future potential of the workforce will depend on the ability to cultivate learnability, rather than displaying lots of college credentials. The ability to unlearn and relearn will be more important than what one learns in school. Adam Grant in his book Think Again, writes: “In a constantly changing world, it pays to change your mind.” (If you haven’t read it yet, please do). The book explains in detail the different mindsets people have, and the best mindset to cultivate to make oneself future-ready.

The most critical mindset for today’s blink-and-you-miss-it world is a scientific one. When you think like a scientist, you favour humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You look for reasons why you may be wrong and not just reasons why you must be right. Scientists know that they have to keep learning and be ready to be proved wrong. Look at the irony implied when higher education tells us that learning stops at the receiving of a diploma and throwing a graduation cap in the air.

How do we disrupt this chronological and systematic approach to corporate success? We do this by teaching critical thinking and cultivating a scientific mindset. Say it with me: “I don’t know that I don’t know, but I am open to learn.”

As an employer, it is always a struggle to hire people and help them succeed in an ever-changing workspace. The universities are partly to blame and the employers are mostly to blame. We are still using outdated leadership structures. It is not a whatever-the-boss-says-goes world anymore.

Rewiring an organisation is an ongoing process, but most organisations are still coming to terms with the need to evolve their cultures, and sadly, universities in Pakistan have yet to admit the need for change. The goal is still to get a higher grade rather than higher learning. This toxic approach to education is largely responsible for the high levels of chronic stress we see around us and creates the impression that books and learning will induce more stress. However, we need the young people who are inheriting a broken planet to break away from this universal trait in human beings – to follow the same path today as yesterday. In their book A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden – drawing from mathematics – label this tendency as a “path dependency”.

A path dependency is a set way of thinking or a group of set behaviours. For example, the people who developed the fuel engines for a space shuttle made them four feet and a half inches across, because that was the width of the rail line from Utah to Florida. This, in turn, was the distance of the roads designed to accommodate the size of Roman carts 2,000 years ago. The Roman carts were four feet and a half inches wide so as to accommodate two horses. The same calculations are applied to a space shuttle. This is decision-making for no other reason than to continue to do what has been done before.

Past decisions have unintended consequences which we just accept without questioning their origins, and it is this mindset that closes our minds to what might be possible because we confuse what is possible with ‘what is possible within the way we do things at the moment.’ Here are my two cents worth on the subject. One, teach unlearning as a major subject in universities and two, abolish the grading system.

Universities in Amsterdam, Berlin, and other cities have started courses on unlearning, pitching themselves as schools that do not propose to learn, but rather to unlearn. The example of path dependency further makes the case for unlearning. The problems of today and tomorrow will not be solved by doing things the way they have been done before. There is a lot of research-based evidence on the grading system. In fact, psychological studies on the impact of rewards and grading consistently find that rewards cause people to perform badly and lose their internal drive because they are aiming for the grade and not the learning itself. The education system treats grades as a currency and implies that the people with the highest GPAs have more merit and value than others. It looks glorious on your CV/LinkedIn but it does not guarantee that you will excel in your job. Employers like Apple, Google, IBM, EY, and even Penguin and Random House have abolished the need for degrees/grades and hire through tests and a series of activities.

As an employer, I will always pick people with the right attitude to learn and unlearn rather than on the basis of their GPA or degree. I will end with a quote from William Crawford: “Being a student is easy, learning requires actual work”.

Atiya Zaidi is CEO and CCO, BBDO Pakistan and Co-founder, Shero Space. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of any organisation.