The Age of Homework

Tom Peters

One summer while I was in my teens, I visited a friend on Cape Cod. Her dad, a surgeon, would invariably slip into his study after supper to read up on the operations he was to perform the next morning.

I still remember my surprise. Homework was the bane of my (and most of my peers') existence. I'd assumed the end of school meant blessed relief from homework. The doc shook my confidence.

In fact, that surgeon was the exception 30 years ago, and still is today. But things had better change, for senior staff professionals and junior clerks alike—if they want to stay employed, and be more marketable next year at this time.

An old-timer I know lamented the layoff of a 23-year veteran purchasing staffer. "Not to worry," a colleague advised only half in jest, "we didn't lose 23 years of experience; we lost one year, repeated 22 times." Sad to say, the cynic was probably correct. Most purchasing and marketing "professionals" do all too little homework. Sure, they thumb through a few trade journals and attend an annual convention. But have they really committed themselves to a yearly learning leap? Will they be demonstrably more savvy at the end of 1993 than at the end of 1992? All too often, the answer to both questions is no.

Tomorrow's (today's!) economy is about brains. These days, the mind that's standing still is, in fact, slipping backwards down the competitive ladder. Fast.

Work in the "factory" (in quotes, because tomorrow's factory will be home to brain work, not heavy lifting) will be done mostly in project teams striving to improve productivity, quality, service, this or that process. The new gold standard will be curiosity, learning, creativity, and the willingness to embrace constant change. Supple minds will be more important than supple joints.

No one is exempt. Clerical workers in Pittsburgh could easily find today's work shifted to South Dakota or the Republic of Ireland tomorrow (as it has been at many an insurance company, for instance). How do these workers defend themselves?

Homework, dummy! With or without their firm's support, they'd better be adding skills: learning new spreadsheets or file-management software, volunteering to work as gofers on marketing or quality-improvement projects. Mainly, the enhanced skills up the odds that they'll keep their jobs with today's employer. But if the department is farmed out, at least they're better prepared to tackle an ever tougher job market.

The biggest social issue facing this nation is the growing gap between the wages of haves and have-nots. In an age of brains, those who don't develop their full, above-the-shoulders potential, and then keep adding to it, are losing out—and losing big.

One answer lies in Washington and our state capitals. Among other things, legislators should support college access for all and establish robust training/retraining incentives for companies and individuals. But progress in cash-strapped Washington, Sacramento and Albany will be glacial.

That leaves only one answer: personal initiative. Before the howling winds of January 1993 subside, I urge every worker—boss, last year's elite university graduate, or blue-collar job holder—to do the following:

1. Prepare your resume. Take stock of your skills through the eyes of a prospective employer. What do you know (for sure)? Are your skills clearly state of the art? How have you specifically demonstrated mastery of new skills in the past year?

2. Set explicit learning goals for 1993. Map out, on your own or with your boss (if she or he's amenable), how to get there from here. Be immodest in your long-term aims, realistic in your first steps. If you haven't been near a classroom in a while, start with a single course. And, if necessary, swallow your pride and take remedial courses in writing or math, say, to regain lost ground.

3. Keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint. The tricks are the same as for getting in shape or losing weight—take it a day at a time. The need is urgent. But getting back into the homework habit, by hook or by crook, is the big first step.

4. Make it a family/network affair. The family that learns together earns together, or something like that. That is, a support group helps. This new outlook on life and career should be exciting, but it also means adding to your doubtless overcrowded schedule; you're going to need a couple of quiet hours two or three evenings a week, as well as time to cram for exams every couple of months.

5. Remember, it's up to you! Companies that don't encourage employee education of all kinds are dumb. But if you're in a dumb company and can't or won't move—so be it. This is your life, not GE's or McDonald's. In the end (and perhaps not so long from now), it's you who must "pass" or "fail" the employability test.

Like it or not, welcome to the Age of Homework!

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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