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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ten books your kids should read to help them with their career.

I could not resist. Growing up with David Letterman's weekly top ten lists combined with what seems to be the increasing number of websites and articles devoted to lists of all lengths and topics I decided to share my own.

I limited my choices to books that I read when I was a kid. There are certainly newer ones available (see Lawn Boy) but then I would be evaluating them based on reading them as an adult and I wanted to come up with a list of books that had an impact on me earlier in life. I tried to limit my choices to books that encourage the attributes employers and colleges are looking for in our kids. Things like: problem-solving skills, confidence, teamwork, motivation, communication skills, and discipline.

I realized as I was trying to recall all the books from my childhood that the memories of the preschool level and early elementary books had more to do with feelings about Mom or Dad who read them too me rather than the books themselves. Reading to our kids (regardless of which book) is worth the effort.

It was too difficult to choose which of the following books was better than any other book so I have not prioritized them.

The List
  • The Mad Scientists' Club and The Three Investigators - These two series had much in common. Both involved groups of kids working together (teamwork) to either solve mysteries, build cool things, or help people. Nobody had any super powers and there was not a single magic wand to be seen. This made it seem that achieving great things was possible, even for a normal kid (a muggle?). 
  • Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective - Similar to the Scientist and Investigator books, Encyclopedia also was based in reality and solved mysteries that even the grown ups could not figure out. He was analytical, confident, and was cool because he was smart. He occasionally had help but he often succeeded on his own.
  • Why Are There More Questions Than Answers, Grandad? - This one is out of print but a few years after my first child was born I found a used version and bought it for him. I love this book. By the end, you get the message that it is OK to ask questions when you do not know something but also that even a little kid can sometimes solve his own problems.
  • Treasure Island - Work is called work for a reason. Even jobs we like can sometimes require discipline and even courage to get through a tough day. 
  • Horton Hatches the Egg - Trust, responsibility, commitment. What employer would not want to hire Horton after his achievement and impressive display of loyalty to his job? 
  • What Do People Do All Day? - Sometimes I think that this book should be required reading for all High School seniors. At least they would have a broader view of what jobs exist in the world before they head off to college to "find themselves".
  • Where the Wild Things Are - You can always come home. Taking risks is easier when you know that there is a safety net.
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit - Listen to your mother!
  • White Fang (Great Illustrated Classics) - I must have read this one a hundred times. It had all the right ingredients; adventure, fighting, camping, dogs and wolves. Since it was also in comic form it was more accessible to me at a younger age. There was a happy ending but it did not come easy and similar to Treasure Island, the message that life can be hard and persistence and hard work are necessary is a good one.
Which books would you add to this list?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Kids who play outside are more likely to get a job right out of college, or are they?

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A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of her son climbing a tree with the caption, "I rather want him playing outside." It got me thinking about whether it makes a difference in our kid's future career if they spend more time in the trees, grass, ocean, etc.

I should say first that I think playing outside is great for kids. But, if I look at the benefits strictly from a Headhunter Dad perspective it is not so clear that swinging and jumping and running is going to help them get into college or get a better job.

So, what are the benefits from playing outside?
  • Exercise and health are certainly linked to physical activity. This is based on the assumption that kids will naturally move around more outside as opposed to inside. Looking at my own kids they seem to move around an awful lot inside as well!
  • Vitamin D (sunlight). Can't argue with the body's need for this critical ingredient.
  • Interaction with the natural world. Maybe only if you live out in the country as opposed to the center of Manhattan or Tokyo.
  • Distance vision is better for kids who spend more time outdoors (see study).
  • Another study seems to indicate that playing outside (in green spaces) increases your child's attention span. Also related to getting out in the woods and on the grass is lowered stress.
What are the detriments from playing outside?
  • If our kids are outside, then they are not likely to be doing homework (reading, math, history) or working in internships, or playing piano, or practicing for their upcoming SAT exams.
  • While it is healthy to run around, it is less healthy to break an arm falling off a swing; potential injury could be considered a downside.
  • Sunlight (skin cancer, sunburn...)
I also came across several suggested benefits that I could not entirely agree were exclusive to being outside:

  • More opportunities for creativity and free play. I don't think our kids need to be outside to be creative. I spent hours and hours building mutant football stadiums with legos when I was a kid and think that the 6 arm wide receiver I came up with was pretty creative.
  • More social interaction with their peers and therefore more opportunities to learn social skills. I guess this applies if you are not allowed to have friends inside the house. Does online gaming count as interaction with peers?

Speaking with the Headhunter Dad's Dad the other day about this topic he commented that his normal routine after school was to rush through his chores and then head outside to play with his friends until it was time to wash up for dinner. He will be 80 next year so that puts him at 18 years old in 1954. He went on to earn a Phd and had a very successful career in a multinational company without worrying about internships in HS, volunteer activities, AP classes, SAT scores, or extracurriculars. I have my suspicions that the competition to get into good colleges in 1954 was... well, less competitive. Harvard received a record number of applications that year, 4,000 of which they accepted more than 25%. In 2014, Harvard received 34,295 applications for their freshman class. They admitted, 2,023 a drop down to 5.9%! If it has gotten more competitive to get into the top schools and and top companies are we hurting our kid's chances by encouraging them to play at the park?

Colleges and companies are (generally) not judging our kids by their physical health or how tan they are. Even the jobs related to natural sciences will prefer the bookworm with a published research paper as opposed to the kid who spent her time running through the woods.

Should I be relenting more often to my daughter's pleas to take her to the park? Will it help her get into the college of her choice and subsequently result in a job offer?

Just playing outside does not seem to offer any particular career benefits for our kids. However, if we add a few parameters to their outside adventures, we do start to see results. Playing outside with lots of other kids helps them to develop better social skills. These skills are valuable for both the college and job interviews. Creativity and problem-solving are both high on the list of requirements for new grads with most companies. Our kids can develop these outside but we parents need to step back and give them some room (like pretending you don't notice when they walk past the window with a shovel and hose towards your flower beds). However, I believe that the world has changed from when my Dad was a kid and an understanding of the current college requirements requires some balance. So by all means, send your kids out to the playground but make sure they have time to practice that violin as well!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Tell me about a time when you did your work WITHOUT BOTHERING ME!"

Job descriptions are not always the best examples of creative writing. Hiring managers the world over follow the example of those who came before them by cutting and pasting previously used job description content. It is interesting to me that those same hiring managers will complain about the student candidates for the "cut and paste job" who have used a form cover letter to apply. But, regardless of how the job description is put together, there are common requirements that appear time and time again regardless of the function, industry, or level of the position. "Problem Solving" may be at the top of the list.

A quick review of the top companies to work for in 2015 according to Fortune Magazine (see the 2011 list in my other article), shows that they are all looking for this ability in our kids (well, the top 3 are at least...).

  1. Google: Strong problem-solving and analytical skills, with an ability to see both detail and big picture issues.
  2. Boston Consulting Group: The objective of the interview is for us to learn about your approach to solving business problems...
  3. Acuity: Analytical problem solving skills

The quotes for all 3 companies above come from job descriptions for new graduate roles. I did not look too deeply into the mid-career opportunities at these companies but I suspect that we would find similar requirements all the way up to the CEO job. Great, this is the kind of thing our kids can get into. They like puzzles and games and if they are given/assigned a problem they can usually come up with a solution or answer. But is this what the hiring managers are really asking for? Maybe for some situations that are clearly labeled, "THIS IS A PROBLEM, SOLVE ME" but how often does that happen? Perhaps I should step back a second and explain how the hiring manager likely came up with this requirement in the first place. We are talking about the very first one who wrote it down to then be later copied by countless managers into the future. Imagine that it is the 2nd year of hiring at Big Company and the hiring manager is thinking of all the challenges she had with the new recruits from the 1st year. High on her stress list is the fact that she spent 90% of her day running around telling them what to do. Determined not to make the same mistake again she writes as the first requirement on the job description:

  • Able to get their job done on their own without bothering me!

Already she feels better about the future as she imagines all the time she will have to focus on her own overdue projects. Re-reading the bullet point though, she realizes that perhaps it does not sound attractive to students who might be interested in her company. How to make it more appealing...? Since most of the interruptions to her work day come from problems the new employees are facing while trying to complete their jobs, she adds "problem solving". Still, it is not exciting enough so remembering her own college life and how "analysis" was fun and sounded professional, she also throws in "analytical". Thus, the age of problem solving as a specific bullet point in the job description is born:

  • Strong analytical and problem solving skills

What does this mean for our kids? Well, when the various questions related to problem solving come up in the interview, if we can advise our sons and daughters how to answer them they will be a step ahead of the pack. The stock answer to any question related to problem solving is to bring up the assignment (school or work) and explain how they succeeded. However, the better answer, the answer that gets to the real concern of the interviewer, is the story of how our son or daughter not only solved a problem, but also identified it and took care of it without pestering their boss! Identification of the issue is half the problem and if your daughter's boss has to point them all out then she is wasting the boss' time. The nice thing about a problem solving question is that it does not require our kids to have work experience. Everyone deals with problems growing up and we can help our kids to remember and categorize these experiences for use in the job hunt.

By the way, not all the companies on the Fortune list hide what they really want to say in common job description jargon. I think Wegmans, at #7 on the list, states it the clearest:
Able to problem solve, anticipating, analyzing, and identifying problems, responding quickly when situations arise and preventing problems when possible.
My previous article on problem- solving discusses a method for helping our kids develop and apply this skill .