Irish Times, September 15, 2014
What makes you come alive? Surely this is one of the most important questions for students as they return to school and make decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Figuring out the right choice of subject, course and career is central, not just to landing an eventual job, but to achieving happiness, fulfillment, and a life worth living.
Much of the focus these days is on promoting careers in technology, and it’s easy to see why. I love technology. It’s a big part of my work and can’t be ignored. But is it wise to usher young people into careers that have no consideration for their specific talents or dreams?
Do we really want the next Beethoven or JK Rowling stuck in jobs that cause them to wonder what might have been? Yes, we need programmers and maverick tech start-ups, but we also need innovators and revolutionaries in every discipline.
I’m a pragmatist, and I see the logic in studying for careers that offer decent job prospects. It’s no fun being highly educated and highly unemployed. However, life is short, and we need a society that serves all aspects of life, not just the economy. Education therefore must be about more than meeting the needs of the labour market, or pushing a narrow vision of success that over-emphasises the importance of material wealth.
Rather than packing young minds full of facts, education should seek to help students question the world around them and to find and express their own unique gifts. It ought to help them come alive – to awaken them to the great possibilities that life has to offer. As a quote often attributed to Yeats says: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Last year’s Gallop study of 230,000 workers in 142 countries shows that this isn’t happening. Some 87 per cent of all workers surveyed saw their work in a negative light, with only 13 per cent actually liking their jobs.
Many of us never get to fully realise who we are or what our true calling is. This is a tragedy and the consequences are devastating. The lost potential is everywhere, often taking refuge in addiction and entertainment, begrudgery, resentment and depression. The most common antidote is to stay busy and don’t think about it.
All of this is why helping young people explore the depths of their talents and passions, and supporting them to make informed and conscious decisions about their education and work choices, is one of the most important things any of us can do. It’s why mentoring matters, and why investment in guidance counselling and youth services is vital. It’s also important that young people get to explore their own interests, which might mean making time to travel or volunteer.
In an increasingly competitive and homogeneous world, following the well- beaten path doesn’t guarantee success. Ireland in particular needs to understand this. Much of our economic and social dysfunction has been brought about through a lack of visionary leadership, relying instead on compliance, conformity and looking outside for answers.
The next generation must rip up the rule book. Ireland needs young people who will challenge the status quo and create a country where independent thinking is encouraged. We need students of all ages who are prepared to take the road less travelled in a quest to realise their full potential.
Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and he was right. It is imagination that drives learning, curiosity and innovation. Young people, whatever their interests or back- grounds, each has something special to offer. It is a challenge for all of us to help them find these gifts and to bring them into the world.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.