National Youth Day: A young person's guide to being successful in the 21st century

Coming of age at a time of unprecedented changes and challenges can be tough. Here are some tips on jobs, career, money, and life

Ravi Venkatesan
Updated: Jan 12, 2022 03:14:52 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. In some ways there has never been a better time to be young. Thanks to new technologies, new beliefs and ideas and a profoundly connected world, young people in many parts of the world have greater opportunities and greater freedom to pursue these than any previous generation in history. But many, perhaps a majority, youth also face formidable challenges. They are coming of age at a time of unprecedented change, turbulence, uncertainty, inequality, polarisation, and on a planet that is in extreme distress. Education systems in most countries are outdated and preparing young people for a stable world that no longer exists, and teaching them the exact skills that computers are better at. They are confronted by bewildering choices but the people they could turn to for advice–teachers, parents, elders—are also operating from an outdated paradigm and can give well-intentioned but possibly wrong advice. Social media is mesmerising but filled with fake information, shrill opinions, polarising voices and false heroes adding to one’s disorientation.

So, what practical advice would I give a younger version of myself? I’d say four things.

First, try to be intentional about your life and your choices. Don’t just be carried along by life like a piece of driftwood; this probably won’t end well in these chaotic times. Try to be intentional about the kind of person you are, your beliefs and values, the people you hang out with, who you trust, where you get your information from. Pay great attention to what you pay attention to and very often this means avoiding social media. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, called social media ‘an amplifier for idiots’ and a time sink, and I’ve come to agree with him. Try to be intentional in defining what success means to you rather than live out someone else’s life. Learning to be intentional about all your choices rather than being influenced by others or simply going with the flow may be the single most important determinant of how your life turns out.

Second, stop thinking about a job and a career. Good stable jobs leading to a stable career are an artefact of the 20th Century that will be relevant to fewer and fewer people. You should aspire not to a job but to being self-employed or an entrepreneur as soon as you possibly can. A job is best thought of as a launch-pad or a necessary way to get some experience and develop some useful skills but it should be your goal to become independent as fast as possible. Your goal is to find the convergence of what you enjoy doing, what you are good at, and what the world is willing to pay for. In other words, do the best you can with what you are good at and find a way to get paid for it. This is called the passion economy and this is what is sustainable in the long term.

Third, pay attention to and build your intangible assets. Everyone knows that it’s important to pay attention to tangible assets like money, your home and wealth.  But in the 21st Century, it is even more critical to manage intangible assets. These include your reputation, expertise, your networks, your attitude, health, family, spirituality, and so on. Why? We are living in very turbulent time where anything can happen. You can suddenly lose your job and income. There could be a pandemic. Or you could suddenly lose your health or a loved one. The place where you live can become a conflict zone forcing you to flee. You could be jailed for something you did or didn’t do. Anything is possible. This is where your family, your networks, your reputation, your beliefs can cushion the shock and help you recover. These assets give you both ‘resilience’ —the  capacity to absorb shocks—and the ability to handle changes and move to new opportunities.

Finally, learn to lead. Be a leader. Leadership is the central issue of our time. Rarely in human history has the gap between our opportunities and challenges and our leadership capacity been greater. The gap is evident everywhere in our communities, in companies, in the cities where we live, in every country. We have the resources and know-how to solve virtually every problem but are crippled for lack of leadership. This is true all over the world precisely because leadership is so scarce, it is also the defining skill for success in the 21st century. Leadership is a verb, an act. It is not about title or power.

Leadership for our problems can and must come from anywhere and everywhere and, disproportionately, it must come from young people. If you develop the ability to get people to rally behind you and tackle challenges, solve problems, accomplish things, and if you can do this without formal power or position, you don’t have to worry about finding opportunities or a job. People will find you. You will flourish.

The writer is UNICEF’s Special Representative for Young People and Innovation and author of What the Heck Do I Do With My Life.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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