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Designing the life of our kids

Friday, February 25th, 2011

The tyranny of choice; Click to read at Economist.com

As current generation of “digital” kids grow up, the one skill they are going to need absolutely is ability to design their life. What I mean by “life” is both at a higher level – who they are, what & who they like/dislike, what they want, what they want to become etc and at the lower, day to day level – what they should do with time, attention and money right now, next hour, next day and how they should go about doing it.

I know that’s way too abstract. Just hold that thought while I present another abstract one.

What I mean by “design” is making the right choice amongst all the options available regarding anything – from small day to day decisions to big life-altering ones in the areas education, money, media, sports, technology, career, marriage, health etc.

With those clarifications, let me restate my assertion: The one skill our kids would need now and in the (near) future, to be happy & successful anyway, is the ability to design their life.

I assume you follow me so far. If not, sorry, let me suggest you take a break.

So why is this so important to our kids?? (I guess it is as important to us grown ups as well!)

The rotary phone I knew well

If you are at least 20 years or older right now, you likely escaped the digital immersion when you were little and growing up. For anyone over 30, and especially if you grew up like me in the developing world, most of our early life, until at least when we were 17, was designed by our parents. Outside of the academic books, we only read what our parents bought or subscribed – mostly for themselves which we read anyway. We only saw what was interesting on the 2 or 3 channels in the television. We occasionally learned how to speak on the black rotary dial phones when uncles call from distant parts of the country. Outside of friends from school and neighborhood, we only mingled with people our parents knew. We played the one or two sports that everyone in the country played.

Good or bad, our parents set up the ‘world’ we grew up in. Moreover, in a majority of cases, our parents hadn’t consciously designed it either. If we are happy and successful today, we should thank the Gods. An environment arbitrarily designed by our parents worked by fluke to get you to be who and where you are today.

On the other hand, just think about the world we are in right now and what we are providing our kids. We are in an unbelievable state of information overload & choice explosion. There is hundreds, if not thousands, of choices to pick for what you want in a toothbrush to what you want in a bed and everything you would need and want in between.

I stumbled upon this fact recently:

An average super market contains about 50,000 items! of which is 15 different types of toothpaste.

Another statistic: there are 9500 banks in the US with $100 million or more in assets.

Another: there are at least 3500 different types of occupations one could take up, according to US Department of Labor.

Another: 150,000 new website domain names are registered every single day! As of today, there are at least 128 million internet sites online! (Souce : Domain Tools)

and the best statistic of all from information economy…

Between the dawn of civilization and 2003 there were 5 exabytes of data collected (an Exabyte equals 1 quintillion bytes). Today 5 exabytes of data gets collected every two days! Soon there will be 5 exabytes every few minutes.

While it may be a good thing to have many choices, too many will eventually bring us down. The toughest thing for us and for kids in the future, is making the choice from the very many!

Too many choices lead to confusion and disstatisfaction - Barry Schwartz

Besides, it appears today’s environment might not only complicated but somewhat damaging than what we had 20 or 30 years ago. Yet, many of today’s parents are not conscious of the world their kids are growing up today. Lets take note of our ignorance: Through our day to day choices, we are designing the environment our children grow up in, and ultimately, the life they will make for themselves. I suppose kids older than 5 are already making their own choices in many aspects that would shape their life – whether parents influence those choices is up on us.

With how fast kids grow up (mentally & physically!) these days, we only have a small window of opportunity to even influence them before they tune us out. I don’t want to boil the ocean by designing every little thing for our kids. But are we thoughtful about what they hear? what and how they talk? what books they read? what activities they do? what TV channels or movies they watch? what clothing they wear? what day care or schools they go? what kind of friends they have? where they hangout? what sports they play? what subjects they are good at? what skills and talents they are building? what their belief system is? what they value and don’t value?

Design your life

All of that depends on how good of a parent we are. And by the way, did anyone teach us how to be a good parent?? We are scrambling to figure out what good parenting actually means! especially in today’s complicated world. By the time we get a feel for it, our first child might have grown past the age to care to listen to us! Add to that, many of us are happily re-living our own life as if we are teenagers – piling up latest fashions, gadgets, gizmos, manga books, animation films and what not.

We – the 20s 30s, 40s with kids still growing up – are indeed in the midst of unusual times. We are learning and designing our own life, while simultaneously designing the life of our kids. If we don’t take it seriously, we will be consciously betting on the same Gods and luck to bless our kids with a well-designed life – unlike our parents who simply did it unconsciously!

PS: I have used the word “design” rather heavily. I believe that every choice we make is in essence designing our own life – as if our life is like an artwork or craft or object one would design bit by bit. Every person is design outcome of his or her past.