[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]
By Shiv Chawla and Haresh Chawla
It was nearly 11.30 PM on a cold night in early March. The world had just started falling apart, thanks to the virus, when my father informed me that I had barely a couple of hours to pack my belongings, vacate the dorm room, hand over keys and leave for the airport to catch a flight to India. I boarded what turned out to be one of the last scheduled commercial flights between the US and India. Barely a week later, all international flights into India were banned and quarantine imposed.
Then as Covid-19 raged on, suddenly I was forced into the digital world. Not just my classes, but all my interactions went online, including semester examinations. My world turned on its head. It was like losing an anchor: the campus, the dorm, friends, the late nights. College life was replaced with an 11-inch screen. The screen, lit by disembodied heads, became my interface with the world.
So far, I had avoided technology, and my world was largely physical. I took printouts of academic papers, used handheld calculators over Excel, and planned the minutiae of every single project or submission on paper before even touching the keyboard. Honestly, I behaved like a relic from the 80s.
I was forced to adapt. Overnight.
I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when I was around eight years old. Nothing impeded my school work—I consistently earned high grades—till I reached the 9th grade. I remember struggling to complete a rather long history paper, despite the fact that I was on top of the subject. Fortunately, I was given extra time to finish the paper. But my counselor coached me to learn how to deal with my situation by relying on mind maps. For my assignments, I developed the habit of first routinely drawing out detailed mind maps when I worked on my assignments. And it was far easier for me to read physical printouts than read it off the computer. In fact, I learnt how to study by first reading and then making my own written notes in my notebook to remember things. That’s how I evolved my own work rhythm, knowing fully well that it took me more time to complete my schoolwork.
But post Covid, studying online, without the physical presence of people around me, was alien. No classroom, no friends to study in the library with, no classmates to remind you that an assignment is due. It was like being thrown headlong into a dark, bottomless pit.
The sense of urgency that comes from studying in the company of peers was absent. My work was inefficient and I found myself whiling away time staring at the often blank screen or getting distracted by the easy access to Netflix. Only the reminder of pending submissions broke me away from this inertia. Life was a blur.
Meanwhile, even the teaching style changed—asynchronous learning, they call it. Due to the time-zones involved, we were often assigned pre-recorded material and expected to study it on our own. Or discuss it on a Zoom call at 3 AM India time.
In one fell swoop, everything had changed. I had to learn, interact and engage in a completely new way.
As the pandemic dragged on, over the last few months, I’m slowly realising, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, that some of these changes aren’t going away in a hurry. The new normal, to use the oft-repeated cliche, is here to stay. And whether I was willing to embrace this new “digital world” or not, does not really matter. I had to first stop resisting change. And instead learn how to navigate it.
As things stand today, I’ve made a few beginnings. It hasn’t been easy. I still struggle with it every day. After all, junking old habits and building new ones—almost overnight—is never easy. But at least that hasn’t stopped me from trying.
New people, new skills, and new interactions
At the university, my current major is economics and while I have three more years left to find my calling, I can see that life will be more challenging and more complex than it is currently. I notice the pressures around me: students who are completing graduation now are struggling to get jobs. What can I do to avoid this?
In my first semester at college last year, I had signed up for a course that would help me develop coding skills. But I ended up dropping out within a few weeks because I simply hated the experience and found it boring and tedious. And I loved my humanities courses far too much to invest time in something I didn’t quite enjoy. (And I also told myself that I had picked Brandeis for a reason. It was a university that was well known in the States for its focus on liberal arts.)
I now regret that decision. As classes moved online, I noticed those among my friends who had taken the coding and data science courses had a much easier time adapting to the changes brought about by Covid-19, and are probably better placed to get jobs too. Especially if one is to believe the college chatter about the much vaunted employment potential of computer science graduates.
As things at school became more application-driven rather than knowledge-oriented, I wondered, would work be like this too?
From my limited experiences outside school, I have realised that the new world would require professionals who are able to synthesise knowledge from across fields and also be ready for lifelong learning. Subjects like sociology, psychology and economics, that form the core of what I’m studying, help us understand how people behave as individuals, as teams and as a society. Plus, they also help us study the structures that govern us. Not only do they demand intense reading and research, they help us build critical thinking skills and force us to analyse information, help us discover patterns, get us into the habit of sifting through information with ease. This could emerge as a key skill in the digital age. In future, it will be easy to find knowledge at our fingertips. However, critical thinking, coupled with a more flexible approach to learning, will become superpowers of the future.
Additionally, I can see now that experiences outside school will matter as much as the education I receive, if not more. Now that the university is purely online for this term, I decided to skip this term and focus on doing a couple of internships. My intent: invest in new interactions, new people, and more importantly, new skills.
I’ve literally been an addict for political news ever since I signed up for an online course in politics, media and society in the 7th grade. I’ve remained hooked to every political twist and turn from then on. That has now prompted me to sign up for an internship at a leading political research institution in New Delhi. I’m helping build a data-driven model to gauge the success of a political party.
I am by no means a political pundit. But I am able to research and read up every scrap of information that I can lay my hands on since I love to devour any kind of political news and analyses. That helps me gradually build subject matter understanding. What I’m now starting to learn is how to look for inconsistencies, create models and draw conclusions from results.
Learning how to communicate digitally
Meanwhile, my classes have been stripped of the interpersonal interactions that I so loved. As a result, what could have been a simple clarification, through a hand going up in class, has now become an exercise in writing an email. I wrote several lengthy, unclear emails to professors explaining my ideas, and taking hours, if not days, to compose them, labouring over how to best articulate my point.
Even though I am part of the debating team in college, I’m realising that expressing my ideas in a meaningful manner is much harder than discussing or arguing face-to-face. And I’ve had to change.
In fact, this is now a major goal for me: I’m learning to be quick and efficient, and also comfortable while communicating remotely. I know it will only get better with practice—and I am trying.
Getting comfortable with social media
For a long time, I had been told by many friends that I should start a Twitter account or a podcast as a good way to express my ideas. I wasn’t convinced. I remained wary of putting my ideas out in public, out of the fear of coming off sounding stupid. I did create a Twitter account though, just to see what others were talking about. My father, aware of my deficiencies in communication, advised me to start off reading notable Twitter threads, for their clarity and flow.
(As an aside: I ought to add that not too many folks would have the benefit that I enjoy at home because there’s a lot that I could learn by simply observing Dad. Even though my old man is on the wrong side of 50, he’s taken to digital and social media as fish takes to water. And guess what, even Nandan Nilekani thinks so!) It is another matter that my interests are radically different from his. And yet he always allowed me the space to pursue what I enjoy the most.)
To be sure, I had toyed with the idea of engaging on Twitter much before Covid. After many years of long, intense political debates at the dinner table, my father had suggested that I start a Twitter account. I was hesitant back then, even though it seemed like a good idea to air my views in public, learn to hold my own ground, build a followership and develop the confidence to engage with a wider community.
Once the last semester ended in May this year, I decided it was time to follow my dad’s advice, albeit belatedly. I started my experiments with social media.
Here’s the nub: I don’t think digital interactions can be taught. In the last semester, in the class on digital anthropology, our professor tried to get us to express our thoughts and engage online. He asked us to write a paper, publish a blog, and promote it on social media. It did not really work since it was an isolated, one-off instance of the students going online, and there was no way for us to judge whether we produced anything meaningful. Digital interactions have to be sustained and continuous.
Today, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn these new skills and make a start. I know I will possibly make many mistakes and the digital trails one leaves can be accessed years later. A few weeks ago, I created an anonymous Twitter handle of my own. This allows me to try my hand without the fear of failure, and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
I have a modest Twitter following of 50. That may seem small, but I must say, with a toothy-grin, that several of those followers have in turn many thousand followers. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The real question I’m trying to answer, isn’t about the value of my insights, rather, it is my comfort with social media and digital communication.
I realise that my college essay writing style is completely unsuited for any kind of online communication. It comes across as pedantic and abstract and makes one appear pompous and inaccessible. On Twitter, there are no take backs or clarifications, I learnt this the hard way, and this forced me to become a lot more clear and direct.
I began slowly, commenting and retweeting and then started to engage in arguments with other Twitter handles, trying to mimic their style, and eventually, write my own threads. Then, as responses trickled in, I responded to those too, giving myself a time limit within which to do so, attempting to solve for speed. This has improved my communication skills and given me the confidence to build and grow a public profile.
Perfection the enemy of the good
Yes, even though I am a freshman undergrad student, I can feel the change in my bones. I know that my choices are wide, but the world is more complex. To navigate it, I will have to cultivate both a curiosity about things I don’t know, and a willingness to go outside my comfort zone.
I will need to learn to focus, to make my presence felt in order to make a public impression. To put my ideas and beliefs out there, to defend them. To handle my mistakes and to learn from failed attempts. But what I can’t afford to do is waste precious time and resist change.
It may be true that, unlike some of my peers, I’ve had to start on the ground floor of the technology adoption process. I have a lot of catching up to do. However, attempting to set up a digital persona has been a fruitful experience for me. I still don’t enjoy coding, but I’ve started to learn how to get things done, even things I don’t particularly like. I’ve also started to develop the self belief to put myself out there.
I’ve come to recognise that extracurricular activities are just as important in building new muscle. Take for instance, debating. It has forced me to interact with different types of people, and more importantly, it has demanded that I learn to think on my feet and analyse subjects as varied as sociology, law, justice, science, ethics that I had no previous knowledge of.
For example, when I prepare for my weekly debates, I have to read up a case, build a set of arguments I’d rely on in my 7 minute speech. Not just that, I also have to be prepared to deal with how my opponents are likely to respond to my arguments on subjects that I do not know. This general framework has helped me learn how to build cogent arguments in limited time, and put across my points with impact.
In the end, no courses or classes can force you to go public, to blog for the world or create new connections on social media. These are the skills that I’ve now come to believe are essential in the emerging future.
“Knowing digital is a necessary life skill, but there are no teachers available”: Haresh Chawla
“The pandemic is altering the very landscape of our world,” says Haresh Chawla. “One of the changes is the tidal wave of digitization sweeping across the world. It impacts everything—whether you are a student, a shopkeeper, a teacher, a job seeker, a large company, a small company, or an entrepreneur who is starting up a new business.”
In this new world, we have to take a fresh approach to learning, working and creating. “We'll have to think of things that are born in a digital world. Retro-fitting will take us only so far.” We will see a two-tier world come into place. Where firms jump into the digital world and adopt it, and firms that will slowly fail—they will lose market share and talent.
“Technology is like somebody has a cycle. And we are running against somebody with a bicycle. The only way to survive and thrive is to get on to that cycle—learn those tools,” he says.
For the new generation, this is an even bigger challenge. There are fewer jobs available, and to get ahead in organisations or in life, your digital quotient will start mattering.
Entire divisions will become irrelevant as firms digitise and realise they can replace whole functions with a few servers.
You can already see job losses across the board. Except for those who know programming, are data scientists or can help firms digitise. In fact, there is increasing demand for them.
But just a resume won't be enough. Your digital presence, your digital footprint, your understanding of how business is conducted in this digital future will matter.
“And no, colleges don't prepare you for this. Nor does the modern workplace. The change is so sudden that they don't have the tools to teach this. The only thing you can do is experiment, and start learning on your own. It's a necessary life skill with no teachers available.”
So how do you do this? Join Haresh and Shiv as they connect the dots.
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