Need for new skills and mindsets

WHAT makes humans special and enable them to be the dominant species on earth is the combination of superior intelligence and consciousness or awareness that we possess.

There is no other species that can rival us in either intelligence or awareness. Taking consciousness and awareness for granted, education systems for the last couple of centuries evolved to hone our intelligence and cognitive capabilities.

Interestingly, the past few decades introduced a new challenger: technology. One by one, computers started to conquer tasks that were thought to be in the exclusive realm of humans.

On Feb 10, 1996, Deep Blue, a chess playing computer designed by IBM, defeated world champion Gary Kasparov. Since then, more machines are getting better at doing intelligent work that used to be considered exclusively ours!

In all likelihood, this trend will continue and it will have a large impact on the nature of work that humans will be doing. With more jobs being automated, we need to cultivate new skills and mindsets.

Intriguingly, machines seem to be making very limited progress.

With unprecedented levels of complexity and change that we are dealing with, we ought to explore if education systems need to evolve to help youth develop self-awareness and social-awareness in order to thrive and achieve their full potential.

Educational institutions, and universities in particular, are recognised as important bastions for social, intellectual and economic development of both individuals and societies. Success in our continuously changing world requires the development of both self and social awareness. This will help create more resilient and motivated graduates.

This is a pressing need as 300 million people suffer from depression globally. A recent report by the World Health Organisation predicted that, if nothing is done, depression will be the number one illness in the world by 2030!

Daniel Goleman defined the four domains of Emotional Intelligence as Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Self-Management, and Relationship Management. I would like to argue that, in addition to intellectual and technical skills, universities should take it upon themselves to inculcate Emotional Intelligence in their graduates.

In 2013, I developed an 18-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which was taken by more than 5,000 students from 150 different countries. The MOOC introduced multiple exercises aimed at growing the four domains of Emotional Intelligence described by Goleman.

Students performed daily “Brain Rewiring” and “My Emotions Today” exercises where they reported the five things they are grateful for, and verbalised their own emotions, respectively. These exercises of gratitude and emotional awareness created the foundational habits for Emotional Intelligence.

Students were also introduced to the practice of meditation, and goal setting using the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-frame) way.

The MOOC was so successful that students who took the course reported triumphs such as being able to climb a mountain and control stammering. The course was offered for credit by California State University Monterey Bay.

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia ran a two-week Youth Transformation Programme, which 52 SPM leavers attended. It was aimed at developing Emotional Intelligence skills. It featured gratitude and emotional awareness exercises where the participants reported their emotions and the five things they were grateful for daily on a “Gratitude Wall.”

Participants performed personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and developed their own vision, mission and SMART goals. Both participants and their parents reported that it was effective in making them aware of their emotions, strengths and weaknesses as well as making them better at managing themselves. More work needs to be done to establish the most effective ways of inculcating emotional intelligence among our youth, and I hope that more universities will take these essential skills more seriously.


Senior Deputy Provost,

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia

Education , mushtak al atabi