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"How Do You Prosper in this Rapidly Changing World?"

March 2, 2015

During assembly on Monday, March 2, Emerson senior executive vice president and JBS parent Charlie Peters drew from nearly four decades of work in some 40 countries to talk to students about the skills they should seek to achieve successful careers and satisfying lives in an increasingly competitive and challenging global society. His was the second assembly presentation of International Week.

Peters' complete prepared remarks appear below ... but first, some excerpts:

The overall message for you today is that inevitably your generation will be thrust into a much more connected world where the intersection of cultures will influence your opportunities. Your ability to understand and navigate these differences will to a large degree determine your success. When you start to understand the differences in culture and allow them to influence you, your interests, decisions and work, you will become a more whole person, more empathetic, understanding and most of all effective. In my experience, this will also determine your success and happiness.

If I can convey only one thought today it is that accepting everyone you encounter as someone potentially to learn from and as a possible contributor to your endeavors will open your life and create the basis to succeed. This is extremely hard to comprehend, to accept and even more, to act on – but it is a lesson that grew on me through my life, and one I very much treasure. 

For you, cultural adaptation skill will be a more important than for my generation. Why? Well, the world you will live in will be:

  • completely connected,
  • growing in population and prosperity – especially in Asia (1 billion people added to the middle class in the next decade or so),
  • increasingly urban with 80% of the city populations living on a coast and
  • increasingly automated with data and information technology at the heart of accelerating the pace of change.

Contrast this to my world. I operated in a world where:

  • I had a superior education;
  • I spoke the language everyone aspired to master;
  • I had experienced a larger part of the world than the people I encountered;
  • My native country was the dominant economic and military power;
  • The information age brought decades of wealth creation to the world – it was largely conceived by Americans and certainly our nation rewards; and
  • Asia was characterized by an undeveloped China, a constrained India and a declining Japan.

Your generation faces a very different world:

  • No one will live amidst a single dominant culture. Your world will be dramatically multicultural.
  • More – and I mean billions more – will have access to the top teachers in the world via the Internet and will potentially be educated with advanced skills in any field they desire. Fundamental education will no longer be an advantage but will be table stakes to participate.
  • Competition for many things will be much more intense. Simplistically, anything that you desire will be produced by more companies around the world, and consumers and businesses anywhere will have access to any brand, style or producer.
  • Technology development will play the most significant role in commerce.
  • Resources from all over the world will be available to anyone smart enough to exploit them.
  • Entire geographies such as Asia will grow – and others, possibly Europe, will stagnate.
  • You will likely be the first to effectively deal with Africa as a meaningful part of the world economy.

When I compare my world to what you will face, I expect this future to be a far more challenging time. For the first time, practically everyone around the world will compete. I know them. They are hungry, driven to succeed to normalize wealth, armed with equal intellectual capability and thirsty to transform their locales to ones that rival America, the place they most revere.

This begs the question, “How will you prosper in this world?”

I hope you can:

  • become culturally curious and develop your own practices for engaging people to better understand them, appreciate what they have to offer and make them contributors to solving challenges that interest you ... adopt the point of view that everyone has something to offer;
  • use the final years of your education to increase your probability of success by cultivating your science and technology foundation;
  • place emphasis on the humanities side of your education to become as whole of a person as possible;
  • turn yourself into a great communicator, and
  • go forth and take risk.

COMPLETE PREPARED REMARKS:

So how do you prosper in this rapidly changing world?

In December, a friend of mine named John who knows more about the world than anyone I encounter challenged me with a simple cultural problem. It interestingly frames a lot of what I want to talk about today.

Two apple orchards, one Russian and the other Chinese experienced a season of perfect weather. When picking time came, each owner marveled at a single apple on their trees that represented the most perfect piece of fruit they’d ever grown. Each picked their perfect apple and yet did something different with it but that resulted in the same reaction. What did the Chinese owner do that was different from the Russian and what was the reaction?

If you can get those questions correct, perhaps I should enlist you to assist me. You’ll find these cultural skills helpful for explaining everything from friendships to wars to why football dynasties rise and fall. That’s a pleasant subject in this particular part of town.

Today I will reflect on my 40 years of experience with international business and provide insight on how you might find success in your life given what you will face. It’s been many years since I sat on your side of this challenge, yet you will sense that experiencing the global society has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, perhaps only exceeded by the fulfillment in raising a family.

Yet, in this regard you have a head start on me.

When I was your age, I never aspired to even learning about other cultures, much less working among them. My father spent his teenage years simply trying to eat. At 15, I hadn’t traveled or flown and my big goal was to escape from southern West Virginia. For you, the world becomes pretty much your canvas on which you can create a prosperous career or an even more satisfying life.

Once I started to work, however, I was thrust into the early phases of this whole era of globalization. From the late 1970s to today, I immersed myself in it and witnessed its evolution. During those years the world got connected, grew and more enlightened people came into my sphere. I’ll share some of my experiences as lessons, but more so I want to talk about the world you will confront, its opportunities and its perils, all in a hope that these thoughts will resonate and inspire you.

It all begins in 1979, while in my early twenties and finished with school when my first real boss immediately assigned me to travel to Holland, move into a plant and convince a team of successful Europeans to abandon the business they built and join forces in collaboration with their United States counterparts. He clearly spelled out, “Don’t come home until you complete your task and get them to fully agree to completely revamp everything they do.”

Off to Holland I went and quickly realized that nothing there appealed to me. It

  • was cold and dark,
  • had awful food,
  • did no play sports that I liked, and
  • above all had very different people who either couldn’t or didn’t speak English.

This wasn’t survival mode per se for me, but I confronted this very disagreeable setting with only a fear of failure to drive me.

Without knowing how to proceed, I simply engaged, constantly searching for ways to navigate this new world. The experience certainly heightened my powers of observation, listening and above all, showing an interest in everything and everybody regardless of importance. I watched facial expressions, body language and learned how to find and work together with the most open of my peers to bridge languages and any other possible clue as to what others were thinking. Each day taught me more about how the Dutch thought, worked and most important, related to each other.

This progressed beyond work. Each morning I ran on this beautiful bike path and was intrigued to see how the Dutch reacted to and greeted others, especially foreigners like me.

Ultimately I befriended one of the managers and his wife who were Germans living in Holland raising their children there. They too contemplated the Dutch and through hours of evening discussions over great dinners we pieced together the threads of the culture.

Gradually I learned that the Dutch people’s ways were purposeful, products of their unique challenges like avoiding floods, their dearth of resources and the daunting challenge of living next to all-powerful Germany. Lacking in style or industrial might, Holland inevitably became a relationship society, a people whose advantage rested on successfully trading all over the world. This became the basis of their commerce and helped me reconcile what I had observed.

The whole experience turned out to be interesting, frankly fun and most of all fulfilling when I thought about mastering a small, but a prosperous and enduring culture.

Living in Holland without the language and very much alone, I developed a fascination with cultures and their distinctions and more important, the tools to frame them.  I created an acronym WHERE.

  • Welcoming
  • Humble
  • Empathetic
  • Risk taking
  • Engaging

To this day these keys serve me well in mastering how to work throughout the world. Nearly four decades and probably 40 countries later I now realize that each country has regions and cities that to some degree have their own cultures. Further, each culture has its own boundaries, strengths and voids, dynamics, and succeeds and fails on various dimensions relative to peers and challengers. Most of all, each offers us important lessons and potential strengths in any collaboration.

Thus, the overall message for you today is that inevitably your generation will be thrust into a much more connected world where the intersection of cultures will influence your opportunities. Your ability to understand and navigate these differences will to a large degree determine your success. When you start to understand the differences in culture and allow them to influence you, your interests, decisions and work you will become a more whole person, more empathetic, understanding and most of all effective. In my experience this will also determine your success and happiness.

If I can convey only one thought today it is that accepting everyone you encounter as someone potentially to learn from and as a possible contributor to your endeavors will open your life and create the basis to succeed. This is extremely hard to comprehend, to accept and even more, to act on – but it is a lesson that grew on me through my life and one I very much treasure. 

Out of this realization and year after year of encounters, I developed my methodology for mastering cultures that either my work forced me to engage in or independently, those that interested me. I chose the ones that independently intrigued me by judging which cultures evidence some thread of success that indicates they would be important in the future — a Vietnam, Russia, and today, Kenya for example.

In each case I studied their history, the language evolution as well as the geographic and physical setting to define the roots of the cultures and their relationships. Further, I tried to see in today’s context where each was succeeding and failing.  Further, I kept my eye on the speed of change and its direction, trying to understand more than the geometry and to master the calculus.

And over the years, I learned a lot such as:

  • to think of the Chinese as the most capitalistic culture in the world;
  • to admire India as a place of great intellectual debate;
  • to never underestimate the strength of the Vietnamese character;
  • to marvel at the Koreans' ability to assimilate into country after country and simultaneously build dominant brands in a multitude of separate markets;
  • to respect the Romanians' affinity for learning languages and their pent-up curiosity from decades of isolation, the Italians' deep integration into the Middle East, the Russians' creativity:
  • that national capitals, past and current, are the most culturally neutral parts of any country… and on and on.

Realize that all of these thoughts, perceptions and the roots of these beliefs are inside of me – they may help you and even be interesting to discuss, but you need to develop your own thoughts. Only you can discover these dimensions in ways that allow you to embrace them. More so, the world you will work in is very different from mine. As you mature in these thoughts it will become increasingly apparent that you can’t live in a bubble, either from a geographic perspective or in the sense of time and the rapid change we confront.

For you, cultural adaptation skill will be a more important than for my generation. Why? Well, the world you will live in will be:

  • completely connected,
  • growing in population and prosperity – especially in Asia (1 billion people added to the middle class in the next decade or so),
  • increasingly urban with 80% of the city populations living on a coast and
  • increasingly automated with data and information technology at the heart of accelerating the pace of change.

Contrast this to my world. I operated in a world where:

  • I had a superior education;
  • I spoke the language everyone aspired to master;
  • I had experienced a larger part of the world than the people I encountered;
  • My native country was the dominant economic and military power;
  • The information age brought decades of wealth creation to the world – it was largely conceived by Americans and certainly our nation rewards; and
  • Asia was characterized by an undeveloped China, a constrained India and a declining Japan.

Your generation faces a very different world.

  • No one will live amidst a single dominant culture. Your world will be dramatically multicultural.
  • More – and I mean billions more – will have access to the top teachers in the world via the Internet and will potentially be educated with advanced skills in any field they desire. Fundamental education will no longer be an advantage but will be table stakes to participate.
  • Competition for many things will be much more intense. Simplistically, anything that you desire will be produced by more companies around the world, and consumers and businesses anywhere will have access to any brand, style or producer.
  • Technology development will play the most significant role in commerce.
  • Resources from all over the world will be available to anyone smart enough to exploit them.
  • Entire geographies such as Asia will grow – and others, possibly Europe, will stagnate.
  • You will likely be the first to effectively deal with Africa as a meaningful part of the world economy.

When I compare my world to what you will face, I expect the future to be a far more challenging time. For the first time, practically everyone around the world will compete. I know them. They are hungry, driven to succeed to normalize wealth, armed with equal intellectual capability and thirsty to transform their locales to ones that rival America, the place they most revere.

This begs the question, “How will you prosper in this world?”

I can offer you a few thoughts. First, as I emphasized the need to develop a deep cultural curiosity allied with learning and navigation skills.

Next, today’s global discussion is filled with the acronym STEM which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Inevitably information technology will be the prime mover over the next few decades. To participate will require a strong understanding and appreciation for these technologies in their foundations.

I next suggest you find the role of STEM in your future. Cultivate a love for science, hopefully building on a fascination you’ve already developed. I implore you not to allow the arduous and difficult science classes that all schools impose on you to destroy your interest in nature and the physical world. Today we do young people a disservice by making subjects like chemistry and physics so demanding. They should be fun and enlightening, drawing you to them.

A simple solution, continue to take science at a level where you can purely enjoy it. It will broaden you and help you bond with people throughout the world. Unlike the humanities or languages, science follows a set of rules common across all societies. Physics is physics regardless of where you are in this world. As you encounter new people consider science as a good starting point for finding common interests and experiences.

Please also thoughtfully consider mathematics. Math is the foundation for all of science, technology and engineering and the mastery of it eases your studies.

The technology dimensions either may or should be important to you for one simple reason. The greatest opportunities for your generation will encompass it, and yet it is the area which suffers from the greatest dearth of talent. We are in the early stages of very rapid advancements in technology and over the next three decades fast-paced development will occur in areas like the Internet of Things.  I promise you that they Internet of Things will lead to massive opportunities for people of your age.

In the work we do on the Internet of Things I actually prefer to hire young people from your generation given your aptitude and comfort with the latest technologies, the pace at which you will accept change and your complete objectivity.  We always like to say, “Objectivity is worth 50 IQ points.”  High growth, the basis of the future way of life, your facility to contribute and a limited availability of talent all combine to yield great opportunities for your generation.

Finally, for those of you who most resonate with STEM, I encourage you to pursue engineering. I did and never regretted it. Engineering is all about applying science, taking theories and hypotheses and making real and practical advancements.

However, in contrast to my engineering education which was four years of endless technical grind, I suggest you balance your education with a healthy dose of the humanities. A holistically educated individual will be far more effective. Remember, the world I describe requires far more than just technical knowledge.  You must join and contribute to teams and operate in a collaborative mode anywhere in the world. The study and debate of humankind will play a vital role in preparing you for these challenges.

Liberal arts studies will also hone your communications skills. Regardless of where you work, the ability to simplify and yet keep thoughts and insights whole is a highly distinctive skill.

Finally, I encourage you to take risks. In Italy, I encountered a long parable about a ferry owner who refused to rest or reduce his schedule. His compelling line was, “If I don’t go, I don’t get.” This line resonates with me every day.

In the workplace, we encourage people to, at all costs, take advantage of opportunities to work in foreign settings, to experience and prove their worth in other cultures. In this day and time, we have a hard time getting people to go. Many times they are riddled with doubt and fear compromising their lifestyles as well as those around them. Our point is that you will not compromise others if you go. Instead, your personal growth will extend to the community around you.

So, go and get and you will both grow and succeed.

Let me close with one other observation. As it relates to the group in front of me, I predict that most of you will have quite a successful future. At a minimum, you have a compelling starting advantage. I base this foresight on two observations that both revolve around the word "exceptionalism." Exceptionalism means that you are part of a country or a group with relevant characteristics that lie outside the norm. It doesn’t mean that you’re better than others, it simply means that in this context you are different.

First, I believe in American exceptionalism, especially as it relates to this discussion today where the future will be driven by information developments, new companies will forge the way and the best must work effectively around the world.:

In the information realm, America represents the society that:

  • boasts the greatest institutions of higher learning and research,
  • continues to develop most of the technology and domicile the key companies like Google and Apple, and
  • possesses the intellectual resources to sustain these advantages

In terms of forging effective new companies:

  • America owns an entrepreneurial history and a mature infrastructure and incentive systems for creating new business models that has no peer.
  • America’s incomparable capital markets thoughtfully fund the greatest minds, ideas and advances.
  • Our rule of law encourages the intellectual property development so essential to these technologies.

In considering the challenge to construct a framework of global collaboration and reach, America offers a society that:

  • is built around blending cultures as its founding principle of strength and endurance, and
  • continues to foster a full range of cultures through immigration. Our country stands as the most attractive destination for emigrants from all over the world.

These factors coalesce to create the ideas, the means, the incentives and the ability and tradition to lead coalitions to the next age of global technologies.

Further, as it relates to this group I believe in JBS exceptionalism:

The school takes a healthy approach to education that goes beyond communicating content by fostering debate and cultivating your ability to think more deeply and influence others. These will be distinctive skills in this hypercompetitive world I predict.

You work through a balanced curriculum arming you with the tools to analyze, to think logically and critically as well as to communicate. Your experience exposes you to this and to the arts and physical challenges of life.

The rigor of the JBS experience will strengthen you beyond your peers

Finally, JBS encourages interactions with others from different backgrounds and with different interests in a safe and inclusive mode. This mirrors the environment the world, both commercially and socially, aspires to create.

So the simple answer to the question posed to me, “How can Burroughs’ students best prepare themselves to succeed in the emerging global economy: its opportunities, pitfalls and the resultant increased competition that young Americans will face in their careers?”

I hope you can:

  • become culturally curious and develop your own practices for engaging people to better understand them, appreciate what they have to offer and make them contributors to solving challenges that interest you ... adopt the point of view that everyone has something to offer;
  • use the final years of your education to increase your probability of success by cultivating your science and technology foundation;
  • place emphasis on the humanities side of your education to become as whole of a person as possible;
  • turn yourself into a great communicator, and
  • go forth and take risk.

I have a lot of faith in you – all of you.

And as for the apples, well Russians tend to see beauty in all things and find their greatest joy constantly savoring it. They ate their apple. And the Chinese, they have a sense of obligation to care for those around them. Recognizing the great worth of the apple, they sold it and experienced their greatest joy from the prosperity it offered.