Never mind that he was raised by a mother so ferocious she was nicknamed, "Becky the Barbarian." To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, ferocity in defense of your kids' education is no vice.
Back in the 1980s, if you lived in rural West Virginia and wanted your kids to learn French and Calculus, you had a fight on your hands; local public schools didn't comply. But Becky Ross fought hard to win new educational opportunities for the children in her life; so hard, in fact, that her son Alec made it to Northwestern, then to Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign, and from there to the State Department, where he logged half-a-million miles to advance America's diplomatic goals through mobile and social technologies.
Alec Ross, 44, is now taking up his mom's fight. Formerly Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and author of an important new book called The Industries of the Future (Simon & Schuster 2016), Alec would tell your kids exactly what he has told his own 13-, 11-, and 9-year-olds:
Work hard at reading, writing and arithmetic, but don't forget Mandarin, coding and genomics. And make sure to learn a thing or two about bitcoin and blockchain!
It needn't be Mandarin, of course; any foreign language will do. Alec's point: The industries of the future - robotics, cybersecurity, genomics, big data, fintech and artificial intelligence - will require skills durable in an automated world; those reliant on the full array of 21st Century languages: foreign, technical, programming, and scientific.
Take the scientific language dedicated to the genetic code: Why should fluency start at a relatively young age? Because genomics will be more than a fulfilling career for many; it's a life-expectancy changer for everyone. Here's how Alec tells it:
"Today, a simple blood test can detect cancerous cells 1/100,00th the size of what can be detected by an MRI. Which means that cancers typically found in stages three and four will now be found in very-early stage one - adding three or four years of life expectancy. As big data drives down the cost of mapping the genome - it's now a couple of thousand dollars compared to the $100,000 Steve Jobs paid in 2011 - this technology will prolong life for more and more people."
And why make "fintech" part of the curriculum for well-prepared kids? Alec says it this way: "We're still only beginning to discover the possibilities that digital currency will open up. But the code-ification of money, markets, payments and trust is the next big inflection point in the history of financial services." I couldn't agree more. You see, in our family, the fintech expert is me. I have "schooled" my own kids in fintech including blockchain, bitcoin and mobile payments of all sorts.
And so your kids will have to learn the language of fintech: digital money, mobile payments, and more. Sure, let them play with blocks before they learn about blockchain. But when they're old enough to appreciate the value of money, and sufficiently mature to understand that all sound relationships are girded by trust, introduce them to blockchain - a platform technology for trusted transactions that creates an indelible public ledger underlying digital currencies. Do it not because Goldman Sachs is harnessing blockchain to enable digital settlement of securities trades - powerful endorsement, though it is. Do it because your kids' financial literacy will hinge on understanding this "World Wide Ledger," as Don Tapscott calls it, especially as more and more financial institutions bake blockchain technology into their products and tools.
More, do it because in five years blockchain will go mainstream as a means of validating user trust in the sharing economy. Note AirBnB CTO Nathan Blecharczyk, who, in a recent interview with London's City AM, suggested that blockchain "could factor into the ways in which [we] enhance the trust mechanisms that enable [our] service"; mechanisms now limited to a mixture of social-media profiles and profile reviews.
So that's a snapshot of what Alec Ross would tell your kids: Fear not - we'll create more jobs than tech can replace; jobs offering unprecedented opportunities for independence, mobility and choice. But know that these job will hinge on fluency in one or more of the 21st Century languages - the languages of coding, scientific discovery, technical advancement, and cultural outreach.
But Alec also has a few things he'd like to say to parents, too. Chief among them: Steal a page from dear old mom, Becky the Barbarian. Don't rely on public education to teach your kids all they need to know; those who do typically end up disappointed.
Be a ferocious advocate for your kids' training and education. If their schools don't offer a foreign language, find an alternative. If coding is not on the curriculum, find another way to expose them to it. Alec's 13-year-old son takes Mandarin online and learns coding through Codeacademy, a free site that has taught more than 24 million people to code. Another resource he recommends: Scratch (scratch.mit.edu), a nonprofit project of MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group that teaches computer programming through the creation of stories, games, and animations.
I like Alec Ross, and not just because he shares my older son's name. He's smart, candid, and caring, and has written a very powerful and readable book.
And although I've never met her, I like Becky, too. I share the ferocity she used to avail the kids in her life of every educational opportunity. If you'd like, you can ask my own two college-age sons whom I have tried to shape and direct into two industries of the future: biomedical engineering and behavioral finance.
I guess my own sons will decide whether my own maternal ferocity bordered on barbaric. And I will only know the answer to that question when I see my own two sons as parents.