Emile's Gift: What an 18th Century Swiss Philosopher can Teach us about Successful Careers Today

The point today is that the solution to many problems requires a craft of melding different inputs, such as information and knowledge with experience and intuition.
Emile's Gift: What an 18th Century Swiss Philosopher can Teach us about Successful Careers Today
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Professor (Innovation Studies), UQ Business School
5 min read
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Work today is besieged by uncertainty. Long-established firms can go out of business overnight, and technologies such as artificial intelligence are threatening hundreds of thousands of manual and professional jobs. In these circumstances, people are searching for ways of building careers where their skills will continually be in demand.

Clues to successful modern-day careers can be found in the writings of the 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1762, the Swiss philosopher wrote an influential book called Emile, Or On Education. Some of the views in the book were so subversive that it was banned and even publicly burned. Its ambitions were no less than understanding the nature of mankind, and how education can encourage innate human goodness.

The eponymous Emile in the book is an imaginary child, and Rousseau writes about how early education should encourage his ability to carefully observe the world around him. Having made an “active and thinking being”, the latter part of his education is completed by making a “loving and feeling being—that is to say, to perfect reason by sentiment”.

A key to Emile’s learning – what I think of as Emile’s gift – is the way he combines his work and his play. As Rousseau says: 

“Work or play are all one to [Emile], his games are his work; he knows no difference. He brings to everything the cheerfulness of interest, the charm of freedom”. 

It is this capacity to play at work that helps people to advance their careers. When the future is uncertain, there’s a premium for people prepared to explore and experiment with new directions and quickly respond to new opportunities. When there’s joy in the work and freedom to decide how things are going to be done, jobs are meaningful and fun at the same time.

Rousseau offers advice to Emile on the sort of behaviours he should cultivate.  Key amongst them is grace towards others. As he put it: “love others and they will love you;  serve them and they will serve you.” In today’s economy, where collaboration across professional and organisational boundaries is critical to success, and where a reputation for being trustworthy and ethical is highly valued, Rousseau’s words resonate for those thinking about how to build their career: 

“be kind to your fellow-men; this is your first duty, kind to every age and station, kind to all that is not foreign to humanity. What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness”?

Future careers will need to nurture our distinctively human attributes to co-exist alongside the exponentially growing capacity of intelligent machines, algorithms and robots, to perform tasks and to learn. Rousseau points to our distinctiveness by emphasizing the virtues of kindness and grace, empathy and emotional intelligence. The philosopher was a strong believer in mixing theoretical understanding with practical applications. He advised Emile on how “his hands work for the development of his mind”, and engaging with materials is a core element of Emile’s education:

“He wants to touch and handle everything; do not check these movements which teach him invaluable lessons. Thus he learns to perceive the heat, cold, hardness, softness, weight, or lightness of bodies, to judge their size and shape and all their physical properties, by looking, feeling”.

The point today is that the solution to many problems requires a craft of melding different inputs, such as information and knowledge with experience and intuition. There is no substitute for deep understanding of the materials and data with which you work, nor in the circumstances surrounding your work. Whether developing a new product or service, or a programme of organizational change, the ability to craft ideas into realities by combining diverse insights is extremely attractive in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. 

The curiosity Rousseau wishes to encourage is crucial for the creativity and problem-solving skills so necessary in the modern workplace.

A key to a successful career is the capacity to learn from failure. Organisations need to innovate to survive, and most attempts at innovation fail. So, the ability to see failure as an opportunity to learn, and to pivot in new directions based on better information, is an indicator of the resilience and fortitude needed today. Rousseau advises Emile on the decisiveness and determination required (and his advice obviously applies equally to men and women).

“To be something, to be himself, and always at one with himself, a man must act as he speaks, must know what course he ought to take, and must follow that course with vigour and persistence”. 

Rousseau is clear that work has to be assessed as part of our ambitions in life, and the purpose of life is to do good.

“life is not breath, but action, the use of our senses, our mind, our faculties, every part of ourselves which makes us conscious of our being. Life consists less in length of days than in the keen sense of living”. 

The implication is that enduring and satisfying careers are less to do with salary, promotions and status, and more to do with how they complement the ambitions and expectations we have of ourselves. Doing good and giving back to the societies and communities of which we are a part are indicators of lives worth living by being true to yourself.

[Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s approach to work and play was a driving force behind The Playful Entrepreneur: How to Adapt and Thrive in Uncertain Times (Yale University Press, 2018), by Mark Dodgson and David Gann].

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