A Fruit Juice Cocktail and the 21st Century Mindset:  Lessons from a Waiter

Too bad! I had tried unsuccessfully to locate a roasted plantain and groundnuts seller in the Roman Ridge suburb where I was waiting to teach my weekend class. It looked there were not too many fans of my favourite lunchtime treat in this upscale Ghanaian residential area. I decided to settle for some snacks in a nearby eatery. There, I found a young tired-looking waiter who asked me what I would like to have. He told me the snacks I requested were not available and so I opted for Jollof and grilled chicken. While waiting for this, I engaged in a conversation with the waiter and I found his story exciting, insightful and inspiring.

I learnt that Harrison had completed his studies in science at one of the top high schools the year before and the WASSCE results had just come in.  And they were quite impressive! He had sat the entrance exam for Pharmacy, his dream course, at the University of Ghana and wasn’t successful. He was informed that other programmes would be willing to accept him. The sad reality for my waiter friend, who lived with his grandfather, however, was that he lacked the funding to pursue any course of study at the University.

After high school, the teenage waiter had worked as a home tutor to help the children of a neighbour prepare for the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). That job ended when the pupils sat for the exams. I had assumed that he was a relative or family friend of the café owner where he worked as is typical for small businesses in Ghana. Not at all he said.

He had been informed of the vacancy for a waiter/bartender by a friend who worked in a different restaurant in the neighbourhood. He expressed interest in the opening. The owner interviewed him. Harrison confidently assured the owner that he could mix cocktails and do the job (even though he had zero experience in that area). So the owner put him to the test! He asked him to come along the following morning and do a demonstration. With his cell phone, Harrison took a picture of the menu page at the café which had a list of some cocktails. He shopped for ginger, pineapple and some other fruits. He spent the evening on YouTube and in the kitchen taking a crash course on mixing cocktails. He then did a live demonstration for the owner the following morning and was given the job. Wow! He was to work from Monday to Saturday and part-time on Sundays. He accepted it. He plans to save money towards his dream of pursuing higher education.

For me, Harrison’s story illustrates several traits, skills and a mindset that is required by people – especially young graduates to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Today’s world has been described as a VUCA one – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It is incredibly fast-paced and full of many challenges as well as opportunities. One of the challenges that has characterised our time has been the difficulty young people face in finding jobs – be they unskilled, semi-skilled or highly skilled entrants in the labour market. I am told my grandfather got an administrative job at the then State Insurance Corporation (SIC) after secondary school. He spent his entire career there, moving up over the years by dint of hard work and upgrading himself through short courses. He even helped nephews and nieces in school to obtain vacation jobs at SIC! Many university students will struggle to get unpaid internships at the same company today!  Unemployment is not a Ghanaian problem – indeed, it is a global phenomenon that is one of the factors that triggered the Arab Spring. The simple story of Harrison shows how initiative, open-mindedness, creativity, problem solving, confidence, perseverance, risk-taking, networking, digital literacy and good old hard work come together to unearth opportunities in tough environment. The new reality calls for new thinking – a new mindset, a new way of doing things.

In my former life as Finance and Administrative Manager, one of the things that never ceased to amaze me was how much hand-holding I had to do in simple tasks I assigned. I quickly realised that initiative was a rare trait. Several intelligent people just wanted to be told, spoon fed and sometimes literally “breast-fed” on what to do when faced with a problem or opportunity. I would always ask them to suggest solutions first. Initiative and problem-solving are indispensable in the 21st century.

Harrison didn’t wait to be told what to do; he heard, he came, he saw and he conquered. He was open-minded and understood clearly that his first job need not be his dream job – that there was a difference between a job and a career. He graduated from a top high school but was ready to do what he needed to do to achieve his goals. This open-minded ambition coupled with risk-taking and confidence is at the core of the entrepreneurial mindset needed to overcome the challenges of the 21st century.

No, not all are entrepreneurs, but we increasingly find that an entrepreneurial mindset is becoming ever more important for success. An entrepreneurial mindset drives academics to develop projects, write grant proposals and hire a team to accomplish on research/academic objectives. In the corporate world, intrapreneurs are sought after to develop creative and disruptive ideas to beat the competition. Social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy are the buzz words in the non-profit sector. Even the public sector is calling for innovation.

The 21st mindset is a resilient mindset. Call it grit, determination or resolve – perseverance is a key. Any aspiration will be met with frustrations, limitations, setbacks and obstacles. More so in a developing country like Ghana. Harrison’s was financial but he did not allow this to hold him back. He did not fold his arms and wait. In the absence of funds – he kept on trying.

An optimistic outlook and determined attitude are fundamental to success. As important as a firm resolve is networking and social capital – the vacancy was made known to him by a friend. Perhaps the most fascinating of all the things was the use of YouTube to learn new skills rapidly. Digital literacy describes the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.

While many youth use social media platforms for entertainment every day, few are able to leverage digital content to learn new skills and solve problems. The magic of the internet has democratised knowledge and connected a teenager in Ghana to a mixologist across the globe and helped him get a job – this is a classic example of 21st century opportunity being harnessed. Today’s employers expect graduates to be work-ready; therefore life-long, self-initiated and self-directed learning will be the norm. Lastly, the role of hard work cannot be understated. Working from Monday to Saturday seems crazy for those of us in 8 am to 5 pm jobs in the formal sector but this is the reality of many informal and semi-formal workers.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) identified the top 10 skills successful workers across the world will need in 2020. What intrigues me is how strikingly similar some of these skills are to those demonstrated by Harrison. The skills listed by the WEF are, in order of importance; complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision-making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility.

Albert Einstein, the revered German Theoretical Physicist once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. The problems of the 21st century cannot be solved with a 20th century thinking. Do you have a 21st century mindset?